DETROIT — A 14-year-old girl who was reported missing over a year ago by her foster parents has been found hiding in a hallway closet in Michigan, authorities said.
“She was crying. She didn’t know where she was going to go. She was pretty terrified. And she was afraid of losing her baby,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Watson, who helped find the girl, said in an exclusive interview with the Detroit Free Press on Wednesday. The girl is estimated to be four to five months pregnant.
According to Watson, who led the fugitive team that found the girl, the teen was found Tuesday in a house in Port Huron, Michigan, about 62 miles northeast of Detroit, and then taken to a hospital by a Child Protective Services agent. After a checkup at the hospital, she was reunited with her biological father.
“She was ecstatic about that,” Watson told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. “She was afraid that if she was found, she would go back in the system. … She was just, ‘I wanna be with my dad. I wanna be with my dad.'”
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How the pregnant teenager was found
According to Watson, he received a call from the Michigan State Police missing children’s team asking for help with a case involving a Port Huron girl. She had been missing for more than a year, and local authorities feared she may be a sexual assault victim.
Watson said federal agents started working old tips and interviewing people. One tip led them to a house on the south side. But when they got there, he said, one of the occupants “vehemently denied that they had seen her” and gave them some “bogus information.”
“They wouldn’t let us in. They wouldn’t allow us to speak with anyone in the house, which were huge red flags for us,” Watson said. “The lady said, ‘Come back with a search warrant.’ So we did.”
Armed with a search warrant, Watson and his team combed the house. They kept all four occupants in the living room while agents searched other rooms. Watson was in the living room questioning a man about 18-19 years old who allegedly had been seen leaving another house with the girl that day, but acted like he didn’t know where she was. As Watson interviewed this man, one of his agents called out from a hallway.
“Contact,” code for “I found her.”
“Once my task force officer pulled back the clothes and saw her, she was obviously identified,” Watson said, noting the girl was found in a hallway closet just a few steps away from where two men were watching television on a couch, all while proclaiming they didn’t know where she was, including the one man she was seen with.
“He was like, ‘Oh’ … he’s completely caught with his hand in the cookie jar and didn’t know how to formulate anything,” Watson said.
Missing children in the US
In 2021, there were over 337,000 reports of missing youth entered into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center. According to the NCIC, youth accounted for 32% of the over 93,700 active missing person records as of December 2021.
The vast majority of missing children are runaways, Nancy McBride, the former executive director of Florida Outreach at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, previously told USA TODAY. In 2020, NCMEC assisted in nearly 30,000 cases of missing children and 91% of those cases were endangered runaways.
Watson noted that he did not suspect that the Michigan house was the scene of human trafficking operation, nor could he figure out why the occupants were lying.
“I want to know, too,” Watson said, adding the occupants could be charged with harboring a fugitive, though it would be up to the local police department to make that recommendation.
Reached for comment late Wednesday, a sergeant at the Port Huron Police Department said he was unaware of the situation and referred the Free Press to the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office. That office said it is not handling the case.
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Biological mother could face parental kidnapping charges
Watson noted that authorities are pursuing parental kidnapping charges against the girl’s biological mother, who previously lost custody of her daughter. He said authorities believe the mother found her daughter after she ran away, and started bouncing the girl around house to house, with the child ultimately falling into the wrong crowd.
For Watson, who has children of his own, the case was emotional. One of the last things he did before he left her with the Child Protective Services worker was give her his business card.
“I asked her to promise me,” he recalled, “If you ever need help … call that number and we would figure it out some way.”
“I have run a fugitive team for eight years, nothing holds a candle to finding a child who is missing,” Watson added. “When you can bring a child home to their family, especially when they’ve been gone a year and a half, I just couldn’t imagine what that’s like going through, that’s why this mission is so important to me.”
Contributing: Sarah Toy, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Missing teenager missing over a year found in Michigan closet