Little Girl Lost

Lisa Irwin

It’s a high stakes, middle of the night gambit that has little chance for success. You can silently and carefully observe the house and its residents all you want. You can become familiar with patterns, but a house full of kids can never be totally predictable. Flashlights are to be avoided as much as possible so your eyes can become accustomed to the dark, lest you step on toys and sleeping pets. Forget about windows and fences, even a gymnast would have trouble conquering those obstacles with a child in tow. And even the fingers of a skilled locksmith cannot control the volume of the tumblers as they succumb to his practiced touch, nor the distinctive click of the door as the perp and his prey disappear into the darkness.


It’s a scenario that has supposedly played out far too often lately. 11-month-old Lisa Irwin wasn’t in her crib on the morning of October 4, 2011 so her mother called the Kansas City, Missouri 911 emergency line. A few months later, on December 17 in Waterville, Maine 2-year-old baby Ayla Reynolds father called 911 to report that she had been kidnapped from her bedroom the night before. 6-year-old Isabel Celis father reported his daughter missing from her Tucson, Arizona home at 8:00 a.m. on April 21, 2012. Finally, 6-year-old Sierra Newbold’s mother made an emergency call at about 7:30 a.m., on June 26, to report that her daughter was missing from her bedroom.

Ayla Reynolds

Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the pattern. In 1993 my Polly was snatched from her bedroom. Because there were witnesses and because of a dogged investigation Polly’s killer now sits on California’s death row. Almost a decade later, on June 5, 2002 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City, UT bedroom. Miraculously, 9-months later Elizabeth was recovered alive not 20-miles from her home. Her kidnappers are now serving life sentences behind bars.


In both of these cases family members who were initially under intense scrutiny were quickly removed from the list of possible suspects because we truly cooperated with the authorities. Polygraph exams were administered, multiple interrogations were conducted and witnesses were questioned.

Isabel Celis

With the exception of Sierra Newbold, whose broken and abused body was found discarded in a ditch near her home shortly after her mother called 911; the other children have not been located.  Some believe that the girls have been sold into sexual slavery. However, when 1.6-2.8 million runaway children live on the mean streets of America on a given day, and are easily found in medium to large cities throughout the United States, why would traffickers risk everything to steal an infant in the dead of night?


Others speculate that the children are victims of revenge, or that their disappearances are payback for drug debts. While revenge kidnappings do occur, they are much more common as plot devices in action novels than in real life. As drug cartels ramp up levels of violence, including kidnappings for drug debt, there has not been a ransom demand in any of the cases cited above.

Sierra Newbold

Closer to home rumors circulate that “bad” uncles are responsible for the girl’s disappearance. Unfortunately, predators do not exist in a vacuum. They have relatives and families. Predatory relatives can go undetected for decades or even avoid detection altogether. I know of many families that have been victimized by one of their own. However, these men tend to commit crimes of convenience. They wait until they are alone with the victim, when they think that they can avoid detection, and then they strike; oftentimes with lethal violence. They don’t sneak into the house in the middle of the night – because they don’t have to.


Typically, the parents of kidnapped children would move heaven and earth to recover their kids. That is what the Klaas and Smart families did. We worked with law enforcement; we pestered the media and embraced our local communities. But, more than anything else, we never gave up hope. Instead, we did something every day that would move the case forward. Some might say that we were annoying.

Polly Hannah Klaas

However, baby Lisa’s parents lack of cooperation with the Police is almost as well documented than the disappearance of their daughter. According to the Police the three adults that were in the house the night that baby Ayla vanished have not been forthcoming with details of her disappearance. In Tucson, Child Protection Services ordered Isabel Celis father to move out of the house that he shared with his family and cease all contact with his other children. It is still too early in the game to judge Sierra Newbold’s case. Hopefully, it will not linger without resolution as have the others.


I have no idea if these parents are involved in their children’s disappearance. What I do know is that one of the most challenging and difficult scenario imaginable is being replicated far too often throughout the country. That these cases remain open must also strike fear in the hearts of neighbors and friends. If such brazen criminals are freely roaming our neighborhoods and the authorities are unable to solve the cases, then all children remain at risk.

Elizabeth Smart

If you are concerned that your children may not be safe in your home I offer the following suggestions. Lock your doors and windows at night. Purchase surveillance equipment from a home security specialist. Get a big, loud dog that is easily disturbed during the night. Know where your young children are at all times and don’t leave them by themselves. Work with your neighbors to create an effective neighborhood watch program so that you can work together to protect each other’s children and property. Know your neighborhood. Show your children the safe places to play and areas to avoid like dark stairwells and alleys. The more you know about your neighborhood the safer your family will be.

No Tears for Isabel

Six-year-old Isabel Celis was last seen at approximately 11:00 p.m., on Friday, April 20, 2012. She was discovered missing around 8:00 a.m., on Saturday, April 21. Isabel’s parents called 911 as soon as they determined that she was not in the family home. The case has since captured the attention of the nation; however Isabel’s family has made only one public appearance to speak out on behalf of their missing daughter.

I’m a firm believer that families are the best advocates for their missing children. If there is a perception that Isabel’s family is not doing everything that they can to help their young daughter it creates concern within the community. They have to wonder, “If the family is not doing everything that they can, then why should I do everything that I can to recover this child?”

At one point after my daughter was kidnapped a news reporter told me that she could get Polly more attention with fifteen seconds on the evening news than I could generate nailing flyers onto telephone poles for a hundred years. I took that to heart and have rarely turned down an interview since. My advice to Isabel’s parents is to get out there and start fighting for your child.

Get over your fears, realize that you always told her that you would be there when she needed you, and that she’s never needed you more than she needs you right now. Therefore, get out there and give the interviews: create a portrait of Isabel. Tell us what kind of a girl she is. Let us know what she likes and what she doesn’t like. Start sharing more photographs and share video of her. Build her up in the public’s mind so that they become invested in who this little girl is and demand that law enforcement do whatever they need to do to bring her home. Involve yourself in the community of hope that has sprung up around you, is supporting you and is fighting for Isabel’s return. Hug some folks and thank some folks. She deserves nothing less.
One of the most difficult kinds of crimes to solve is the stereotypical stranger abduction, because that scenario is about some goon crawling out from under a rock, stealing your child and then disappearing back under that rock. It’s a big world and these are very small children. Law enforcement is obviously going to investigate that scenario, but the numbers always bring you back to the family. The vast majority of kidnappings in America are non-custodial parental kidnappings. The most vulnerable population of children to that scenario are pre-teen girls. Everything about this case will continue to turn right back onto the family until they eliminate themselves as suspects. The best way to do that is to submit to any questioning, to submit to any polygraphs and to get out there on the airwaves and advocate on behalf of Isabel.
Look at what happens when you don’t do that. Take the case of baby Lisa Irwin, who disappeared from her bed in Kansas City, MO on October 3, 2011. Lisa’s parents did not advocate on her behalf, they did not cooperate with the police. That case has effectively gone cold. It went cold because people thought, “Gee, if the parents aren’t going to be out there fighting for her, why should I be out there fighting for her?

Baby Lisa’s case is going cold. By not cooperating with the authorities and stonewalling the media baby Lisa’s parents have made themselves look guilty. It has allowed law enforcement to pull back their investigation. Instead of hundreds of multijurisdictional officers and agents focused on baby Lisa, now there are several.

We kept our case alive for two months because we never stopped speaking up for and representing Polly. We have a case here in Northern California for a missing teenager named Sierra LaMar that has been active for six weeks now, and there is still an enormous amount of interest in her case. However, in Isabel’s case law enforcement admitted on April 27, that the investigation has already been reduced from 200 to about 50 officers. On April 29, Tucson Police Lt. Fabian Pacheco acknowledged that the case could turn “cold.”

I think that we are looking at very limited options here. If something doesn’t pop soon. If the parents don’t change the way they are handling Isabel’s disappearance, then the case may very well go cold. The unfortunate thing about that is that people are concerned that there may be a monster loose on the streets of Tucson: first because of Isabel’s case; and then because of the more recent case of a man breaking into the home of three young sisters in the wee hours of the morning only miles away from Isabel’s home. If this goes cold and we don’t know who that monster is, then we have a situation where the people of Tucson, AZ are living in a community where the safety of children isn’t even secure in the sanctity of their own homes, and law enforcement does not have the will to resolve this public safety crisis. That creates an atmosphere of fear and the last thing we need in America is more home grown fear.

Baby Lisa and the Superman Syndrome!

Baby Lisa’s parents have resisted the authorities attempts to re-interview Lisa’s half brothers, who were in the home when she was snatched, saying they were concerned for the boys’ well being. Tomorrow law enforcement will finally have an opportunity to re-interview the boys for the first time since she disappeared on October 3 or 4. The boys, eight and five-years-old, have only been interviewed for fifty and thirty-minutes respectively.

Wouldn’t it be to the children’s benefit to help solve the case rather than have suspicion focused on the family and an evil mystery lingering over their heads forevermore? Little boys long to be Batman, Superman or Captain America. They fantasize about “saving the day” and rescuing the damsel in distress. Baby Lisa’s brothers will never have a better chance to turn fantasy into reality than they have right now. They need to be talking about what they do or don’t know; trying to solve the case and understanding the evil that lurked within. Only then will they be able to mature knowing that they did everything that they could to help find their little sister.

There are viable techniques for interviewing children that are gentle, non-invasive, and non-threatening. Originally developed to draw out information from child sexual abuse victims without re-victimizing them, forensic interviewing of children has broad acceptance in the criminal justice community. Typically, a specially trained interviewer will sit down with child in a comfortable, home like setting. Oftentimes interviews are videotaped, and other interested parties including law enforcement, prosecutors, medical personnel and defense attorneys monitor the interview. This is to guarantee the interviewers objectivity, ensure that he/she employed non-leading techniques and that relevant case information was not overlooked. The goal of the interview will determine levels of victimization and elicit information that will stand up in court.

Baby Lisa and the Loss of Urgency!

Baby Lisa’s parents have circled the wagons, hired a platoon of lawyers and consultants, and cut off communications with media and law enforcement. Critical decisions are made by committee. Their other two children are off-limits to law enforcement, mommy’s story shifts and shudders, and her commentary reveals more questions than it answers. Access to the house is restricted and a cadaver dog picked up the scent of decaying human remains in the master bedroom.

The abysmal choices and questionable behavior of baby Lisa’s mom and dad have left them exposed. One result of their failure to eliminate themselves as suspects in baby Lisa’s disappearance is that her parents are being tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. They and their representatives claim that they are being scapegoated; that the authorities have to pin the crime on someone and that the parents are the obvious choices.

However, there are too many law enforcement professionals with too much experience from too many agencies for that to be true. The FBI, who has been involved since the beginning of the investigation has prioritized missing children since 1993. They have a written protocol and agents that are specifically trained in missing child investigations. Given their standing in the law enforcement community and the resource that they bring to bear on missing person cases, it would be counterproductive and reflect badly on the agency to force blame on innocent and suffering parents.

No, I believe that the family’s failure has been home grown and nurtured with ignorance and bad advice. Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley’s choice to allow others to make critical decisions relevant to their daughter’s disappearance hinders the case and undermines their moral authority. It appears as if their needs take precedent over the recovery of their daughter. It replaces a sense of urgency with a need for caution.

82% of all abductions involve a family member. Therefore, once a child has been reported missing law enforcement is going to focus resource and attention on family members. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. It is in the best interest of the child, the family and the investigation for family members to fully cooperate with the authorities so that they can eliminate themselves from suspicion and allow law enforcement to focus on other possible scenarios. That is what I did, and that is what hundreds if not thousands of other parents have done when their child or children mysteriously disappear. That is not what baby Lisa’s parents are doing.

Can the U.S. Military Rescue Baby Lisa?

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has called upon members of the 1139th Military Police Company of the Missouri National Guard to assist in the search for Lisa Irwin, who has been missing from her Kansas City home since October 4. Twenty-five members of the unit have joined police in ground searches for 10-month-old baby Lisa. This is a very good sign as the military can contribute many disciplines and resources to a Search and Rescue operation.

I first became aware of the military’s potential impact on missing persons when my daughter Polly was kidnapped in 1993, during Fleet Week in San Francisco. This is the time of year when the U.S. Navy, including the Blue Angels, descends upon the San Francisco Bay to show off. During an appeal for search parties, many sailors and other local military personnel volunteered their services. It soon became apparent that many of these highly organized soldiers had expert training in Search and Rescue operations. 
  • The U.S. military is the best-equipped and trained search and secure force in the world, especially when force size is considered;
  • Units are constantly training in field deployment;
  • They utilize techniques and the most advanced communication, sensing and surveillance electronics available in the world;
  • The military can rapidly deploy to the most inaccessible areas;
  • They have mobile secure communication;
  • The military has night vision and sensing availability that is unsurpassed.  They “own the night”;
  • The armed forces have a proven chain of command that is non-jurisdictional.
 Will baby Lisa be found? It is still too early to say, but it is a big world and she is a little baby. However, the military’s involvement in her case is definitely an asset. 

Baby Lisa’s Private Eye: Asset or Liability?

Baby Lisa is still missing, so a high profile Private Investigator has been hired on her behalf. Will his presence help, hinder or make no discernable difference in the investigation into Baby Lisa’s disappearance? Obviously, this question is not easily answered.
I hired a Private Investigator when my daughter was kidnapped. Hap Lipset came highly recommended and was an internationally known Private Investigator whose specialty was electronic surveillance. After initially offering to share Polly’s case information, the Petaluma Police and FBI reneged and left my investigator to his own devices. By the end of the investigation three-months later, the best information that Mr. Lipset was able to provide to me was that a local newspaper was preparing to do a hit-piece on me. I was able to correct the record with the newspaper before the article was published and forestall an erroneous, but possible uncomfortable episode.
Private Investigators can definitely contribute to and enhance a missing person investigation. They provide an extra set of eyes and ears. However, while Private Investigators may investigate criminal matters, they do not have police powers. They cannot arrest or detain suspects. 
Unlike sworn police officers, Private Investigators are not bound by the Miranda warning. In other words, they do not have to advise criminal suspects that self incriminating statements may be used against them. They may bring years of experience and local knowledge to the investigation.  
If your child is missing and you wish to retain the services of a Private Investigator, there are certain things that you should consider. Particularly given that the law enforcement agency in charge of the investigation will most likely refuse to share evidence or other case information. The background, experience, and area of expertise of the Private Investigator you are considering must be synchronized with the goal you are trying to achieve: the recovery of the missing child.
Private Investigator’s come in various shapes, sizes, backgrounds, levels of experience and expertise. In a missing child case you want a Private Investigator that has a law enforcement background and contacts within the jurisdictional agency. You want an investigator with personal knowledge of the community and you want an investigator with a background in missing persons. In an ideal world you want someone who has actually found missing persons. Therefore, you want a local man or woman that has hopefully retired from law enforcement and has adequate resources to end run official stonewalling to either obtain or verify case information.
In one case that the KlaasKids Foundation was involved in the family of the missing person was interested in hiring a Private Investigator. I recommended an individual whom I had known since 1993 when he worked Polly’s case as a special agent for the FBI. He was able to verify that the FBI was involved in the case and that the local authorities were conducting a viable and thorough investigation. He recommended that he continue monitoring the investigation and provide the family with regular reports. Although the family appreciated the information, they decided to go with a pro-bono grandstanding Private Investigator who was unable to keep any of his promises and had virtually no impact on either the family or the investigation.
The Private Investigator that has been hired to work Baby Lisa’s case is named Bill Stanton. Mr. Stanton is from New York and seems to specialize in executive protection, not missing persons: Strike One!. This morning Kansas City Police Capt. Steve Young said that Private Investigators have no more access to crime scene evidence than the general public: Strike Two! Mr. Stanton has told at least one media representative that he is not in Kansas City in his capacity as a Private Investigator, but rather as a consultant or a new set of eyes. Therefore, his mission is not clear: Strike Three!
The decision on whether or not to hire a Private Investigator comes down to a matter of value, time and resource. What value can the Private Investigator provide that will assist in recovering the missing person? In this case it looks like that Mr. Stanton is a stranger in a strange land who must begin at square one. That in itself is a liability. Time is critical in recovery. More than a week has already passed and we seem no closer to finding Baby Lisa than the day that she disappeared. What resources does the Private Investigator bring to the case? In this case a reputation for bravado, and an opportunity to fuel the media cycle for a day or two.
Baby Lisa is still missing and the longer this goes on the grimmer the prognosis.

The Strange Case of Baby Lisa

A possibly tragic but instructive situation is playing out in suburban Kansas City, Missouri right now. Initially, the case of baby Lisa Irwin garnered national attention, a massive multi-jurisdictional law enforcement response, and much sympathy for her distraught family. However, in the past 24-hours the case has changed dramatically. Baby Lisa’s case has deteriorated because her parents have made some terrible choices that have focused attention back upon themselves, and raised questions about their intent.

10-month-old Lisa Irwin was reported missing after her father came home from a late shift at work at 4:00 am last Tuesday morning. A distraught Jeremy Irwin said that, “the front door was unlocked, the windows were open, the lights were on and she (baby Lisa) was nowhere to be found.” He also said that three cell phones had been stolen off of the kitchen counter.

An Amber Alert was issued at about 7:00 am on Tuesday morning. The Kansas City Police Department is the lead agency in the investigation. Two days after baby Lisa was reported missing her mother, Deborah Bradley said that the police TOLD her she had failed a polygraph exam. Police will neither confirm nor deny that this is true. A local television station reported that the parents have made a “deal” with national media and will no longerspeak with local media outlets.

Also on Thursday, after many hours of what seemed like nonstop questioning Lisa’s father told the police that he needed a break from questioning and asked if he could leave the interrogation room. Shortly thereafter law enforcement held a press conference claiming that the family had stopped cooperating, although the family disputes that claim.

When children disappear attention always falls squarely on the shoulders of the family. This is because 82% of all abductions are family centric. Therefore, the family has to answer all questions, regardless of how tedious they seem, until law enforcement is convinced that they are innocent of wrongdoing. Only then will law enforcement be able to focus their full attention on the other possible scenarios. Those scenarios include: other family members; friends and neighbors; peripheral contacts; registered sex offenders; and finally the most ominous scenario of all – stranger abduction. If more than 300 police, search and rescue professionals and FBI agents are dedicating all of their time in the case of the missing infant, then the parents should stay on the hot seat until they are cleared of suspicion. To put their own needs ahead of baby Lisa’s recovery is pitiful and shortsighted.

All kidnappings are local events. Certain cases, such as baby Lisa’s, draw national attention. Satellite and microwave broadcasting trucks appear as if out of nowhere as miles of cable crisscross the missing child’s neighborhood. Correspondents fly in and set up live shots across the street from the family home. We get breathless reports and updates every hour on the hour. In fact, cable news outlets have come to depend upon true crime stories to drive their ratings.

For a brief moment in time baby Lisa has fulfilled America’s obsession with true crime and a good mystery. However, if there are no new developments interest will be impossible to sustain. Eventually, national media will move onto the next crime de jour. Satellite connections will be broken, antennas will telescope back down, cable will be coiled and stored and the correspondents will climb into their rental cars and fly off to their next destination. Now, the only outlet for getting the word out will be the local media. And, how receptive will they be if they were snubbed by the family seeking wider attention on the national stage?

Kidnapping is local and times are tough. Law enforcement will investigate as long as tips come in and the investigation moves forward. But, unless the public demands their full attention they will drift off to other cases and other crimes. If the parents of the missing child are not front and center on the local television screen recruiting public support, the fragile coalition of trust that includes law enforcement, media, the public and the family can crumble like a house of cards.

As bad as it looked for baby Lisa after the Amber Alert was activated, it is beginning to look even worse now.