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An 8-year-old girl whose Friday disappearance from a Mesa school spurred a 17-hour search had apparently embarked on a solo urban-camping trip, police said.
The search drew approximately 125 trained investigators and teams of volunteers from across the Valley to the quiet Mesa neighborhood overnight. At 7:25 a.m. Saturday, Mesa police announced that Leilani Miller had been located and was safe.
On Friday, searchers staged at Hawthorne Elementary School and canvassed the community, going door to door and reviewing security-camera footage, fearing for the girl’s safety as day turned to night and night turned to morning.
Leilani, it turned out, spent the night at an improvised campsite in a grown-over area about a block from the school, Mesa police spokesman Steve Berry told The Arizona Republic. She went prepared, packing a bottle of water and extra granola bars from her friend, who backed out of the adventure at the last minute.
Despite having searched the area the day prior, two detectives rounded a corner Saturday and spotted saw Leilani walking on the sidewalk, apparently unaware of the intense operation that had unfolded in the hours prior.
“She appeared to the detectives a bit disheveled, but in otherwise good condition,” Berry said, adding that it’s not believed she talked to anybody or went anywhere else once she got to the fortlike area not far from school.
Neighbors, law enforcement joined search
Mesa police Sgt. Diane Williams on Friday said Leilani was last seen as she was leaving the school near University and Stapley drives at about 2:15 p.m. When a family member arrived at the school to pick her up 25 minutes later, they couldn’t find her.
Police were called soon after.
Williams said family members told police it was out of character for Leilani not to return home. Williams added that police looked into possible issues with custody or family disputes, but said it does not appear that would have been a factor in the girl’s disappearance.
“There is no suspicious circumstance that we are aware of at this point,” Williams said Friday night.
Why wasn’t there an AMBER Alert?
Reports of missing children are often accompanied by questions about the decision not to issue region-wide AMBER Alerts that set cellphones abuzz, interrupt television programming and bring a heightened sense of urgency.
Leilani’s disappearance was no different.
And neither was the answer.
Police reiterated that several criteria have to be met before such an alert can be issued.
- An abduction of a child has occurred.
- The abduction process poses a credible threat of immediate danger of serious bodily injury or death to the child.
- A law-enforcement agency has determined that the child is not a runaway and has not been abducted as a result of a child custody dispute, unless the dispute poses a credible and/or specific threat of serious bodily harm or death to the child.
“The disappearance of Leilani Miller does not meet the criteria to activate an Amber Alert,” Mesa police said in a 5 a.m. Facebook post.
‘I just wanted to help’
Numerous residents in the area joined in the search overnight, and many others did what they could to help with the investigation.
“My mother-in-law called me and she told me they were going to go searching for the girl and I just wanted to help,” said Audra Marshall, 22, who lives near the school.
Julia Milbourne, 21, another resident who lives nearby, said her boss mentioned the missing girl as she was getting off work Friday. Then she logged onto social media.
“I saw it all over Facebook, and the school district sent out voicemails to parents describing the missing girl,” Milbourne said.
Others on Saturday described the grand scale of the search.
Robinson Vazquez lives across the street from the school. He said investigators combed through homes and inspected backyards early in their search.
Vazquez has one of the few clearly visible security cameras in the neighborhood.
Police studied his video footage for hours, looking for suspicious vehicles, a sign of the child or anything else that seemed out of place, Vazquez told The Republic on Saturday.
“This neighborhood is very, very quiet,” he said of how unusual the incident was.
Bianca Tarin was visiting family across the street from the school Friday when police came to the house during their search. She has a child about the same age as Leilani, and the whirring helicopters kept her on edge into the evening, she said.
“I kind of teared up,” Tarin said.
On Saturday morning, Berry thanked law enforcement and volunteers who helped quickly organize and search for Leilani, including dozens of staffers from the Arizona Child Abduction Team.
“Had the detectives not found her, we are confident everyone in the neighborhood would have been instrumental in Leilani being found,” Berry said.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or on Twitter: @pohl_jason.
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