More than seven years ago, residents of Greene and Washington counties were gripped by an extensive search by police and volunteers for a 12-year-old Dunkard Township girl who took off on her new all-terrain vehicle but never returned home.
That search in June 2006 ended in heartbreak when the body of Gabrielle “Gaby” Bechen was found five days later, buried in a 6-foot grave on a farm about a half-mile from her home. Jeffrey Robert Martin, 56, of New Geneva, Fayette County, was arrested and found guilty of murder, rape of a child and other charges. He was sentenced to death and is currently housed at the State Correction Institution at Graterford, Montgomery County.
“It is a sad reality that most stranger-abducted children, while rare, are dead within three hours,” said Beverly Ashton, a Washington County detective and retired state police criminal investigator who is spearheading the formulation of a Child Abduction Response Team in Washington County.
“If it takes three hours to organize a response, you’ve already lost,” she said. “It is also important to let parents know that if they think their child is abducted to call 911 immediately. Unfortunately in the case of Gaby Bechen, her parents did what a lot of parents would do and look for her themselves.”
Ashton said police would much rather get that immediate call and then learn the child was found than not get the call.
“And because the family waited, we missed out on an opportunity,” Ashton said.
The impetus for CART came after the February 2004 abduction of an 11-year-old girl in Florida. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Orlando Regional Operations Center determined there was a need for experts in child abduction response who could respond immediately and assist local law enforcement.
Ashton was still a member of the state police when she underwent CART training. She is working with the Washington County Chiefs of Police Association to put together a team. State police and the local office of the FBI are also on board to assist.
“We would like to get all the police departments in the county involved by assigning an officer who is dedicated to respond if there is a child abduction anywhere in the county,” Ashton said. “If a child is reported missing, 911 would immediately blast telephone calls to everyone assigned to the CART. We want have a large pool of trained officers to respond immediately.”
Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said having the team makes sense.
“Emergency services does a preplan for mass casualty incidents like airplane crashes,” said Vittone. “If something bad happens to a child, we want to be ready.”
While the FBI would be the lead in any investigation, it would take them time to arrive, said Michael Lucas, first assistant district attorney. Lucas has also spoken with the Mon Valley Chiefs of Police Association about the team.
“The whole idea is to have a team of investigators in place to begin the investigation,” Lucas said.
Ashton said the team would be run much like the county’s SWAT team that handles anything from hostage situations to high-risk warrant service.
There would be criteria for when the team should be called out.
“A steering committee will be set up to put together the criteria for a full or partial call-out of the team and how to handle calls out of the jurisdiction,” Ashton said. “The way this will be set up is that even if the municipality is not a member, if they ask for help the team will respond.”
“Every municipality is being invited to participate,” she added. “But at the end of the day, it is the child who is important.”
If a child was deemed missing or abducted, the name would be listed in the National Crime Information Computer. Not only would law enforcement be involved, but there would be a need for additional searchers.
“The response is very manpower-extensive and would likely involve the local fire departments,” Ashton said. “As part of the planning process, we’d want everyone who wants to be part of a search and rescue to be preselected. It takes too much time to do background searches on people who just show up to help. And we don’t want the abductor showing up to help.”
Ashton said it is important to have local involvement because local residents are likely to know the geography as well as the community.
Police also will need to follow up on any tips that come in, no matter how insignificant the information seems, so having as many people available to assist in the search as possible is crucial.
Chartiers Township police Chief James Horvath, who is also certified through training from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at Jimmy Ryce Law Enforcement Training Center in Alexandria, Va., is a strong believer in the need for such a unit. Officials from Chartiers, along with McDonald and California and Donegal, East Bethlehem and Mt. Pleasant townships have submitted memorandums of understanding to the county indicating their interest in participating in the team. Ashton said the state police have also agreed to be part of the team.
“Children are near and dear to our heart,” Horvath said. “With all the strangers that the Marcellus Shale industry, casino and different shopping centers bring in, this area is more transient than in the past.”
“The interstates, while providing great access for us, also provides that same access to others with less than good intentions,” he added. “We need to put our resources together for what could be our biggest nightmare, the loss of a child.”
Ashton admits the response team is in its infancy and the county is still trying to find out how much support there is.
“There will be some type of expense, mostly for the officer’s time,” she said, adding that there would be no cost for the training other than the officer’s salary.
The team will be operated by the departments who have joined, said Ashton, adding that her role will be to assist as needed. Once assembled, the team would participate in various exercises including a mock abduction that would be evaluated to make sure everything is running smoothly and determine what bugs need to be worked out.
“If a child is abducted, we want the best, most efficient response,” Ashton said. “We’ve been very fortunate that nothing has happened in this county. Hopefully, we’ll never have to call out the team.”
For more information on child abductions, check out the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Web site at www.missingkids.com.