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Immokalee community and SPD find missing children

IMMOKALEE — What began as a practical joke on March 7 quickly turned into a serious, unfortunate series of events that brought the entire Immokalee community together.

The Immokalee Seminole Police Department (SPD) received a call at 6:45 p.m. advising them that four children between the ages of 8 and 12 went missing near the Immokalee youth ranch.

“The first thing that we did is evaluate the situation and determine what kind of risk there was,” SPD Lt. Douglas Van Orman said. “The children were said to be hiding, so they didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger.”

The children had been at the youth ranch for an after-school activity and thought it would be funny to hide from the person in charge. When an aunt showed up to take them home, they took off into the woods in fear of getting into trouble.

Immediately, Immokalee SPD was given descriptions of the children as they began searching where the youth were last seen. At that time, community members were already out looking for the children themselves.

“Just by word of mouth on their own, the community started searching,” Lt. Van Orman said. “We never approached them for assistance; it is something they did on their own. They used four wheelers and searched all the trails.”

According to Lt. Van Orman, 90 percent of children hiding return home on their own, so after an estimated 30 minutes of searching the ranch and inside barns, SPD went to the houses of the children and began searching there. With community members still searching the back trails, SPD went door to door looking and asking questions.

After exhausting their resources and still not finding the children, SPD knew they needed further assistance.

“We knew the next step was a helicopter to search the woods,” Lt. Van Orman said. “It sends out flare devices that register body heat.”

With a good working relationship with Collier County, SPD made the call for help around 7:20 p.m.

While waiting for the helicopter to arrive, SPD rounded up anyone searching the woods to eliminate excess heat sources.

“We wanted to get them organized and establish a command post,” Lt. Van Orman said. “They supported us and they helped us out.”

Roughly between 8:30 and 9 p.m., the helicopter was in the air above the woods. Lt. Van Orman said they think the helicopter must have scared the children because within 10 to 15 minutes of the air search, the children walked out on their own.

The children had been hiding in hay bales deep in the woods.

The children returned home safely, and Lt. Van Orman said he’s happy the kids were not hurt.

Lt. Van Orman said he feels SPD performed and responded well, but it was the community and their efforts that truly impressed him.

“The outpouring of the community was outstanding,” he said. “I was really glad to see the community come together the way that it did. It is part of our (SPD’s) job, but the community went over and beyond.”

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