Friday, July 19

A Ransom Note and a Mistake: How Charlotte Sena Was Rescued

It was 4:20 a.m., long before dawn on Monday, when a driver approached the house of a missing girl in upstate New York, placing a note in the black mailbox before darting off through a dark spider web of country roads.

It might have been a note of condolence, or sympathy or even a tip. Instead, it was a ransom note, the state police said, one that led to the dramatic rescue of the nine-year-old girl, found hidden in a cupboard in a rundown camper, just 14 miles from her home.

The story of how state troopers, S.W.A.T teams, and other law enforcement officials came to find the child, Charlotte Sena, began with a lucky break and a possible missed opportunity, followed by old-fashioned shoe leather police work. A fingerprint found on the ransom note led investigators to the suspect, who apparently dropped off the note himself — and left without being apprehended, though a trooper had been stationed at the house.

The suspect, Craig Nelson Ross, Jr., 46, was arrested at his mother’s home on Monday night and charged with first-degree kidnapping on Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty; additional charges are expected, according to the State Police.

Charlotte was said to be in good health and reunited with her parents for the first time since Saturday night, when a weekend camping trip was shattered by the little girl’s disappearance, a sudden vanishing that encapsulated the worst fears of parents everywhere.

Charlotte Sena.Credit…Family photo, via Associated Press

“Everybody thinks, ‘If it was my child, I would want everybody under the sun looking for them,’” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a Monday night news conference. “And that’s what this team did.”

Still, praise for the rescue was mixed with some question as to whether the trooper on site that night could have given chase, a theory discounted by the State Police. At the same time, investigators were still also looking into Mr. Ross’s motivations and connections with the girl.

Ms. Hochul said on Monday that it was not known if Mr. Ross knew the Senas or had been watching Charlotte. Saratoga County property records, however, show that Mr. Ross owns a house less than a mile from the Sena home, two quick turns away by car, an address also listed on his arraignment documents. But, on Tuesday, a family living at that address shouted that it wasn’t his home, warning away a reporter.

Whether random or planned, the abduction and rescue of Charlotte riveted a nation too accustomed to tragic endings in stories of endangered children.

It began at a little past 6 p.m. on Saturday, on a pleasant night after a rainy week. Charlotte had been riding with friends on a small loop road inside Moreau Lake State Park, a popular getaway about 45 miles north of Albany.

She decided to take one last trip around the loop, alone. It was perhaps a five minute cruise, on a road ringed with campsites.

She never came back.

Her parents headed out to search. They soon found Charlotte’s bike. But their daughter was nowhere to be found. They called 911, even as other campers began shouting “Charlotte!” into the dense woods. State Police arrived soon after. Rangers and others fanned out to search in the gathering dusk. They feared the young girl had gotten lost, or found her way into the waters of Lake Moreau.

Investigators, however, almost immediately suspected a more sinister scenario: a child abduction by a stranger, a rare occurrence, though a terrifying staple of parental imagination.

The search continued overnight, even as police began to empty the park, inspecting every car as they left. They rolled down windows and opened trunks. They didn’t find Charlotte.

By Sunday morning, the state police had issued an Amber Alert saying the nine-year-old had been abducted. That led to phone alerts and highway signs asking for help.

Hours after that, Governor Hochul appeared at a news conference at the park’s front gate, pleading for help and making a vow to bring Charlotte home.

“I promised her parents we’ll find their daughter,” said Ms. Hochul, who has one child, a daughter. “She’s all of our daughters.’

That promise, however, could have seemed foolhardy: The location of Moreau Park lent itself to quick escapes, with an interstate — lacking toll cameras — just minutes away. Upstate New York’s rolling, forested terrain and rural character harbors a thousand different routes and an endless variety of off-the-grid homes and little-traveled locations.

Mr. Ross, a longtime resident of Saratoga County, had at least one prior brush with the law: a 1999 arrest for driving while intoxicated, which resulted in his fingerprints being taken.

Craig N. Ross, Jr., was charged with first-degree kidnapping of Tuesday.Credit…Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press

His mother, Joan, lived in the town of Milton, N.Y., about 20 minutes from the Sena’s home, in a worn prefabricated home. The pine-fronted lot is dotted with sheds and outbuildings, and there is a beat-up camper at the rear. On Tuesday, that property, and the ragged camper behind, were being meticulously examined by a forensic team, armed with cameras and other equipment.

A neighbor who has lived next to the Ross family for years said the family — with an absentee father and four children — was often chaotic. The neighbor, who did not want his name used because of the sensitivity of the situation, recalled a hungry young Craig sometimes coming to their house for meals.

By Sunday night, hundreds of searchers and investigators, from local sheriff’s deputies to the F.B.I., were on the ground at Moreau. Bloodhounds, boats and aerial units searched the woods and the water. Exhausted family members asked for help on social media.

“As each hour went on,” the governor said, “hope faded, because we all know the stories: The first 24 hours there’s hope. But when you hit 48 hours, hope starts to wane.”

The family continued to stay at the park on Sunday night as the search continued, rather than their home in Corinth, N.Y., about 15 miles away, the governor said. And it was there, the police said, that Mr. Ross made a crucial mistake.

It was a calm, warm night for early October; the American flag in front of the Senas’s house would have been slack. Reporters had been told by police to stay away from the family home. But at 4:20 a.m. a car approached. A note was left.

State police had been guarding the two-story house, which sits on the intersection of a speedy country highway — Route 9N — and a interconnected triangle of local roads, all offering getaways.

Citing unnamed sources, the Times Union of Albany reported on Tuesday that the State Police were looking into whether Mr. Ross “should have been arrested at that moment.”

But Deanna Cohen, a spokeswoman for the State Police, defended the trooper’s decision, saying that the family home had seen a steady flow of well-wishers “throughout the night,” including people dropping off food and cards. But, she added, Mr. Ross drew the trooper’s attention.

“For some reason this particular vehicle that stopped looked suspicious to the trooper,” she said. “And that is when he checked the mailbox, and found the note.”

Joseph L. Giacalone, an adjunct professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that while that encounter may have seemed like a prime opportunity to arrest Mr. Ross, a variety of other considerations — including preserving evidence and fingerprints from the note, and the possibility of other accomplices in other vehicles — may have taken priority.

“Initially when you look at it, it sounds bad: Like, why didn’t they just chase them down?” said Mr. Giacalone, a retired New York City Police sergeant, adding, “But I think it was a good move by the trooper to wait.”

In her remarks on Monday night, the governor said that State Police had gone to the mailbox “immediately” and found the note, and were, in fact, soon able to find a fingerprint.

And even as that fingerprint was being processed, pings from cellphone towers were also being analyzed, and the search area was expanded to dozens of miles of surrounding territory. Records of comings and goings from the park were examined, and all around it, teams conducted grid searches through gullies and deep brush, and under yellowing trees. Troopers continued to stop cars, looking in vain for clues.

Then, at about 2:30 p.m. on Monday, after an initial failed attempt to find a fingerprint match, the state police got a hit in their database: Mr. Ross’s fingerprints from the 1999 D.W.I.

They also had determined that Mr. Ross had been “in the area of the Moreau Lake State Park around the time Charlotte went missing.”

By 4 p.m., even as State Police were putting out a news release asking for tips, special tactical teams from around the state were being flown into the area to prepare for a possible rescue, along with an F.B.I. S.W.A.T. team. They had several possible locations where Mr. Ross was known to reside, but at 6:32 p.m., with helicopters overhead, those teams descended on Mr. Ross’s mother’s house — and the camper behind — in what they called a “dynamic entry.”

Mr. Ross struggled, receiving minor injuries, before officers were able to enter the camper. And there, inside a cupboard cabinet, was Charlotte.

“She knew she was being rescued,” the governor said.

Mr. Ross is currently being held without bail at Saratoga County Jail, and is scheduled to appear in court later this month. Thomas McDougall, a public defender in Saratoga County who was assigned his case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, the Sena family home was quiet, with a state trooper stationed outside, and people coming to deliver groceries. A kid’s scooter and a collection of pumpkins were on the front porch.

While still requesting privacy, the family issued a statement to CBS News, thanking the legions of law enforcement and “families, friends, community, neighbors and hundreds of volunteers” who helped bring Charlotte back to them.

“We are thrilled that she is home,” it read. “And we understand that the outcome is not what every family gets.”

Erin Nolan contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.