The chances of finding 3-year-old Christopher Ramirez alive dimmed as the days passed.
On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, Christopher’s mother, Araceli Nuñez, had been unloading items from their van at their Plantersville, Texas, home when a neighbor saw Christopher follow the family dog into the nearby woods. When Christopher’s mother returned for her son less than two minutes later, she learned what happened. A panicked search by the boy’s family and friends got underway, but within minutes the dog returned home — without Christopher. That’s when Grimes County law enforcement was contacted for help.
As the Grimes County Sheriff’s Office swung into action, Lieutenant James Ellis reached out for help from AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) Associate Chuck Fleeger, a 35-year veteran law enforcement officer in Texas who currently serves as Executive Director of the AMBER Alert Network Brazos Valley (AAN-BV).
The AAN-BV, formed in 2003, is a collaborative effort between more than two dozen local law enforcement agencies throughout the Brazos Valley in Central Texas. Operating in conjunction with Texas’s AMBER Alert Network, the AAN-BV provides local, state, and federal emergency management resources, local media outreach, and more for cases involving abducted and missing at-risk children.
With Grimes County being an hour south of Fleeger’s home in the Bryan- College Station area, he began making daily 100- mile roundtrip visits to the area to do what he does best: strategizing how to supplement law enforcement resources while bolstering media outreach and anticipating future needs.
While Grimes County conducted search and canvass operations, Fleeger helped solve the first problem. “Based on our state’s criteria the case didn’t qualify for AMBER Alert, so we went with a Regional Endangered Missing Child Advisory, which would allow a Wireless Electronic Alert (WEA) to be issued,” Fleeger said. After securing a photo of Ramirez, he typed up a brief description of the child and was able to get a poster to the media and public within 30 minutes.
In coordination with Lieutenant Ellis, Fleeger began rallying resources from his network of law enforcement specialists.
“We don’t move in and take over, we try to fill in the missing gaps,” he explained. Fleeger enlisted help from an adjacent county’s fire department, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and TEAM Adam. He called in a canine team and requested drone assistance. He suggested a mobile command post be set up away from where the investigation was taking place.
By the third day of the search, hundreds of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) providers, firefighters, law enforcement agents, and partners from federal, state, and local jurisdictions, as well as private search groups, led the charge while the news media and the public did its part. Investigators went door to door, checked surveillance cameras, pools, sheds, and even drained one pond while searching two others.
By the third day of the search, some suggested calling off the intensive effort, believing it impossible that a 3-foot-tall, 40-pound toddler could survive without sustenance or shelter for so long. But Grimes County Sheriff Don Sowell was adamant. “We’re not leaving until we find him.” He called on the community to pray for the boy’s safe recovery as Christopher’s mother sobbed.
“My heart has a hole in it,” she said in Spanish.
That evening, Tim Halfin did just that with his Bible study class. Afterward he felt like God wanted him to go look for the boy.
The next morning, Saturday, October 9, Halfin set out on that mission at 9:45 a.m. Within an hour he heard what sounded like a child’s voice in distress near a pipeline in the distance. He called law enforcement to tell them his location — about 10 yards into a thicket off a road nearly five miles from Christopher’s home.
“It was overwhelming,” Halfin recalled. “First you think this is a dream, but then I realized that it was him. I cradled him on my hip and said, ‘Little man, God has a purpose for you.’ ”
Soon Christopher and his mother were reunited, both in tears. Her son was hungry, scratched up, dehydrated, and bug-bitten, but otherwise in good condition. “God put everybody here in his path,” Nuñez said.
Ramirez spent several days at Children’s Hospital at The Woodlands, north of Houston, before being released and escorted home. He returned in a hero’s fashion, accompanied by a procession of first-responder vehicles with lights flashing.
Finding Christopher “was definitely a miracle — one combined with a lot of dedication and teamwork,” Fleeger said.
TOP TAKEAWAYS FROM THE CASE
Fleeger is working on an all-inclusive case study about Ramirez’s search and recovery for AATTAP Child Abduction Response Team (CART) training. He is also preparing a brief overview of the case to discuss at the March 2022 AATTAP National Symposium. Meanwhile, he offers these words of wisdom:
- “Never give up. And stay positive. Sheriff Sowell exemplified that by saying, ‘We’re not in recovery mode. We’re going to keep trying to find Christopher.’ And they did.”
- “Cultivate strong working relationships and teamwork. Lieutenant Ellis had my cell number and called me directly. And I have others’ cell numbers and they have mine. We understand what we’re here to do and respond to the call.”
- Pay attention to your team’s wellbeing. “I noticed that Grimes County Sergeant Martha Smith had been assigned to stay with Christopher’s mother the entire time,” Fleeger said. “I offered to find some Spanish-speaking support for her. She told me that although she was tired, she thought she could make it. The main thing that lifted her spirits was me simply asking, ‘Are you OK?’ ”
- AATTAP training pays off. After seeing in an AATTAP training class how using a shortened URL (via bit.ly) in a WEA linked to a verified Twitter account allows more information to a greater audience, Fleeger tried it during the Ramirez case. “It was one of the coolest things,” he said. “I was standing there during a search briefing and saw everybody’s phones go off at the same time. Even in that little corner of Grimes County, the tweet reached more than 33,000 people.”
- For states wavering on having a CART program, “Don’t,” Fleeger said. “They are incredibly valuable. You have to build up muscle memory through repetition to be ready for cases like these when they happen. And while child abductions are incredibly rare, the good thing is, many of the skill sets learned in CART training can be applied to any investigative response, from capital murder to an armed robbery,” he said. “A 99% success rate in canvassing is just not good enough.”