On the Front Lines: Road to Recovery
A Georgia 11-year-old, abducted by his father, is found in the Idaho wilderness thanks to an Idaho State Trooper’s instinct and the successful teamwork of two state law enforcement agencies challenged by distance and technology
By Denise Gee Peacock
The white Nissan Sentra with Georgia plates didn’t strike Idaho State Police (ISP) Corporal David Wesche as suspicious. At least at first.
“We get a lot of tourists up here,” he said of the vast Canyon Creek wilderness area in Idaho’s panhandle. “I thought it might be a group of bear hunters.”
Little did he know the supposed big game hunters would soon become big news.
In a Bad Spot
Trooper Wesche first noticed the vehicle as he was heading home the night of May 4, 2022. It was parked along U.S. Highway 12 by mile marker 10, east of Lowell, Idaho. The car was close to a trailhead leading to a formidably dense forest, where steep bluffs tower over a winding canyon creek. With “civilization” being 40 miles away, Wesche said only die-hard hunters camped in the area.
After being away from work for a week, Wesche traversed the same stretch of road the evening of May 10. The car was still there. Using his flashlight to peer inside its windows, he saw buckets often used by hunters. But one thing bothered him. “Only the most experienced hunters, primarily locals, visit that part of Canyon Creek,” Wesche said, “and only during daylight hours,” since bears, wolves, and mountain lions often roam there at night.
Wesche radioed ISP Regional Communications Officer Keila Wyndham to request a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) trace. The car was linked to an Enterprise Rent-A-Car company in LaGrange, Georgia. Wesche then asked Wyndham to find out when the car was due to be returned. She soon contacted him with the answer: May 11 – the next day.
With the vehicle 2,400 miles from Georgia, the renter would obviously not be returning it on time. That itself was not unusual; tourists often return rental cars late. But, if the car were to still be in Idaho after its due-date, Wesche had two options. He could follow the standard protocol of tagging the abandoned vehicle and requesting the rental agency tow it away. Or he could take another route – one driven by a hunch that something wasn’t right.
Amusement Park By-Pass
The ordeal of 11-year-old Gabriel Daugherty – known for a bright smile, spirited T shirts, and smart black glasses – had begun 12 days earlier in LaGrange. On Thursday, April 28, Gabriel’s non-custodial father, Addam Daugherty, picked up his son for a pre-approved trip to Six Flags near Atlanta, about an hour’s drive north. The plan was for Gabriel to return home Sunday, May 1.
The next day (April 29), Addam, a long-haul trucker, called Gabriel’s mother to say Six Flags was unexpectedly closed. (Unbeknownst to her, it wasn’t). His backup plan was to take Gabriel to a Missouri theme park. She gave him permission to do so, and he agreed to have their son home by Friday, May 6.
On May 3, Addam once again called Gabriel’s mother – this time saying his truck had broken down and he would need an extra day to have it repaired. Gabriel, he assured her, would now be home by Saturday, May 7.
But May 7 came and went, with Gabriel’s mother unable to reach Addam via the new cell phone number he had provided. She contacted the LaGrange Police Department (LPD) to report her son missing.
Seeking advice from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), the LPD discussed whether the case met the criteria for an AMBER Alert (also known as a “Levi’s Call” in the state). The mother, LPD detectives said, was emphatic that Addam would never do anything to hurt their son, but he nonetheless did not have her permission to be with Gabriel.
“On the face of it, the situation appeared to be a custody issue, so a Levi’s Call was not issued,” said Emily Butler, GBI AMBER Alert/Levi’s Call Coordinator.
The LPD did, however, begin trying to locate Mr. Daugherty. Within hours, his truck was found abandoned in LaGrange – not in Missouri, as his wife was led to believe. Detectives also discovered that Mr. Daugherty had resigned from his trucking job a few days before picking up Gabriel, and told his employer where to find his truck.
On May 9, the LPD issued a felony warrant for Mr. Daugherty’s arrest, alerting Georgia law enforcement agencies, the media, and the public to be on the lookout for Addam and his son. The last thing LPD detectives expected was for the duo to be in the wilds of Idaho.
Research Pays Off
ISP Trooper Wesche was off duty May 10, but prepared for his work the next day by again contacting ISP Dispatcher Wyndham. He asked her to provide him with the name of the car’s renter, and a photo of the driver license used when renting it. Wyndham responded within minutes: “His name is Addam Daugherty – Addam with two ‘d’s.” A photo of him would be forthcoming.
Wesche next contacted his sister, an Idaho Fish and Game (IFG) officer. He asked her if an Addam Daugherty from Georgia had applied for a hunting or fishing license. After checking IFG records, she said he had not. “Maybe he’s been hunting without a license,” Wesche recalls thinking. “Again, that’s not legal, but it’s also not unusual.” Wesche also knew from experience that vehicles abandoned near forests often led to the discovery of suicide victims. “So that was in my mind too.” His sister then called back. She found a news article about Mr. Daugherty and his son.
“That’s when we realized we had a bigger issue than an overdue rental car or a hunter without a license,” he said.
On May 11, Wesche relayed his findings to ISP leadership, which worked with ISP Regional Communications Supervisor Ray Shute to coordinate an “information relay” between the ISP and LPD. Otherwise, timely, back-and-forth communications would pose a challenge: Wesche lived and worked in a remote area without cell phone access. He could only communicate using his ISP radio, home landline, and the hard-wired internet on his computer.
Tapping into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, the ISP team saw that Georgia had issued an in-state warrant for Mr. Daugherty’s arrest. They immediately contacted detectives in LaGrange, sharing information about the abandoned rental car in Idaho. In turn, they learned about Mr. Daugherty’s abandoned truck in Georgia, and the misinformation he had provided to Gabriel’s mother. The LPD changed the case involving Mr. Daugherty to a felony warrant with full extradition, and a missing person case was opened for Gabriel.
Collaborating with LPD Detective/Crime Analyst Jason Duncan, Shute wrote a warrant to obtain Google records of Mr. Daugherty’s cell phone activity. The Idaho-Georgia team learned the last time he had used the phone was in Riggins, Idaho, May 3 – the day he told Gabriel’s mother his truck had broken down in Missouri. They also realized pinging Mr. Daugherty’s cell phone would be impossible, given his location in Canyon Creek, and the fact that he had a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone, which only works when connected to Wi-Fi.
ISP Police Sergeant Aaron Bingham briefed the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO) on the situation. With daylight fading, they scheduled a search and rescue operation for the next day at dawn.
On the day of the search (May 12), an ISP-ICSO briefing was held in Kooskia, Idaho. Wesche worked to obtain a warrant to access the rental car, which would be towed for inspection at the ISP District Office in Lewiston. Meanwhile, ICSO deputies trained in search and rescue tactics were deployed to the trailhead near where Mr. Daugherty had parked. A short time later, using a drone, they located Mr. Daugherty and his son at a partially camouflaged camp site several miles up the trail.
“Going a few miles into the Canyon isn’t a typical hiker’s experience,” Wesche explained. “It’s a treacherous physical undertaking.”
Sheriff’s deputies reported that Mr. Daugherty appeared shocked when confronted. “He thought he was in the middle of the wilderness and would never be found,” Idaho County Chief Deputy Brian Hewson told local media. “They were really unprepared with [inadequate] food, clothing, and sleeping arrangements.” Due to a lot of rain and cold temperatures the region had recently experienced, “the area was too damp to start a fire, and their clothes and tent were wet when officers found them,” Hewson said. “They were starting to eat local plant life, snails, and insects.”
Gabriel “was very weak and sick,” he noted. “He was glad we found him when we did,” especially since his father told him they would not be returning home to Georgia.
Gabriel was transported to a local hospital for treatment and observation before being reunited with his mother in Georgia. His father was taken to the Idaho County Jail and extradited back to LaGrange to face the charge of interstate interference with custody.
Sheriff’s investigators believe that Mr. Daugherty’s trucking job had once given him the opportunity to traverse the long east-west Highway 12 route through Idaho, and that he had selected the area for its remoteness. “It was clear he had this planned,” Hewson said.
“At every turn the father made poor decisions,” Wesche explained. “He thought he and his son could live like survivalists, but the father had no outdoor skills whatsoever.”
After the case was resolved, LPD Detective Duncan commended Idaho law enforcement for their excellent work. “It’s still hard to believe [the Daughertys] were found alive that far from their vehicle in those conditions,” he said. “I’ve been on search parties in good weather and know how hard it is to keep the faith and push forward. Those involved are truly heroes – and 100 percent responsible for saving Gabriel’s life.”
ISP Communications Center Supervisor Shute returned the compliment. “Jason, your teamwork, coordination, sharing of information, and communication assisted our team greatly in the apprehension of Addam Daugherty and the safe recovery of Gabriel.”
Shute then praised Wesche. “He followed his intuition, did research on his own time, and was able to piece together this entire case,” he said. “Medical opinion was that if Gabriel had not been located within one to two days, he most likely would not have survived.”
- Documentation is vital. Quickly entering a case into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database helps law enforcement connect the dots during an investigation. So does having a well-documented case file. “Since we don’t have jurisdiction over a regional investigation, sometimes there isn’t a lot of information for us to review when revisiting a case,” said GBI AMBER Alert/Levi’s Call Coordinator Emily Butler. “The fact that the LaGrange PD documented the case so well – even after the Levi’s Call [AMBER Alert] had been denied early on – is testament to regional law enforcement working well with state law enforcement as a team.”
- “Pay attention to anything unusual,” advised ISP Corporal Dave Wesche, a 10-year veteran of law enforcement. “I take things seriously until I can say it’s nothing.”
- “Cases are fluid,” Butler emphasized. “While the information we had at the time didn’t qualify the case for an AMBER Alert, the situation changed dramatically, and the officers responded accordingly.”
- Teamwork is essential. “If we get a call from another state, I’m always open to helping them in any way possible,” Butler said. “That’s the case with most states, but it helps to get to know your counterparts during national conferences such as the one the AATTAP recently held.”
- Thank everyone on the team. “That goes a long way in this line of work,” said ISP Communications Center Supervisor Ray Shute.