Illustration of abandoned bicycle, law enforcement searchers, AMBER Alert poster for Charlotte Sena, and this quote from Erika Hock, Senior Investigator/AMBER Alert Coordinator for the New York State Police: “They thought she’d wandered into the woods and gotten lost. Nothing pointed to an abduction.”
By Jody Garlock

As the disappearance of 9-year-old Charlotte Sena from an Upstate New York park in the fall of 2023 began to garner national media attention, the parallels to another case flashed through the mind of Victoria Martuscello, Investigator/Assistant AMBER Alert Coordinator for the New York State Police (NYSP).

Photo of the law enforcement group involved in the search for Charlotte Sena in Upstate New York.
New York State Police Senior Investigator and AMBER Alert Coordinator Erika Hock (center) was among the relieved authorities at the command center during Charlotte’s safe recovery.

Shortly before Charlotte was reported missing by her family, her bike had been found abandoned on the side of a road at Moreau Lake State Park. For Martuscello, the report evoked a familiar sense of doom. “It felt like we had a classic case of Amber Hagerman playing out right in front of our faces,” she says, referencing the 9-year-old Texas girl whose 1996 abduction and murder led to the creation of our nation’s AMBER Alert program.

Meanwhile, as the critical window of time for the best odds of recovery loomed, Erika Hock, Martuscello’s supervisor and the NYSP Senior Investigator and AMBER Alert Coordinator who issued the AMBER Alert for Charlotte, couldn’t help but feel hope was waning.

Conversely, Hock and Martuscello were uplifted to see the hundreds of law enforcement professionals engaged in Charlotte’s search, as well as public interest in the case—heightened by the rallying call of New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

After an expansive search lasting nearly two days, the words “We got her! We got her!” bellowed through a speaker phone at the Saratoga County command post. The fact that the fourth-grader was alive and well brought cheers throughout the post and community at large.

Charlotte’s rescue was nothing short of a miracle. Her case had defied the odds. But it would also test the fortitude of New York’s AMBER Alert plan—and offers lessons for other agencies. (See “Five key takeaways” at the end of this story.)

Saturday, September 30, 2023, was a beautiful autumn day in the foothills of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The Sena family was enjoying the weekend with friends in two wooded camping spots at Moreau Lake State Park, about 45 miles north of Albany (and 20 minutes from the Sena’s home).

Throughout the day, Charlotte, clad in a tie-dye T-shirt, had been riding her green and blue mountain bike with her siblings and friends around the camping loop, a tree-canopied road ringed with campsites close to the park’s entrance. By dinnertime, most of Charlotte’s group were ready to call it a day, but she wanted to make one final loop on her own. When she didn’t return as expected, her parents began searching for her, as did other campers—all of them calling out for the girl in the forested park.

Within 20 minutes (about 6:45 p.m.), Charlotte’s dad and a friend found her bike on the side of the camping loop road, but she was nowhere in sight. That alarmed her mother enough to call 911.

Photo of New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at a press conference related to Charlotte Sena's abduction
During the search for Charlotte, “I promised her parents we’ll find their daughter,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul. “She’s all of our daughters.”

New York State Police Troopers arrived on the scene to canvass for information. They soon learned that shortly before Charlotte went missing, a couple at the campground had come across a bike blocking the middle of the road where they were driving. With its kickstand down, they assumed the rider had parked there temporarily, so the driver beeped the horn, hoping its owner would come back and move it. But after several minutes without a response, they decided to move it to the side of the road and continue their drive.

Based on the bike’s orderly position, officers initially didn’t think foul play was involved, Hock explains. “They thought she’d wandered into the woods and gotten lost. Nothing pointed to an abduction.”

With nightfall looming, the search intensified. Around 11 p.m., the Missing Persons Clearinghouse issued a missing child alert and distributed a poster with Charlotte’s photo. Ultimately hundreds of searchers—including police officers, forest rangers, trained canines, drone operators, underwater recovery teams, firefighters, technology experts, volunteers, and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation—joined in to try to find the missing girl.

Without any sign of Charlotte by early Sunday morning, a NYSP lieutenant and support staff updated Hock, who agreed there was “reasonable cause” to conclude she was in danger, and likely had been abducted, thereby meeting New York’s criteria to issue an AMBER Alert.

At 9:30 a.m., Hock issued an AMBER Alert geo-targeting two regions skirting the park. At that pointin the investigation, an FBI Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team joined the investigation. (New York’s statewide Child Abduction Response Team (CART) was in development at the time.) The governor put out a plea for the child’s safe return. Major news outlets began reporting the story, and hundreds of tips poured in. Still, the 9-year-old’s whereabouts remained a mystery.

As word of Charlotte’s disappearance circulated, the Sena home in Greenfield received a steady flow of traffic from well-wishers—known and unknown—who dropped off messages of support. While the distraught family remained at the park, their house was under police surveillance. Nothing seemed unusual until around 4:30 a.m. Monday, when a dark F-150 pickup truck pulled up to the mailbox and placed something in it.

Text in graphic: From 2021 to 2023, 3 out of 548 missing child alerts* (.5% of all cases) were known to involve ransom requests.//*Excluding alerts that were classified as unfounded or hoaxes.//Source: National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

The trooper watching the home, unable to record the license plate, immediately retrieved the item, and saw it was a crudely produced ransom note—and a critical piece of evidence. As authorities began a search for vehicles matching the truck’s description and conducted other analytical data, they also expedited a fingerprint analysis on the ransom note. Then came a lucky break: A fingerprint was found on the note. And what’s more, it matched that of 46-year-old Craig N. Ross Jr., who had been arrested in 1999 for driving while intoxicated.

By then, the state’s Cellular Analysis Response Team had verified that Ross’s cellular device was in the vicinity of the park when Charlotte disappeared, so authorities obtained search warrants for addresses linked to Ross.

Around 6:30 that evening, tactical teams swarmed a ramshackle camper on Ross’s mother’s property. Ross briefly resisted arrest, but ultimately Charlotte was found safe in a bedroom closet. Ross was arrested and charged with kidnapping, and later would be charged with sexual assault. In February 2024, he pleaded guilty to those charges.

Photos of Charlotte Sena's abductor, Craig N. Ross, and Ross' camper the 9-year-old girl was discovered in.
Craig N. Ross Jr. was booked at the Saratoga County jail shortly after tactical teams found Charlotte concealed in his camper.

As Ross awaits sentencing, Hock and Martuscello continue to field questions about how the case was handled. While there are lessons to learn from every case, the key takeaway for both investigators was that adhering to the state’s protocol for issuing AMBER Alerts worked.

Quote from Joan Collins, AMBER Alert Training & Technical Assistance Program Region One Liaison: “The New York AMBER Alert Coordinators did an outstanding job of monitoring the investigation and ultimately activating the alert with little to go on other than Charlotte had simply vanished. The lessons learned will be beneficial for all who handle missing child alerts.”From the outset, their investigative team worked quickly to find Charlotte using comprehensive investigative strategies and tools. The public was alerted once the criteria had been met—and only in a specific area where the 9-year-old was likely to be. The goal is to provide the public with information that can help, rather than confuse, efforts to locate a missing child. Strategic, targeted alerting helps prevent people from becoming de-sensitized to AMBER Alerts, which can be a deadly consequence of public indifference.

Both Hock and Martuscello remain confident in their roles and the established protocols.

“I have friends ask why AMBER Alerts aren’t issued for every missing child, but if you get an AMBER Alert every time a child goes missing, your phone would be going off all day long,” Martuscello says. “I ask them what they think they would do because of that. They say, ‘You’re right, I would turn off that alert.’”

Graphic with the words "Five Key Takeaways"

“This case had so many aspects that defied the odds,” says Erika Hock, New York State Police Senior Investigator and AMBER Alert Coordinator. Here she shares insights on what she learned—with lessons other Coordinators can apply.

  1. Be prepared for scrutiny and criticism. Any case—but especially a high-profile one—underscores the need to meticulously follow protocols. Members of the public and media often don’t understand how and why AMBER Alerts are issued, Hock explains, so “as an AMBER Alert Coordinator, you can’t have a weak spine. These cases aren’t cut and dried—each one has a gray area. It’s not easy to make the decisions but you have to [using the information you have at the time].”
  2. Act without delay on the information you have. Having critical details—a license plate number or description of the suspected abductor—helps find missing children faster, but sometimes AMBER Alert Coordinators must alert the public using only a photo and description of the missing child. Geo-targeting focuses the information on the people most likely to see the child, and prevents citizens within a large area from receiving alerts that might prompt them to disable their cellphone’s AMBER Alert function.
  3. Understand that cases are fluid. Some New Yorkers questioned why there wasn’t an immediate AMBER Alert, or why they didn’t receive the notification in their region—which prompted a New York legislator to begin pushing a bill to allow parents or guardians to request early activation. New York’s criteria for an activation specifies “reasonable cause”—defined as an eyewitness account or the elimination of other possibilities—to believe a child has been abducted. Without an eyewitness, Hock knew to let the initial search rule out possibilities, such as Charlotte being injured from falling down an embankment. She was also prepared to expand the alert to other activation regions in the state if new information warranted.
  4. Make it a team effort. Hock advises AMBER Alert Coordinators to loop in their Public Information Officer as soon as the decision to activate is made. That person or team can then help the media and public understand the criteria.
  5. Cultivate relationships with state law enforcement. In the Sena case, some officers had previously worked in Hock’s unit, and thus were familiar with the activation criteria. “In the past we’ve had demands to activate an AMBER Alert when it’s not even close to meeting our criteria,” Hock says. “But we have these criteria for a reason, and take the time to explain it to agencies [and the public] so they can understand.”