HEUVELTON — Two Amish girls apparently abducted from the farm stand in front of their home were found safe near Richville on Thursday evening, just as a large crowd had gathered for a candlelight vigil praying for their return.
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain said the sisters, Fannie Miller, 12, and Delila Miller, 6, were dropped off in a vehicle in Richville and walked to a nearby residence to ask to be reunited with their family on Mt. Alone Road, off Route 812 in the town of Oswegatchie.
The girls were cold and wet but appeared to be “healthy,” Ms. Rain said.
“We cannot tell you how delighted we are and how happy the family is now,” Ms. Rain said.
Law enforcement officers and firefighters joined in a round of applause at the command center at the Heuvelton Fire Department when they learned the girls were found safe and were being returned to their family. St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells congratulated the fire and police agencies.
“We are celebrating tonight, but now the real work begins,” Mr. Wells said.
Police are now working to identify whoever is responsible for abducting the girls. The sheriff said more than one person could be involved.
The girls were being interviewed by St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department investigators and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Wells said he could not confirm whether the girls were able to provide a detailed description of any suspect.
On Wednesday night, police said they were looking for a small, white four-door sedan believed to have been used to take the girls. By Thursday night, however, police were looking for a red Dodge Caliber.
Ms. Rain said that she is confident that the investigation will lead to an arrest.
The return of the girls came 24 hours after they were reported missing about 7:20 p.m. Wednesday from their family’s roadside stand on Mt. Alone Road, off Route 812 in the town of Oswegatchie.
As police, volunteers, dive teams and federal agents scoured the woods and plunged into the rivers between Heuvelton and Ogdensburg looking for the girls, Mr. Wells sent a message to whoever was responsible for taking them.
“We need the children brought back safely. Make a phone call,” Mr. Wells said. “You need to leave the children somewhere safe where we can find them.”
Authorities said the girls were dropped off at a house at County Routes 18 and 20 in the hamlet of Bigelow, south of Richville, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday. The girls made their way to the home of nearby resident Jeff Stinson to ask for help.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Rusty Bissell, of Cornerstone Wesleyan Church in Heuvelton, was holding a prayer service attended by nearly 100 people, joining hands in the small church to pray for the girls’ safe return. on the door of Richiville resident Jeff Stinson, The Rev. Rusty Bissell, of Cornerstone Wesleyan Church in nearby Heuvelton, invited the community to a prayer service Thursday evening. Nearly 100 people gathered in the small church and joined hands, praying for the girls’ safe return.
“I think the most important piece is that we have to stay hopeful. We just have to pray,” Mayor Barbara Lashua said at the vigil.
Their prayers were answered.
Mr. Wells said during his afternoon briefing the search has been “tough right from the very beginning” and the situation was being handled as a “worst-case scenario.”
“This is a very important issue and these girls’ lives are what we are worried about,” Mr. Wells said. “Whether this was an abduction or if it was something else, this is something that needs a response and that is what we are here to do.”
Sheriff’s deputies had released an artist’s sketch of the older sister, Fannie, but none was available for Delila. Despite the issuance of a statewide Amber Alert, authorities could not provide pictures of the girls because their ultraconservative Amish community does not allow photography.
The investigation was difficult from the start. There were no photographs of the girls, custom of the Amish community, and there was not a positive description of the vehicle which might have taken the girls.
Sheriff Wells said the girls were visible in the community.
“Anybody that lives in the community, anybody that spends time in this community, understands that the Amish are an important part of our community,” Mr. Wells said. “Stop at a stand, have a discussion yourself. Just leave your cameras at home and stop.”
Ogdensburg Walmart and Price Chopper donated food and drinks to support the Miller family. Dozens of neighbors and strangers were seen throughout the day dropping off food items. Firefighters from throughout St. Lawrence County answered the call to scour the woods on foot in search of the girls.
“The North Country is a community that pulls together in times of tragedy and need, and you continue to inspire me,” said State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.
The Amish are a big part of this community and this community supports them also, Mr. Wells said.
“Like anything else, eyewitnesses see things in different lights here and there, but there is no information we are prepared to release at this time,” Mr. Wells said. “There are a lot of solid leads coming in regarded to the vehicle, but there is other information to, things people thought they had heard or thought they saw and we are following up on those things.”
Investigators are continuing their conversation with the Amish community, Mr. Wells said. “It is a very solid population in this area, and they have been very cooperative,” he said.
“The agreement from the family was to do a sketch of the 12-year-old only; they wouldn’t agree to the sketch of the other child,” Mr. Wells said. “Just as we have no photos to begin with, it’s a belief within the Amish community, so we did really well to get this sketch and we are releasing it. It is not the family releasing the sketch; it is us releasing it.”
Scores of state police, U.S. Border Patrol agents and county sheriff’s deputies set up checkpoints and canvassed door to door between Heuvelton and Ogdensburg on Wednesday night after the Amber Alert went out.
The parents of the girls told authorities that they last they had seen of their daughters was when the girls were waiting on customers at the farm stand. The parents said they turned around and then noticed the girls were gone.
As soon as they noticed the girls were missing, family members walked to a neighbor’s house to call police, Mr. Wells said.
“I don’t think we expect this to happen in any community,” Mr. Wells said. “This is something that’s against what we all believe in, and we are all worried, no matter where these girls come from or what their background is.”
Divers from the St. Lawrence County Dive Team were called out Thursday morning to look for two missing Amish girls, while K-9 teams and New York State forest rangers searched the woods and roadsides. The water search ceased Thursday afternoon with no findings, Mr. Wells said.
“There are people searching all around and we’re covering as many bases as we can and making sure to cross things off our check list as quickly as possible,” Mr. Wells said. “That includes water that is in the proximity scene to roadsides. We’re utilizing New York state Parole and St. Lawrence County probation to check with all the people on their list.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are also involved with the investigation, Mr. Wells said.
New York state Forest Ranger Lt. Joel E. Nowalk said they were searching roads extensively around the last known point around the house and some high probability areas that are hard to access and where someone can go, camp and be out of the public view,” Mr. Nowalk said.
“We are working on quite a bit of information, and we will continue to aggressively pursue this investigation,” Mr. Wells said.