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Mock abduction tests team skills

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(Maria Lockwood/ Sgt. Dave Drozdowski with the Duluth Police Department and St. Louis County Rescue dog Ted search the property of homeowner Cindi Fredericks during a mock child abduction exercise with the Lake Superior Child Abduction Response Team in the village of Superior Tuesday, Oct. 2.2 / 3
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A child abduction scenario played out in the streets, homes and lawns of the village of Superior on Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Law enforcement officers from an array of local agencies — Douglas County, St. Louis County, Carlton County, Superior, Duluth, Hermantown, Floodwood, the Border Patrol and more — took part in the training. Some sifted through leads and coordinated search efforts in the village hall.

Superior police officers stopped cars at a checkpoint on Albright Street to ask questions and examine trunks.

St. Louis County Rescue vehicles were staged in the parking lot of Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall on Tower Avenue.

Law enforcement officers canvassed the neighborhood and knocked on doors where the Stardusk drive-in theater once stood.

The Superior Police Department drone flew overhead. Leads were called in to Pike Lake, Minnesota, and relayed to the village command post.

They were looking for a child who had been forced into a vehicle at gunpoint and another who escaped, but got lost. A third child escaped and reported the abduction.

About 35 officers and 30 volunteer actors — local residents and college students — took part in the training, the first full-scale practical exercise for the Lake Superior Child Abduction Response Team (CART).

"If somebody barricades themselves in a house with a gun and threatens their family, we have a special team for that," said CART coordinator Eric Sather, an investigator with the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office. "They train ahead of time, they have special weapons, etc. We wanted to have the same thing for child abductions. When they happen, we want to have people pre-trained, ready to go, to respond without having to figure that out at the same time we're trying to find the child, solve the crime."

The team is built to react quickly to child and young adult abductions as well as missing child reports.

"If a child goes missing, and certainly when a child's abducted, they're going to get a tremendous response, not just from Douglas County and Superior, but they're getting the whole region to help out," Sather said. "Just like with the Husky incident, everybody came to help. Same thing if a child abduction happens."

An average of 60 times a year, a child is abducted and murdered in the United States.

"We've heard names like Katie Poirier, Dru Sjodin, "Beaner" — Leeanna Warner, up on the Iron Range," said Detective John Parenteau with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. "We know these names because they happened locally. But it happens way more often than people think across the nation."

Time is critical in these cases, he said. A Washington Child Case Homicide Study found that when a child is abducted and murdered, 54 percent of the time, they're dead within two hours; 76 percent of the time they're dead within three hours; and 88 percent of the time they're dead within 24 hours.

"One time, my son hid in the coat rack and that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach is the worst feeling ever, when you misplace your child," Parenteau said. "Can you imagine Patty Wetterling's pain of 28 years not knowing? If this happens in our community, we want to do the best we can for the parents of that child, for that child. That's really what this is all about."

Residents took on the roles of neighbors, siblings, passersby and drivers going through the checkpoint.

"The support from the community has been phenomenal," Sather said.

Cindi Fredericks let the St. Louis County Search and Rescue Team run Fred, a tracking dog, through the wooded area behind her home.

"I said right away, my whole place is open to you. Do whatever you need to do; I'll be here," Fredericks said. "Because I have children of my own, so I would do anything to help other children."

She was surprised by how little the search impacted the community.

"You wouldn't even know this was happening to a child until somebody came to your door to tell you," Fredericks said.

Dale Kuhlman offered to play the role of a reluctant homeowner with something to hide — a pretend marijuana plant — who finally agrees to a search of his home.

"It was hard not to want to be helpful," Kuhlman said. "I had to act. It's a stretch, but it was good and I made them work."

They took part because of a desire to help.

"I mean, this is important stuff," Kuhlman said. "I've got two grown kids, but three grandkids now and we need to keep everybody safe."

Parenteau pushed to start the Lake Superior CART after attending an Amber Alert training. It's been active for about four years, and this was its first big exercise.

The scenario had a happy ending. The abducted child was found alive, hidden under a blanket in a vehicle going through the checkpoint about three and a half hours after the incident was reported. A search team found the other child safe in the woods by Kingdom Hall.

"This exercise today is the closest that we've been to a real child-abduction scenario, and this is how we find out the strengths of our team, the weaknesses of our team," Parenteau said. "Because of today, because of the cooperation between law enforcement and non-law enforcement governmental agencies and just the village of Superior residents, we were able to become a better team today and better able to respond — God forbid the real thing ever happens in our community."

Signed partners in the Lake Superior CART include the Douglas, St. Louis and Carlton county sheriff's offices; Superior and Duluth police departments; St. Louis County Rescue; and law enforcement agencies from Hermantown, Chisholm, Floodwood, Virginia and Fond du Lac.