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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A ransom note and a fingerprint: How a missing 9-year-old was found

New York State Park Police monitor the park entrance at Moreau Lake State Park in Gansevoort, N.Y., Oct. 2, 2023. The rescue of Charlotte Sena began with a lucky break — and a possible missed opportunity — followed by old-fashioned police work.

By Jesse McKinley

It was 4:20 a.m., long before dawn Monday, when a driver approached the house of a missing girl in upstate New York, placing a note in the black mailbox before darting off through a dark spider web of country roads.

It might have been a note of condolence, or sympathy or even a tip. Instead, it was a ransom note, State Police said, one that led to the dramatic rescue later that day of the 9-year-old girl, found hidden in a cupboard in a rundown camper, just 14 miles from her home.

The story of how state troopers, SWAT teams, and other law enforcement officials came to find the child, Charlotte Sena, began with a lucky break and a possible missed opportunity, followed by old-fashioned shoe leather police work. A fingerprint found on the ransom note led investigators to the suspect, who apparently dropped off the note himself — and left without being apprehended, though a trooper had been stationed at the house.

The suspect, Craig Nelson Ross Jr., 46, was arrested at his mother’s home Monday night and charged with first-degree kidnapping Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty; additional charges are expected, according to the State Police.

Charlotte was said to be in good health and reunited with her parents for the first time since Saturday night, when a weekend camping trip was shattered by the little girl’s disappearance, a sudden vanishing that encapsulated the worst fears of parents everywhere.

“Everybody thinks, ‘If it was my child, I would want everybody under the sun looking for them,’” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a Monday night news conference. “And that’s what this team did.”

Still, praise for the rescue was mixed with some question as to whether the trooper on site that night could have given chase, a theory discounted by the State Police. At the same time, investigators were still also looking into Ross’ motivations and connections with the girl.

Hochul said Monday that it was not known if Ross knew the Senas or had been watching Charlotte. Saratoga County property records, however, show that Ross owns a house less than 1 mile from the Sena home, two quick turns away by car, an address also listed on his arraignment documents. But, on Tuesday, a family living at that address shouted that it wasn’t his home, warning away a reporter.

Whether random or planned, the abduction and rescue of Charlotte riveted a nation too accustomed to tragic endings in stories of endangered children.

It began at a little past 6 p.m. Saturday, on a pleasant night after a rainy week. Charlotte had been riding with friends on a small loop road inside Moreau Lake State Park, a popular getaway about 45 miles north of Albany.

She decided to take one last trip around the loop, alone. It was perhaps a five-minute cruise, on a road ringed with campsites.

She never came back.

Her parents headed out to search. They soon found Charlotte’s bike. But their daughter was nowhere to be found. They called 911, even as other campers began shouting “Charlotte!” into the dense woods. State Police arrived soon after. Rangers and others fanned out to search in the gathering dusk. They feared the young girl had gotten lost, or found her way into the waters of Moreau Lake.

Investigators, however, almost immediately suspected a more sinister scenario: a child abduction by a stranger, a rare occurrence, though a terrifying staple of parental imagination.

The search continued overnight, even as police began to empty the park, inspecting every car as they left. They rolled down windows and opened trunks. They didn’t find Charlotte.

By Sunday morning, police had issued an Amber Alert saying the 9-year-old had been abducted. That led to phone alerts and highway signs asking for help.

Hours after that, Hochul appeared at a news conference at the park’s front gate, pleading for help and making a vow to bring Charlotte home.

“I promised her parents we’ll find their daughter,” said Hochul, who has two children, including a daughter. “She’s all of our daughters.”

That promise, however, could have seemed foolhardy: The location of Moreau Park lent itself to quick escapes, with an interstate — lacking toll cameras — just minutes away. Upstate New York’s rolling, forested terrain and rural character harbors a thousand different routes and an endless variety of off-the-grid homes and little-traveled locations.

Ross, a longtime resident of Saratoga County, had at least one prior brush with the law: a 1999 arrest for driving while intoxicated, which resulted in his fingerprints being taken.

His mother, Joan, lived in the town of Milton, New York, about 20 minutes from the Senas’ home, in a worn prefabricated home. The pine-fronted lot is dotted with sheds and outbuildings, and there is a beat-up camper at the rear. On Tuesday, that property, and the ragged camper behind, were being meticulously examined by a forensic team, armed with cameras and other equipment.

A neighbor who has lived next to the Ross family for years said the family — with an absentee father and four children — was often chaotic. The neighbor, who did not want his name used because of the sensitivity of the situation, recalled a hungry young Craig sometimes coming to their house for meals.

By Sunday night, hundreds of searchers and investigators, from local sheriff’s deputies to the FBI, were on the ground at Moreau. Bloodhounds, boats and aerial units searched the woods and the water. Exhausted family members asked for help on social media.

“As each hour went on,” the governor said, “hope faded, because we all know the stories: The first 24 hours there’s hope. But when you hit 48 hours, hope starts to wane.”

The family continued to stay at the park Sunday night as the search continued, rather than their home in Corinth, New York, about 15 miles away, the governor said. And it was there, police said, that Ross made a crucial mistake.

It was a calm, warm night for early October; the American flag in front of the Senas’ house would have been slack. Reporters had been told by police to stay away from the family home. But at 4:20 a.m. a car approached. A note was left.

State police had been guarding the two-story house, which sits on the intersection of a speedy country highway — Route 9N — and an interconnected triangle of local roads, all offering getaways.

Citing unnamed sources, the Times Union of Albany reported Tuesday that the State Police were looking into whether Ross “should have been arrested at that moment.”

State Police had no comment on that report, but Deanna Cohen, a spokesperson, defended the trooper’s decision, saying that the family home had seen a steady flow of well-wishers “throughout the night,” including people dropping off food and cards. But, she added, Ross drew the trooper’s attention.

“For some reason this particular vehicle that stopped looked suspicious to the trooper,” she said. “And that is when he checked the mailbox, and found the note.”

Then, at 2:30 p.m. Monday, after an initial failed attempt to find a fingerprint match, the state police got a hit in their database: Ross’ fingerprints from the 1999 DWI.

They also had determined that Ross had been “in the area of the Moreau Lake State Park around the time Charlotte went missing.”

By 4 p.m., even as State Police were putting out a news release asking for tips, special tactical teams from around the state were being flown into the area to prepare for a possible rescue, along with an FBI SWAT team. They had several possible locations where Ross was known to reside, but at 6:32 p.m., with helicopters overhead, those teams descended on Ross’ mother’s house — and the camper behind — in what they called a “dynamic entry.”

Ross struggled, receiving minor injuries, before officers were able to enter the camper. And there, inside a cabinet, was Charlotte.

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