Missing Child Found Unharmed
By MALENA OGLES
LINDALE - For 13 long hours, emergency workers scoured thick woods for an 11-year-old girl who disappeared from her home Wednesday evening as family paced between their house and mobile command center, bleary-eyed and praying for a miracle.
It was close to 7:30 p.m. "Super Nanny" was on TV and Rachel Stevens was in the kitchen cooking dinner after giving her niece Celeste Robinson, an autism patient, her evening medication.
At 8 p.m., when the house was too quiet for comfort, Mrs. Stevens went into Celeste's room -she wasn't there. Worried, she checked the backyard.
Still, Celeste was nowhere to be found.
"Last week was spring break and she was just getting more and more bored. Autistic children get in manic episodes. She may have decided to take a walk about while I was getting dinner," Mrs. Stevens said. Becoming increasingly more frantic, with no sign of Celeste's whereabouts, the little girl's aunt and legal guardian called more family members to help search.
"She has never gone this far before," Mrs. Stevens said.
On four-wheelers, neighbors and family scoured the 14-acre narrow strip of wooded land that stretched about a half mile behind the Stevens home on County Road 4122.
Flashlights cut through the darkness, the beams bobbing from bushes to inside parked cars and under sheds.
Then, almost as suddenly as Celeste had vanished, a neighbor, from atop a four-wheeler, spotted the little girl's black Mary Jane shoes in a creek bed.
The family had already called 911.
The Smith County Sheriff's Office K-9 unit used the girl's shoes for a scent, which they tracked into the woods. At around 10 p.m. they located her leotard a short distance from the shoes.
Temperatures outside dropped quickly as the sun vanished behind thick woods of pine. After finding the leotard and shoes, family knew Celeste's only protections from the elements were a nylon shirt, black broom skirt and matching hair bow.
"It's muddy down there. She might have got it (her leotard) dirty and taken it off," her grandfather, Hank Robinson, said as he paced in front of his daughter's blue mobile home waiting for news.
The dogs eventually lost the scent. The area was contaminated with multiple smells from family and neighbors searching on four-wheelers.
"When you've got an 11-year-old-girl missing that's an autistic patient you've gotta do what you can," said Lt. Larry Wigington with the Smith County Sheriff's Office. "The dogs did their jobs the best they can do. The family just wanted to find the child, which is the most important thing."
Outside the Stevens' 14 acres was another 300 where Celeste could have wandered. Creeks and ponds cover the property, heightening the urgency to find the little girl.
"Our greatest concern was that she might be in one of the creeks or ponds," Wigington said.
Texas Department of Public Safety helicopters came to the aid of deputies, searching the area from above with spotlights and thermal-imaging cameras.
Wednesday turned into Thursday and no one slept. Sheriff's deputies and Lindale firefighters, wearing heavy coats, took turns riding four-wheelers into the dense woods.
At 4 a.m., the temperatures had dropped to 37 degrees and rescue workers bundled in coats and holding coffee waited for their shifts to enter the woods.
The Salvation Army Disaster Response Unit parked on scene, providing space for rescue workers to warm and hydrate.
"It got to where we were not that productive. We were out of light and going from door to door checking homes and vehicles," Wigington said.
The family prayed for daylight.
"Her name's Celeste Angelee. It's short for celestial angel. She'll be okay. God watches over special children," her grandfather said, tears filling his eyes.
At 7 a.m., sun reflected off the street and white police cars warmed the rescue workers, who went over plans again as 50 cadets from the Alert Academy in Big Sandy filed out of a bus, ready to search. Organizers passed out pink and orange tape used as markers, and at 7:30 they lined up and tromped into the woods. About 40 minutes later, a call went over the police radio.
Alert Academy cadets found the girl awake, curled up on the ground and crying approximately 400 yards east of her home. Rescue workers placed her on a six-wheeler and sped from the woods to an ambulance that stood vigil all night by her house.
"I told you, the Lord watches over special children," her grandfather cried.
News of her find spread quickly across the makeshift camp in the middle of the county road and relief washed over tired faces of firefighters and sheriff's deputies.
"We're very pleased. This makes our job worthwhile. We have hearts too. We want to find these people, these little people alive," Wigington said. "It has been a long night and nobody gave up, and that's what it's all about."
Celeste returned to her home Thursday after she was checked over by hospital personnel. "She was cold, her legs were scratched and there were a few pricks under her feet, but she's okay," Ms. Stevens said.
"I'm so thankful for all those people who searched and prayed. They were amazing."