Missing girl’s rescue in upstate New York came as pivotal hours ticked by

Published: Oct. 3, 2023 at 5:31 AM HST|Updated: Oct. 3, 2023 at 3:49 PM HST
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MOREAU, N.Y. (AP) — An agonizing 34 hours had passed since 9-year-old Charlotte Sena disappeared from an upstate New York campground when police got the break they needed to bring the girl home safely.

At 4:20 a.m. Monday, a vehicle pulled up to the family’s home a short drive away from the campground, and the driver exited in the darkness to place a ransom note in the mailbox. Law enforcement had been guarding the little girl’s home and watched the scene unfold.

The officers rushed to the mailbox, investigators quickly isolated fingerprints, and within hours were running them through a New York state database. The first try turned up nothing. Then came a second, connecting the print to the suspect and his white camper parked next to a doublewide trailer two miles away.

Some 20 officers from a state police special operations unit and FBI SWAT team descended on the camper, arresting suspect, 46-year-old Craig Ross Jr., and finding the girl in a cabinet.

“The hit came at 2:30 in the afternoon,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference.

The fingerprint belonged to Ross, who had been stopped for drunken driving in Saratoga in 1999, Hochul said.

Ross’ vehicle was registered to an address just two miles from the Sena home in Greenfield. But it was his mother’s property about 10 miles away in Ballston Spa, the site of a doublewide trailer with a white camper parked off to the side, that rescuers targeted.

Law enforcement officials, some with their guns drawn, moved in for the raid at 6:30 p.m. Monday. There was shouting and loud bangs and flashes of light.

“My first thought was, like, is this a drug bust? Because in my wildest, wildest dreams, it couldn’t have been that,” said Carol Brown, 61, a neighbor who lives down the street. “It is just unbelievable that this person lived on my street.”

Then the girl emerged from the camper wrapped in a towel, escorted by police, one neighbor said. The raid came right about at the 48-hour mark of Charlotte’s disappearance, a critical time in the search for any missing child.

“As each hour went on, hope faded because we all know the stories,” Hochul said after the rescue. “The first 24 hours, there’s hope. But when you hit 48 hours, hope starts to wane. When Charlotte disappeared in Moreau State Park, it was every parent’s worst nightmare.”

Ross resisted capture and suffered minor injuries, police said. Charlotte appeared physically unharmed.

“She knew she was being rescued. She knew that she was in safe hands,” Hochul said.

The family was immediately notified and reunited at the hospital where Charlotte was taken.

“We are thrilled that she is home and we understand that the outcome is not what every family gets,” the girl’s family said in a statement Tuesday, WRGB in Albany reported.

Parents David and Trisha Sena had braced for another day combing Moreau Lake State Park in Ganesvoort for their middle daughter. Charlotte had pulled a gray bike helmet over her blonde hair and rode off on her bike Saturday afternoon, black Crocs on her feet and wearing an orange tie-dye Pokemon shirt. She was doing loops around a bike path with two friends around 6:15 p.m. when she vanished while taking one last lap on her own.

Ross was arraigned overnight in town court in Milton, New York, on a charge of first-degree kidnapping. He was being held without bail at the Saratoga County Correctional Facility.

Police said more charges are expected.

A message seeking comment was left with the Saratoga County Public Defender’s Office, which represented Ross at his arraignment.

Investigators had not determined Tuesday whether the suspect and family were connected in any way.

Once Charlotte was safe, the family sent “a huge thank you to the FBI, the New York State police, all of the agencies that were mobilized, all of the families, friends, community, neighbors and hundreds of volunteers who supported us and worked tirelessly to bring Charlotte home.”

It was an ending the governor, with each passing hour, had worried would not happen.