Florida Missing Children’s Day Promotes Child Safety and Celebrates Heroes

Agency for Persons with Disabilities Communications Director Melanie Mowry Etters and Operations employees Jackie Shaffer and Christy Smiley joined hundreds of law enforcement personnel, public officials, and citizens for the 2018 Florida Missing Children’s Day ceremony in Tallahassee. First Lady Ann Scott, along with Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, led the annual event to remember Florida’s missing children, recognize the state’s efforts in child protection, and educate Floridians on child safety and abduction prevention.

In 2017, more than 32,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies, while 51 Missing Child Alerts and 10 AMBER Alerts were issued statewide. Since its inception, 224 AMBER Alerts have been issued, including six so far this year. Florida AMBER Alerts have directly aided in the rescue of 66 children.

Governor Rick Scott said, “It is so important to make the safety of Florida’s children a top priority in our state. Ann and I pray for each of the parents and loved ones of those who have gone through the unimaginable pain of missing a child. We also say a special prayer for our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day in order to protect our families.”

First Lady Ann Scott said, “As a parent and grandparent, Missing Children’s Day is a solemn reminder that no family should have to endure the heartache of a missing child. I pray for continued strength and healing for the families, and the safe return of the loved ones still separated from their families.”

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said, “The safety and security of Florida’s children continues to be a major priority for FDLE, as is the successful recovery of those who are missing. We are grateful for the efforts of our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners in keeping our children safe and apprehending those who would do them harm.”

During a formal ceremony, Commissioner Swearingen recognized citizens, canine trailing teams, and law enforcement officers for their exemplary efforts in missing children investigations.

The following individuals are recipients of the 2018 Florida Missing Children’s Day Awards:

Citizen of the Year
Winner: Malgorzata Mroz, Bradenton
Ms. Mroz was working at a hotel when she observed a very young girl enter with an older male who was showing signs of intimate affection. Ms. Mroz researched the man’s name on the internet and realized he was a registered sex offender out of North Carolina. She then alerted local law enforcement who responded and discovered the man was a 51-year-old sex offender (convicted of rape of a minor) who picked up a 17-year-old runaway at a truck-stop in Missouri. The child was taken into state custody and later returned to her family.

Combatting Human Trafficking Award
Winner: Bernadette Maher, Miami Beach Police Department
Detective Maher was responsible for 45% of the human trafficking arrests prosecuted by the State Attorney’s Office in Miami during 2017. Between January 2017 and April 2018, Detective Maher identified and arrested more than 40 pimps and human trafficking suspects, including several who were engaged in the prostitution and trafficking of underage victims.

Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Agent Mike Spadafora, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office
Agent Spadafora conducted a months-long online investigation into a suspect who said he wanted to sexually abuse children. After communicating with Agent Spadafora for several months, the suspect, who was residing outside of the United States, expressed a desire to travel to Brevard County to abuse a child he believed was in Spadafora’s custody. After liaising with Homeland Security Investigations, Agent Spadafora discovered that the suspect was an executive of a major European company, which allowed him to travel with ease and potentially abuse child victims across the globe. When Agent Spadafora picked the executive up from the airport, the suspect admitted his desire to sexually abuse the fictitious child and abusing other children. Upon entering Brevard County, the suspect was arrested and made a full confession. Six months later, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award
Winner: Trooper Matthew Finley, Florida Highway Patrol, Troop G
In June 2017, an AMBER Alert was issued for a 14-year-old girl who was taken from her home by an 18-year-old family friend without her parents’ consent. The suspect was attempting to take her to Alabama. While patrolling the northbound traffic in Columbia County, Trooper Finley observed a vehicle that matched the description provided in the AMBER Alert. After calling in the tag number and confirming it was the vehicle in question, Trooper Finley followed the car into Hamilton County and pulled the driver and five other occupants over. It was determined that the car’s tag was stolen as well. All adult passengers were arrested for petit theft and the family friend of the missing girl was arrested for interfering with custody. The 14-year-old girl was recovered safely inside the car.

Jimmy Ryce K9 Trailing Team of the Year
Winner: Deputy John Locklin and K9 Panzer, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office
The Altamonte Springs Police Department responded to a school in reference to a missing 10-year-old child who has autism who had wandered off campus. The child had been missing for about five minutes at the time of the call and had never previously left campus before. ASPD requested that a canine tracking team be dispatched to the area. Deputy John Locklin and K9 Panzer arrived on scene along with the Seminole County Sheriff Office Alert 1 helicopter, which always assists canine teams on the ground. A witness informed police that the child may have been walking toward the softball complex area. K9 Panzer was provided scent from the child’s backpack and placed on a southbound track near the complex while Alert 1 aircraft crew began to visually search the area in front of the projected tracking path. Using the scent trail and intel from the flight crew, Deputy Locklin and K9 Panzer made contact with and safely recovered the child in a wooded area nearby.

APD employees Christy Smiley (L) and Jackie Shaffer (R) pose with Seminole County Deputy John Locklin and Panzer at Missing Children’s Day in Tallahassee.