Missing girl, mother reunited on Kaua'i
LIHU'E, Kaua'i A mother and daughter separated for five years held a bittersweet reunion in the company of police and social workers last night bittersweet because the girl's father is in jail on charges associated with taking the child into hiding.
The mother, Elka Hoercher, caught a flight to Kaua'i yesterday from Florida, where she lives in Delray Beach. Upon her arrival on Kaua'i, state child welfare workers whisked her to an undisclosed location, and allowed her to see her daughter under supervision.
County public information officer Cyndi Ozaki said Child Protective Services officials would decide whether to release the girl into her mother's custody immediately or to wait until later.
The reunion came a day after Hoercher had spotted her daughter's e-mailed photograph among responses to a massive national mailout by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Delray Beach Lt. Tom Whatley said there was no question about the girl's identity Wednesday when he showed her mother the photo.
"A mom would know. When she saw this, she knew. She started screaming and nearly blew the roof off the room," Whatley said. .
By noon Wednesday on Kaua'i, police had pulled Angeline out of Kapa'a Elementary School for a phone call with her mother. They immediately recognized each other confirming that authorities had the right child. Angeline was turned over to Child Protective Services social workers.
Police waited at the school, and when Bryan arrived after school to pick up his daughter, they arrested him without incident.
He remains in the Kaua'i Police Department cellblock on federal charges of flight to avoid prosecution, although those charges may eventually be dropped if Florida extradites him on its own charges of parental kidnapping, a felony, and related counts, said Craig DeCosta, deputy Kaua'i County prosecuting attorney.
A request to interview the father in jail yesterday was denied. Whatley said Florida authorities definitely want Bryan back.
"We want to bring him back to Florida and make sure he will be prosecuted," Whatley said. "I'm hoping they throw the key away. But I know they won't do that."
For Whatley, finding the missing child and her father seemed like a cross between a long shot and a miracle, a 1-in-75,000,000 discovery. He had been working on the case "for a solid year" with little to go on but instincts and former addresses of Bryan's friends, who had all left Florida around the same time Bryan and the girl vanished.
But six weeks ago, Whatley persuaded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to arrange a massive mailout of 75 million fliers displaying a photo of Angeline D. Bryan-Hoercher. They were sent all over the country, although none was sent to Hawai'i.
Whatley got 350 responses in two weeks, none of them a match. When he thought he might not have recognized the child in those responses, that maybe he missed something crucial, he asked Hoercher to help review them again.
Then he received a call and an e-mailed photograph, although he won't say from where.
"This person called direct and said, 'You can put the rest of the photos down, this is it,' " Whatley said. "I looked at the photo and said, 'This is it.' "
He told Hoercher to come in an hour early.
Deborah Brady, of the center for missing children, said that the organization did not send its cards to Hawai'i, but that someone in a Western state made a connection.
"Somebody saw the card. When it hit Zone 5, which includes Colorado, Utah and all the way over to California, that is when we got the lead which pointed to Hawai'i and Kaua'i specifically.... Somebody saw the picture of the child, and there were some inquiries made," Brady said.
Whatley said that the case was a problem almost immediately after the child disappeared. None of Bryan's friends cooperated with police and they all moved away from Florida shortly after the girl's disappearance. One friend moved to Michigan, one to Tennessee and one to Hawai'i.
"Everybody was gone," Whatley said. He now believes that Bryan moved to Kaua'i late in 1998 and kept a below-the-radar lifestyle. Police do not think he ever got a regular job. Whatley said Bryan lived under the Jonny Lee alias and renamed his daughter Lana Lee.
It is possible that neither Bryan's girlfriend nor the child knew the circumstances of Angeline's separation from her mother.
"She was told by her dad that her mom had abandoned her when she was a baby," Whatley said. "He was telling people, including his girlfriend, that he was a single parent and the mother left the country and that she was a foreign national." (Elka Hoercher is from Germany, but she still lives in Florida.)
Kaua'i Deputy Police Chief Wilfred Ihu said it was difficult for him to celebrate the reunion because
of the underlying sadness from Angeline's perspective. A child who five years ago had lost touch with her mother has now regained her mother but has lost contact with the father.