Three Idaho children taken out of state by a Caldwell man suspected of child sexual abuse had no idea they were considered missing, in imminent danger and the focus of a search throughout the West.
They thought they were on an extended camping trip, the biological mother of two of the children said.
“They didn’t know what was going on,” said Caldwell resident Natalie Benson, whose older brother, Jesse Dunn, is the adoptive dad of Louie Dunn, 10, and Kaylee Dunn, 9.
The children were at a campground near Vail, Colo., on Saturday when police descended to arrest the adults who transported them there: Sarah Joy VanOcker-Dunn and Jason “Travis” Simon.
“My daughter said today that it was scary when the police came into camp,” Benson said Tuesday. “It’s going to be a recovery process ... The kids are home, and they know they’re safe and loved.”
She said Kaydn Simon, 6, is also back home and in the custody of his grandparents. A big belated birthday celebration is planned next weekend for the Dunn children, both of whom were born in early June (Louie’s birthday was June 3, Kaylee’s June 12).
“They’re super-excited,” Benson said. “They want everybody to come who has supported us and helped bring them back to Idaho.”
VanOcker-Dunn, 36, and Simon, 37, are being held on warrants in the Summit County Jail in Colorado. Police believe the pair left Idaho with the children because detectives wanted to talk to Simon in connection with a child pornography investigation.
Simon has been charged with felony sexual abuse of a minor under 16, according to online court records. VanOcker-Dunn has been charged with felony custodial interference.
The charge against Simon was the result of an investigation that began in late May, after someone contacted the Ada County Sheriff’s Office with evidence Simon was producing child pornography.
Police said Jesse Dunn’s ex-wife did not tell him that she and Simon planned to leave the state with the children. The Caldwell father found out when police asked whether he knew the whereabouts of Simon.
“Police notified Jesse, thinking he’d know where they were,” his sister said. “My brother contacted me the morning he found out, two weeks ago.”
She said they sought an Amber Alert but were denied several times over a week and a half of pushing for one. An alert was issued following a protest at the Capitol and meeting with Gov. Butch Otter.
“That’s going to be one of our main goals — to adjust the criteria for an Amber Alert. It’s so messed up,” Benson said.
Caldwell Police Sgt. Damon Rice told the Statesman that his department made multiple efforts to issue an Amber Alert but were told the incident didn’t qualify.
Idaho State Police is the agency in Idaho that decides whether to issue an alert. ISP spokeswoman Teresa Baker said Tuesday that the case did not meet several criteria for an alert because the children were with a custodial parent (not considered “abducted”), the incident didn’t occur within the prior 12 hours and, initially, no evidence was provided that the children were in imminent danger.
“Information was not conveyed to ISP regarding the circumstances of this case, and we did not receive an official request for an Amber Alert,” Baker said.
She said the circumstances in this case were unique and changing — and the alert was issued the same day that Caldwell police filed the official paperwork seeking one.
There are many custody disputes that do not qualify for an alert.
“The guidelines are established so that the public takes an alert seriously when they are issued,” Baker said.
CATCHING THE SUSPECTS
Rice said Tuesday that the Amber Alert is just one of many tools that law enforcement officials used in this case — and it’s not the one that resulted in finding the children, he noted.
“All my faith isn’t in the Amber Alert,” he said. “I think it’s a great tool.”
Police were able to track the movements of Simon and VanOcker-Dunn through financial card transactions, and they notified authorities, the media and the public in myriad ways to get the word out.
The couple bought camping equipment in Emmett and later used ATMs or made purchases near Eureka, Calif., in Sparks, Nev., and finally in Frisco, Colo.
Rice said the information about Simon and VanOcker-Dunn using a credit card in Frisco was shared with Colorado State Patrol. A trooper in nearby Eagle County who heard that information in a weekend briefing went to check camp sites.
“While he was checking, he found the van,” Rice said, reading from a report about the incident. “It was unoccupied, so he talked to some campers ... They were farther off the beaten path.
“That’s old-fashioned police work.”
Joe Decker, a spokesman for the Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office, said Tuesday that the county is waiting to hear whether or not Simon and VanOcker-Dunn will waive their right to an extradition hearing. If they do, they can be transported back to Idaho to face charges.