Tristyn, Somer, HaLeigh, Mark, Bryan: Florida honors local abducted, missing children

Grieving families, police, and state leaders got together to honor Florida children who were killed and shine lights on the cases of children who disappeared.

Grieving families, police, and state leaders got together to honor Florida children who were killed and shine lights on the cases of children who disappeared.

On Monday morning, state leaders recognized Florida Missing Children’s Day with a ceremony in at the Capitol. The list of local cases continues to grow with their family members there for the sad occasion.

“We remember the children who have been taken and those who are still missing,” said Mike Phillips, the special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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Families and friends remembered the children abducted and killed.

Tristyn Bailey, 13, was a beloved St. Johns County cheerleader. Her schoolmate is charged with her death. Her parents joined other grieving families, honoring their loved ones.

“We appreciate Gov. [Ron] DeSantis, Florida Missing Children’s Day Foundation and FDLE for including us today,” her parents said in a statement to News4JAX. “Today’s ceremony serves as a reminder of how fortunate we were to have the swift action of our community and the Saint Johns Sheriff’s Office. We pray for the return for those children still missing and encourage Jacksonville viewers to be vigilant.”

“It’s a bittersweet, bittersweet day,” said Diena Thompson. “Just seeing all the pictures and knowing that you know exactly how those other families feel.”

Thompson knows the drill all too well. She’s been going since someone kidnapped and murdered her 7-year-old Somer in Orange Park in 2009. Her killer is serving life in prison.

“You get to be around people who truly understand what you’re going through,” Thompson added. “And until you’ve gone through this, you know, you just can’t understand it, you can’t understand a particular set of circumstances until you yourself have walked in those shoes.”

Last year, Florida police fielded more than 25,000 missing children incidents with 48 missing child alerts and 10 Amber alerts, the FDLE reported.

A big focus is on the children who have not been found — their families waiting painfully for answers and some sort of justice.

Tiffany Sessions, 20, went missing from the University of Florida in 1989.

HaLeigh Cummings was a Putnam County 5-year-old who vanished in 2009 without a trace. Her family got worldwide attention, but still no closure.

“Today, we honor Florida’s children who were cruelly taken from us and the ones who have not yet come home,” said Mark Glass, FDLE commissioner. “We honor their memories, and we reaffirm our promise that we will never abandon the search for them. I promise you that.”

Another local mystery that’s still unsolved is the disappearance of Mark Degner and Bryan Hayes. The 12- and 13-year-old haven’t been spotted since leaving Jacksonville’s Paxon Middle School in 2005. Their families continue to push for answers.

If you have information about any of these cases, call local police or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

To see a current list of Amber Alert cases, visit: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentAlerts.asp. A current list of Missing Child Alert cases can be found here: http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/MCICSearch/CurrentMCAlerts.asp.

The state also recognized the law enforcement officers who made a difference, those who’ve helped prevent kidnappings and find missing children:

Evelyn Williams Memorial Award

Investigator Kevin Allen, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office

Kevin Allen investigates missing children and adults, unidentified human remains and unsolved homicides. He was the lead investigator in two cases that resulted in the convictions of two serial killers, one case involving children. He has also spent countless hours working to identify unidentified remains, locating missing persons or their remains, and working leads in multiple cold cases. His efforts contribute greatly to the safety of Florida’s children.

Commissioner’s Award

Cass Castillo, Assistant Statewide Prosecutor, Office of Attorney General Ashley Moody

When remains are never recovered, cases can be very difficult to prosecute, but where others decline, Cass Castillo meets this challenge head-on. Representing lost women and children, his efforts resulted in the successful conviction of two Florida serial killers despite the homicide victims’ remains never being found.

John and Revé Walsh Award

Florida Highway Patrol, Troop A

The Florida Highway Patrol’s Troop A, in the Florida Panhandle, demonstrates outstanding dedication in keeping children safe. From reducing the response time to calls regarding missing and endangered children to off-duty assistance to the direct recovery of missing children and human trafficking victims, Troop A demonstrates a commitment to protecting children and investigating suspects who would do them harm.

Citizen of the Year

Robin Hudak, Tampa Bay Regional Communications Center

In March 2022, the Tampa Bay Regional Communications Center received a phone call regarding a non-custodial parental abducting three children ages 6, 7 and 8 without authorization. When it was discovered the children were on I-75 heading north, Duty Officer Hudak immediately contacted all available units to respond and issued a BOLO.

When the suspect’s vehicle left Hudak’s jurisdiction, she stayed on the line with the family to assist law enforcement. The suspect and children were found a Marion County rest area. The children were found safe and the suspect was taken into custody. The entire incident lasted approximately an hour. Hudak’s relentless search for information and communication with the custodial parent resulted in a successful recovery.

Combatting Human Trafficking Award

Detectives Zoila Exclusa and Ingrid Ruiz, North Miami Beach Police Department

On the evening of Saturday, November 27, 2021, Detectives Exclusa and Ruiz were called to investigate a missing 15-year-old female who met someone online. The juvenile left willingly with an unidentified male. The next day, the juvenile called her mother crying before her phone was turned off. The detectives contacted the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Task Force, and the child and suspect were located in Pennsylvania. The detectives flew to Pennsylvania to escort the victim back to Florida. They also held a press conference with Spanish media providing a warning to other juveniles and parents about online safety. Without the detectives’ investigation and request for FBI intervention, the victim may not have been recovered safely and may have been trafficked. The juvenile was reunited with her mother within 72 hours of the detectives’ involvement.

Local Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award

Agent Aja Stake, Brevard County Sheriff’s Office

In June 2021, Agent Stake received a cybertip forwarded from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) indicating a Brevard County man was abusing his 5-year-old daughter to produce and share images and videos of child sexual abuse.

Agent Stake immediately determined the child was in a safe location and then obtained the father’s confession regarding the sexual abuse and the distribution of child sexual abuse material on social media platforms. Her immediate action resulted in the father’s arrest on federal charges within five hours of receiving the tip.

State Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award

Trooper David Cox, Florida Highway Patrol

While patrolling in January 2021, Trooper Cox received a BOLO for a vehicle involved in the abduction of a 5-month-old child. The suspect was reportedly armed and possibly leaving Florida. Trooper Cox located the vehicle at a gas station attempting to refuel. In an unmarked vehicle, he pulled up to the gas pump behind the suspect’s vehicle and, using the element of surprise, arrested the suspect. With backup units arriving, Trooper Cox was able to identify a female suspect, and more importantly, the child in an unrestrained car seat. His actions avoided a high-speed car chase and potential injuries to civilians, and the child was recovered safely.

Jimmy Ryce K-9 Trailing Team of the Year

Deputy Jarvey Mesina-Berman and K-9 Ryley, Broward County Sheriff’s Office

Deputy Mesina-Berman and K-9 Ryley responded to a report of a missing juvenile with autism. The team tracked the juvenile for approximately a mile and a half before K-9 Ryley indicated the juvenile turned and crossed an eight-lane roadway with a large center median. The pair continued tracking the child and found the juvenile near an auto repair business. The team displayed outstanding professionalism and tenacity which resulted in the safe recovery of a child with autism.

Law Enforcement Task Force of the Year

Polk County Sheriff’s Office Task Force

In September 2021, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigation revealed two males were sexually abusing their children who were all under the age of 12. The investigation revealed that the mother of one of the children (a daycare worker) was aiding and covering for one of the males. This team’s efforts resulted in multiple charges against four people. The two male suspects were arrested for child pornography, lewd or lascivious molestation, capital sexual battery of a child, use of a child in sexual performance, and promoting sexual performance by a child. The victim’s mother was charged with aiding the suspect and obstructing the investigation. A local daycare owner where the child victim attended was arrested for accessory after the fact as she provided aid to the suspect to avoid capture by law enforcement.

Bus Operator of the Year

Stacey Kelly and Artavia Mann, Miami-Dade County Schools

Kelly finished dropping off her last student for the day on her assigned Miami-Dade County route when she saw a toddler standing alone in the street with no shoes. Mann stopped the bus immediately and retrieved the child. After parking in a safe location, the two women started looking around for someone that was searching for a toddler. No one was immediately located, and they contacted 911. The street where the child was found was a very busy area for traffic, and the toddler’s safety was in jeopardy. These two women ensured the safety of this child.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.