LAKE CITY, Fla. - A 17-year-old high school student who was the center of a nationwide search after she took off from Columbia County with a 27-year-old soccer coach last week appeared at a news conference Monday afternoon flanked by her relieved parents.
Caitlyn Frisina was found safe Friday evening in Syracuse, New York, with Rian Rodriguez, who was arrested on a charge of interference with child custody, a third-degree felony.
Caitlyn's mother, Scarlet Frisina, spoke on behalf of her family Monday, thanking the Lake City community, the media and law enforcement for their efforts to safely return her daughter.
“We are so appreciative for the role that each and every one played in helping with her safe and speedy recovery,” Frisina said as Caitlyn clung to her father's arm nearby. “We are already taking steps toward rebuilding our lives after such an emotional week. It will be through many prayers and conversations and counseling that we are able to move forward, and by lots of grace and love that we will heal.”
Frisina asked for privacy for her family as they continue that healing process, adding that they are looking forward to “a very merry Christmas and an extremely bright future for Caitlyn.”
Columbia County authorities said at the news conference that Rodriguez might face additional charges, but that decision would be made by the State Attorney's Office. He waived his right to an extradition hearing Monday, agreeing to be returned to Florida from New York.
Sheriff Mark Hunter said he respected Caitlyn for appearing Monday at the news conference with her parents.
“I'm very proud of her that she did come and understands that this is a big deal,” Hunter said. “She's got a lot of growing up to do even though she's a very strong young lady, and a very good young lady.”
Hunter acknowledged that Caitlyn went willingly with Rodriguez when the two left Florida, but said he believed she was influenced by Rodriguez, who, as a coach at her high school, was someone in a position of control over her.
“That shouldn't be,” Hunter said.
Hunter said a sharp-eyed New York state trooper spotted the car Caitlyn and Rodriguez were traveling in as he was headed home from a shift spent working on a task force that was looking for the pair.
Caitlyn was reunited with her parents Saturday in Syracuse. They returned to Florida sometime Sunday.
According to Sgt. Murray Smith, with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, it appears Rodriguez began a relationship with Caitlyn in August or September.
In early August, a suspicion of an inappropriate relationship was brought to the attention of Caitlyn's parents and law enforcement, but an investigation turned up nothing founded, Smith said.
“This is an excellent example of something that starts out and doesn't meet the criteria of a criminal investigation can quickly balloon into something that's out of control,” Smith said, encouraging parents to remain involved with their children as much as possible. “You really can't be overly protective when it comes to your children.”
Smith said Rodriguez was vetted before being hired as a soccer coach for Fort White High School and by all accounts was an upstanding young man, which underscores the need to be cautious with anyone involved a child's life.
“I spent time with this family. They seem like a really good, solid family, so if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone,” Smith said. “Know who your kids are around.”
A friend of Caitlyn's said the 17-year-old soccer player was in a relationship with Rodriguez, who she took off with a little less than a week before she was found, but that she did not want to leave the country with him and didn't know what to do, according to court documents.
The records detail a conversation Caitlyn had with the friend. According to the friend, Caitlyn said the two were planning to leave and she (Caitlyn) didn’t know how to get out of going. Caitlyn told her friend that if she did get out of going, Rodriguez said he would “mess up her life,” according to Rodriguez’s arrest report.
Caitlyn told her friend that she was "scared and didn’t know what to do," police said.
“When she made contact with her parents, she was very relieved that her parents knew she was well,” Smith said. “She was also very emotional, as you can imagine, and regretful for some of the decisions she'd made.”
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