LuCinda Michel’s harrowing night started with a phone call.
Around 3:45 Tuesday afternoon, Michel’s 12-year-old daughter, a student at Polson Middle School, called to say her twin sister wasn’t on the bus.
Checking with school officials failed to turn her up. “I tried calling her cell, (which) went straight to voicemail,” Michel remembered, so she checked her Facebook messages. “She left me a message around noon that didn’t sound right. It was like, ‘Bye Mom, I love you forever.’”
So began a frantic sweep of the Mission Valley for Michel’s daughter and four other preteen girls, possibly lured off their bus by a social media challenge.
In recent years, police departments have been warning parents about Facebook games in which young people try to disappear for 24, 48 or 72 hours, and score points based on how many times news of their disappearance gets shared.
Unlike many missing-persons stories, this one has a happy ending: All five were safely recovered that night. That, Michel said, was because she and other parents acted quickly.
“If I thought, ‘Oh, she’ll call me later,’ we probably would still be looking for them.”
Instead, upon learning that her daughter wasn’t on the bus as normal, Michel checked in with Polson School District staff. They couldn’t find her. But, she said, a bus driver remembered dropping off a group of girls at the intersection of Minesinger Trail and U.S. 93, on the highway’s east side about 2 miles north of Pablo. (Because the five runaways have been found, and are minors, the Missoulian has withheld their names to protect their privacy.)
After trying to call her daughter, and seeing her last, chilling Facebook message, Michel said, “I waited for her twin sister to get off the bus and we came to Pablo to look for her.”
The Flathead Tribal Police department led the investigation. In recent months, its officers have stressed the importance of quick reporting in missing-persons cases.
“Once they are missing, I need to know about it,” said Capt. Louis Fiddler, who explained that a parent or guardian needs to sign an official missing-person form, allowing officers to enter him or her into a national database and begin the search.
In the wake of a hectic night, it remained unclear how many parents completed this crucial step. Fiddler said a form had only been filled out for one of the five missing persons. But both Michel and another mother, Letitia Kallowat, remember notifying tribal police within an hour of realizing that their daughters were missing. By 9 p.m. three of the five missing girls were listed in the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
Overall, though, Fiddler said that “their parents were super-responsive last night.”
By early evening, the parents had found each other through text messaging and social media, and established that five had gone missing. “And from there we just started looking from Pablo to Missoula,” Michel remembered.
The Lake County Sheriff's Office and Tribal Fish and Game wardens joined the search. While some of the adults hit the road, others turned to cyberspace. “We posted on Facebook that we couldn’t find them, and people started pouring in tips and suggestions,” Kallowat said.
As the hours went by, the rumors became ominous. They heard that the girls had been picked up by one of their fathers, believed to be armed and dangerous, and were headed south. A tip that they were near Missoula International Airport drew officers there into the search.
As the police, parents and others chased these leads, they kept trying to get through to their daughters’ phones. Finally, around 8 p.m., Michael Tenas noticed that his daughter’s iPhone had come back on — meaning he could track it through the “Find my iPhone” app.
“He was able to ping it and track their location to Mud Lake Trail,” another road that branches off the east side of U.S. 93 north of Pablo, Michel said. Once he spotted the group, he took off on foot — only to see them flee.
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Then, they finally called their parents.
“One of the girls had gotten scared and called her mom and said, 'This crazy guy is chasing us through a field, come get us,' not knowing it was one of the fathers,” Michel said.
The daughter was Kallowat’s, who said she was “freaking out.” Having finally gotten in touch with the group, Kallowat was able to meet them and pick them up — at a spot just about 1.5 miles from where they had gotten off the bus hours earlier.
"I kind of sat there and honked and honked and honked until they could find me," she said.
“I cried” upon learning that they were safe, Michel said.
Later, they figured out that after getting off the school bus, the girls had taken a looping, miles-long walk through the fields and woods east of U.S. 93, supplied with just some sunflower seeds and a few blankets.
Their parents and the police blame social media.
“To me, it sounds like they were trying to do the 24-hour challenge,” said Kallowat, adding that her daughter disputes this explanation. The challenge is not believed to have been a factor in the cases of two other local runaways last week.
It's a very dangerous game, Capt. Fiddler warned. “The people that are considering it need to know about the dangers that are out there, the people that are actually putting the juveniles in danger — with drugs or alcohol or sex trafficking. That’s a real thing in our area.”
Residents of the Flathead Indian Reservation know this all too well. Last summer, resident Jermain Charlo vanished from Missoula and remains missing. Her case, activists say, is part of a nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
LuCinda Michel’s in tune with this situation. She and her daughter have even joined Marita Growing Thunder’s annual cross-reservation walks to raise awareness of the issue. “My daughter knows Jermain, knows what happened,” she said. “I told her, 'Not only are there adults out there that hurt kids, they enjoy hurting kids. You could be gone forever.'”
But “they’re 12 and 13,” she said of the girls. “I don’t think they were mature enough in their brains to realize what happened with them.”
Once they were found safe, it was time for some tough love. Tribal police, after consulting with the parents, handcuffed the girls, drove them back in separate squad cars, cited them for running away, detained them for about an hour and talked to them about what they had done.
That was what they needed, Kallowat said. “I think they handled it great. They weren’t too aggressive, but they were stern in letting them know how serious it was.” Michel agrees. “I really, really appreciate the tribal police department and all they’ve done. … They were appropriate in their talk, they brought it down to these girls’ age level.”
After the police were done, the parents dispensed their own justice. “When I picked her up, I took her iPhone away. All the other parents were grabbing phones, too,” said Michel. A caregiver with the Tribal Elders Program, she also plans to have her daughter face the Kootenai Elders Committee next month, and accept whatever further discipline they deem fit.
“I believe in traditional punishment, and I think having the Kootenai elders talk to her will help,” she said.
Other parents, she said, can also take a lesson from her search: When something seems wrong, don’t hesitate.
“Trust your gut. If I would’ve waited, who knows if we would’ve found them.”