Police at first thought missing local children were runaways

WINSLOW, Arizona An Amber Alert wasn’t issued for two missing Belton children who were found with a truck driver in Winslow, Ariz., because police first thought the two might be runaways.

The 12-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl were reported missing on Friday.

They were found Saturday in the sleeper cab of an 18-wheeler.

The driver, Marshall Pendergrass, 47 of Jacksonville, Fla., was arrested.

Police said they determined the siblings had been held against their will.

"Initially when we received information that they were missing we conducted our investigation into the community looking for their whereabouts," Belton police Officer Daniel Aguierre said.

He says when the children's parents first reported them missing, their information was entered into the state and national database for missing people, but one of the children had run away before, so no Amber Alert was sent out.

However, the next day, things changed.

"We received information from the parents that they came across communications between a former (family) friend and their children and from that [Pendergrass] became our suspect," adds Aguierre.

Police say Pendergrass has no known criminal record, but after they tracked him all the way to Arizona, they decided against issuing an Amber Alert.

"If we were to send an Amber Alert out potentially he may have been tipped to the fact that we were tracking his location," Aguierre said.

"That may have compromised our investigation and made our job of locating him much more difficult."

The children were placed in the custody of the Arizona Department of Child Services where they were reported to be in good physical condition.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Winslow Criminal Investigations Division are work jointly working the case.

Pendergrass faces federal charges, authorities said.

Specific requirements are in place for issuing Amber Alerts.

The children named in the alert may be 17 or younger and must have been taken unwillingly.

If they’re 13 or younger, they may have been taken willingly or unwillingly without parental permission by someone unrelated who’s more than 3 years older than they are or taken by a parent or legal guardian who committed murder at the time of the abduction or be in immediate danger of sexual assault, death or serious bodily injury.

Police also have to determine that there is no other explanation for the child's disappearance and have enough information to give to the public.

Aguirre says that the department is pleased that even without the alert, the children were found safe.

"This could have been a tragic event, but working with the other departments, we were able to at least get these kids to a safe location where they're going to be all right,” he said.