Middle school can be a difficult time, especially for girls, said Christina, 47. “Allie was struggling with the normal issues of being a teenager. I remember being miserable at that age.”
Allie found the suburbs boring, and her parents weren’t surprised when police learned two days into the search that she had taken a Peter Pan bus to New York. They often visited Tony’s family in Brooklyn and Allie loved going, but she had never taken the bus alone.
After a few days of not hearing from her, Tony, who had been laid off from his job three weeks earlier, headed to New York. Christina stayed behind; she works in human resources for TJX Cos. in Framingham, and wanted to monitor the Facebook page.
The couple learned that 99 percent of runaways come home, half within a week. But when a week passed with no sign of Allie, their fear grew.
Going to New York was therapeutic for Tony. Wayland Police Detective Ruth Backman suggested that he go and get Allie’s story and photo in the public eye.
“We were all just hoping someone would see something and would pick up the phone,” said Backman. “It was a long 12 days, but I think the social media piece certainly made it easier to get the word out.”
Tapping networks for help
At first, the New York City police told Tony they didn’t handle runaways.
“They said thousands of kids run away to New York, that she hadn’t been gone that long, and they had no proof she was in the city,” he recalled.
The New York television stations told him they didn’t cover runaways, either. And that’s where Tony’s connections, personal and virtual, kicked in. Friends used contacts in New York to get posters of Allie put in the security department of every library in Manhattan. A poker buddy of Tony’s knew a district manager for Starbucks, who put her poster in several of his Manhattan franchises.
Meanwhile, the Facebook page and Tony’s tweets were attracting thousands of followers and responses. A friend of his knew someone at the Huffington Post, which ran a short piece on Allie’s disappearance. E-mail chains began, with people sending the story out to all their contacts, and asking them to forward it.
When the New York Daily News picked up the story, Tony said TV reporters reconsidered it. He was interviewed on four stations, including a three-minute live interview on Nov. 16 — 12 days after Allie’s disappearance. He spoke of his upcoming birthday, and Thanksgiving, and what a gift it would be to have his daughter home.
“Some guy saw me on TV, recognized Allie, and called the New York City Police Department,” Tony said. “The tipster mentioned that this was a neighborhood where people didn’t snitch, but he did anyway.”
Within hours, police went to a Jersey City address and arrested Jorge Luis Garzon, who was charged with kidnapping, child endangerment, and other offenses. He pleaded guilty and is serving a five-year sentence.
As for Tony and Christina, they reunited with their daughter at the Jersey City police station. By the time Christina drove from Wayland, Allie had fallen asleep in a chair. Mother and daughter hugged quietly for a long time.
“It was as joyful and as painful as anyone could imagine,” said Tony. “The police told us they had found her, but we could hardly believe it until we saw her.”
Helping other parents
“The New York City police told us that without social media, we would not have found her,” Tony said. A TV reporter told him, “We’re covering this because Twitter has blown up on this.”
Wendy Jolley-Kabi, president of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children’s Organizations, said the Loftises’ social media campaign to find Allie may help other parents.
“One of the hardest things for parents and for law enforcement is what can families do that is not a distraction, but a benefit,” she said. “The Loftises jumped right into the deep end and figured it out before anyone else had.”
The website (findyourmissingchild.org) and guidebook that Tony Loftis launched walks parents through both the social media and traditional media thicket, and tutors them on their message: This could happen to any family; our child is in danger and every minute matters; we need your help.
Loftis’s nonprofit plans to put out a video for parents and runaway youth organizations and eventually build a portal for parents, who would create their own social media profile. The portal would serve as a single search site for various social media outlets. He and Christina are holding home fund-raisers, have a silent auction online, and are seeking grants to sustain such projects.Continued...