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Preparing for the worse, training for the best

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Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2017 1:46 pm

~ Ava Gonzalez, 8, of Navasota, was walking to school Tuesday morning when she and “her brother” were approached by an unknown man. Scared, the children ran into the woods with the man in pursuit. Ava’s brother escaped and ran home to tell his mother what happened and she called the Navasota Police Department to report the witnessed abduction of Ava. ~

So began the Brazos Valley Child Abduction Response Team (BVCART) exercise Tuesday morning hosted by the Navasota Police Department.

According to Chief of Police Justin Leeth, there has not been an active abduction in Navasota since he joined the department, and he hopes it stays that way, but the exercise is “meant to prepare for the worst in a controlled environment.”

The morning training began with Ava Gonzalez, daughter of Dr. Ronnie Gonzalez Navasota ISD Assistant Superintendent, “stomping through the woods” to leave a scent trail for the K9 search and rescue dogs attached to BVCART.

“I also left a shirt and a ‘lovey’ stuffed animal for the dogs to find when they are searching for me,” said Ava, who spent the majority of the scenario safe and warm with her dad in the Navasota Center.

The “abductor,” Jason Hoveln, also laid a scent trail to represent the pursuit through the woods. Hoveln, is the newest cadet to the Navasota Police Department and will be attending the academy after the first of the year. He, too, spent the morning in the Navasota Center, which acted as the call center for the Amber Alert tip line, before being “arrested” at the Little League fields off Manley Street in Navasota.

The K9 and handler entered the woods surrounding the fields with a contingent of law enforcement personnel to do a search of the brush. Ava was told to stay still until she was “found” by the dog, who was rewarded by being able to play with his favorite toy. After an entire day of following leads and responding to scripted responses from each of the volunteers assigned to a specific role, Ava was found safe and sound a short distance from where Hoveln was “taken into custody.” Followed by her rescuers, Ava and her dad emerged from the woods to a round of applause for a job well done.


Why training is necessary

“Statistically, in child abduction cases where homicide is the outcome, the murder will take place within the first three hours, which is why BVCART is so critical,” said Chuck Fleeger, the president of the Amber Alert Network Brazos Valley and the assistant chief of the College Station Police Department.

According to Leeth and Fleeger, the majority of law enforcement agencies within the Brazos Valley do not have the resources or manpower that are necessary during an active child abduction scenario. While the hope is always for a speedy recovery of the child, many abduction cases can take days, weeks or even longer, putting a strain on local law enforcement and volunteer searchers.

“Abduction cases require specialized training and a lot of manpower,” said Fleeger. “By pooling our resources in BVCART and training in a controlled environment, we are able to respond more quickly and more efficiently.”

BVCART is a multi-agency, multi-discipline specialized team that was formed in 2000 for the express purpose of aiding and training the agencies within the seven-county area of the Brazos Valley. It is one of just 17 such teams certified by the Department of Justice. As the exercise continued through the day, 71 people from 22 different agencies had assigned tasks for each stage of the investigation.

“Everyone here has a purpose and a duty,” said Leeth. “We have investigators talking to witnesses and following up on leads, there are people manning the call center and relaying information to the necessary officers and we have searchers who handle dogs or conduct ground searches. There is even a legal component with agency attorneys, who are here in the event a legal question develops.”

Standing near the mobile command center, patches denoting Navasota PD, Grimes County SO, College Station PD, Brenham PD, Texas A&M University PD and a host of others were readily visible. In addition, there were representatives from the Grimes County Community Emergency Response Team and The Salvation Army aiding with rehab, or rest and relief, for the searchers and command center officers.

According to Leeth, Navasota has never been the host for such a large exercise, although BVCART does full scale training every two years using a different scenario each time.

“The work that goes into these training opportunities is extensive, but the information gained is invaluable,” said Leeth. “This allows us to find problem areas, before any real-life situations arise, and correct them. It allows us to train for the worst and develop those skills necessary to be effective in an abduction scenario.”

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