Within 15 minutes on that warm December afternoon, everyone knew Jacob’s name.
It was the day he disappeared.
We had been returning to Periwinkle Park from the beach when we ran into Jon. He raced toward us on a bicycle and seemed quite upset.
“Have you seen my son? He’s riding a blue bike.”
Eric glanced quickly at me and back to Jon. “No. We didn’t see any kids. What’s his name? How old is he?”
“Jacob. He’s five. He knows he’s not supposed to leave the park.” Jon turned his bike toward the back gate.
“We’ll get on our bikes and look for him,” Eric shouted.
Jon glanced back at us, “Thanks!” And sped away.
Periwinkle Park is a gated community dotted with palm and coconut trees, near the white, shell-covered beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida. It is a curious mix of tent-camping spaces, RV sites, mobile homes, and a bird sanctuary. I never thought of Sanibel Island, or the park, as a place that might be dangerous. Until the day Jacob went missing.
We hurried back to our little shack, grabbed our cell phones, and rushed off on Rosey and Buttercup, our bicycles, in different directions.
Eric looked back at me and shouted, “do you have Jon’s number?”
“No. But I have yours,” I replied and rode off over the crusty limestone gravel and shell hash.
We pedaled through each winding road in the park. The chain turned; the tires spun in time with my thoughts which circled around the name Andy Amato. Little Andy, only four years old, lived near my hometown. He was last seen following his older sister and her friend into the woods near their home in 1978. Only his toy Weeble was ever found. Jacob would not be like Andy. He couldn’t. I pedaled faster, eyes scanning the surroundings.
I scoured each driveway, parking space, and square foot of lawn, searching for any trace of the missing little boy. Nothing. Until the Phaeton RV at site 227. There, leaning against the electric hookup, was a small blue bicycle with white training wheels. I called Eric immediately.
“Does Jacob’s bike have training wheels?”
“I don’t know. Where are you?”
“I saw a little blue bike at site 227.”
“Ok. I’m almost there now. I see it. I’ll call Jon.”
But the bike was not Jacob’s.
When I exhausted each corner of the park I joined a large group of resident searchers, expanding by the minute, who had gathered outside of Jon’s residence. One woman asked, “has anyone heard anything?” Mumbles of no, nope, not me, filtered through the group. I asked about the blue bike. “He doesn’t use training wheels” one of the men said. “The police are on their way,” someone else offered.
The police. Suddenly I was three years old, and watching the police in my parent’s driveway,. Decades ago, when the whole town was searching for my sister Louise. Louise never came home.
The sun sank toward the horizon along with the hope that Jacob was still in the park. If I were five years old and taking off on an adventure, where would I go? Buttercup and I headed out of the park, toward the twinkle lights on the bike path.
After pedaling for about 10 minutes, my phone rang. I glanced at the screen. It was Eric. My heart paused, “Did they find him?”
“Yes,” he said. “He was at a friend’s house.”
“Oh, thank God.” I began breathing again. Jacob was fine. I was grateful for all his parents would not have to endure.
In 2020, 30,396 juveniles (under the age of 18) were reported missing in the United States alone. 8% of those cases remained open at the end of the year. Some, like little Andy Amato, were never found.
Although Jacob's story had a happy ending, it is a powerful reminder of how things can change in an instant.
At the close of 2021, Jacob’s story is a reminder to be vigilant. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “When recovering a missing child, the most important tools for law enforcement are an up-to-date, quality photograph and descriptive information.” Please consider one of your resolutions to complete a Child ID kit for your children. Set a reminder to update it every six months.
All my love and best wishes to you and your family for another year of happiness, celebrations, and watching your loved ones grow. Cherish each moment.