WILLMAR — When a 10-year-old Willmar girl was found safe at a friend's home Thursday morning, it was the best ending the Willmar Police Department could have hoped for after an all-night search for the child reported missing the night before.
"We didn't now what had happened to her," said Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt.
Police were notified at about 9 p.m. Wednesday that Jahayra Michell DelaCruz was missing. Family had noticed her gone at about 4:30 p.m. and had searched for the girl on their own for a few hours. Felt said a larger call for assistance went out at about 11 p.m., when the first responding officers decided more help was needed.
"Everything goes through your mind" about what might have happened to her, Felt said, including abduction, drowning or getting lost in a cornfield.
The search ended happily about 9 a.m. Thursday: "It was an unplanned and unapproved sleepover," Felt said.
The family who was hosting DelaCruz notified police once they saw the social media posts about her disappearance, Felt said. The girl was found safe, unharmed and is now back with her family.
The search began around the 400 block of 30th Street Northwest, near an apartment building that overlooks Foot Lake in the rear. Police officers were joined by members of the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office, the Kandiyohi County Rescue Squad and the Willmar Fire Department.
Because the lake was so close to where the girl was was last seen, a portion of the lake was searched, Felt said. The Kandiyohi County Rescue Squad searched the weedy, marshy water near shore, while a police dog searched the shore. A drone, with thermal technology, was also used.
Police searched the surrounding neighborhood in their squad vehicles.
"We did every area we could with the thermal imagery in the squads," Felt said. The Willmar Fire Department provided handheld thermal imagery equipment, so searchers could go through other areas a vehicle couldn't get to, Felt added.
The apartment building was searched, including vacant units. Law enforcement also looked at vehicles parked around the building.
"The weather at least was decent," Felt said.
Early Thursday morning the Willmar Police Department posted information about DelaCruz on Facebook and Twitter.
The department also used the Everbridge mass notification system, sending text messages and voicemails to people signed up for the service in the city of Willmar and Dovre Township. An Amber Alert, a national notification, was not used because those are only for children abducted, and there was no evidence of that, Felt said.
The social media and Everbridge notifications helped bring closure to the search. The Facebook post alone was viewed more than 110,000 times, Felt said.
"The quick resolution of this was due to social media and Everbridge," Felt said.
A resident, who saw the social media posts, called the Police Department letting them know they had seen the girl walking through their yard. She even petted their dog, Felt said. He said this call gave the searchers a direction to look.
When the call came in that DelaCruz was safe, Felt said a meeting was underway about next steps, which could have included having SWAT members, who were scheduled for a training day Thursday, and the Community Emergency Response Team assist with the search, including going door to door, Felt said.
Despite the time, manpower and equipment used in the search, there will be no attempt to recoup the costs, Felt said, because it was just a little girl wandering off.
"We're just thankful everything turned out well and that she is back home safe," Felt said.