Alabama tot Julian Hernandez was in the legal custody of his mother when he disappeared, and while police suspected his father, Bobby Hernandez, kidnapped him as part of a “non-custodial parental abduction”, they were never able to figure out what exactly happened to the little boy. They knew Bobby had withdrawn cash from his accounts and fled the area, taking a number of Julian’s possessions with him. But as the missing persons case dragged on, hope faded the little boy would ever be found.
It wasn’t until 13 years later, when a young man 1100 kilometres away began applying for colleges, that a dark secret was uncovered.
Living under a different name in Cleveland, Ohio, the 18-year-old student realised there was a problem with his social security number when it failed to verify. With the help of a school counsellor, research lead them to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, where they found five-year-old Julian’s profile. The missing little boy was him.
The FBI was informed on October 30, and by Sunday afternoon, November 1, they made contact with the Vestavia Hills Police Department in Alabama.
“I got a call from an FBI office, they had a tip,” Lt. Johnny Evans from Vestavia Hills Police Department in Alabama, told news.com.au.
“They wanted to know if Julian was still missing. We did some checking, then Monday (November 2) we went and identified and located the person.”
Bobby Hernandez, 53, was arrested on the spot and charged with tampering records and interference in custody. He is accused of providing false information to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles in March 2012 to obtain a fake identification card.
He is being held on $250,000 bond in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and will face charges in Alabama over the abduction when he is extradited.
Prosecutors are expected to seek 10 years in jail.
“It’s quite an exciting event and it’s very rare, I’ve never seen this happen in my 25 years [in the force],” Lt. Johnny Evans, from Vestavia Hills Police Department in Alabama, told news.com.au.
Authorities notified Julian’s mother, who is said to be “estatic” about the discovery.
“That’s the reason you never give up and you keep looking,” Lt Evans said.
He told news.com.au is told the family “are doing OK”.
“They’re trying to get through the situation.
“It’s difficult for both sides, the child is told that he’s somebody he didn’t know who he was and the mum has to interact with someone she doesn’t know.”
“She was very happy that he had been found, quite ecstatic, but she was also somewhat hesitant because there had been so many false leads through the years,” he said.
When she reported him missing, she told police that Bobby Hernandez had come over to watch Julian, Evans said. He left her a note saying he had taken him and that was the last time she saw her son, Evans said. The two were not married, and police tried to locate Bobby Hernandez but couldn’t find an address, Evans said.
Officers received “hundreds of leads over the years of where he might be, from Florida to out of the country — Canada — and we followed up on every one of them, and they all turned out to be a dead end until I got the call Monday,” Evans said.
“What happens next, in part, will be up to Julian Hernandez.
“He is 18, he is an adult, so it’s kind of up to him now as to whether he wants to come back,” Evans said.
In a statement, Julian’s family appealed for privacy.
“Our family was overjoyed this week to locate Julian and learn that he is safe. We want to thank everyone for their prayers and support during Julian’s disappearance.
“Although we appreciate the interest our story has generated, we will have to decline any requests for interviews or additional information at this time. We ask that the media respect our privacy as we focus on Julian’s well-being during this difficult time in his life.”
When she reported him missing in 2002, she told police that Bobby Hernandez left her a note saying he had taken him and that was the last time she saw her son, Evans said. The two were not married, and police tried to locate Bobby but couldn’t find an address.
Lt Evans explained the police had spent “tireless hours” trying to find the missing child and “were still checking out every lead” in the “active” case.
“We were getting leads periodically over the last 13 years. We were always getting some kind of updates from people about possible sightings.
“With all the bad publicity that’s going on now (with cop brutality in America) this is one we can say, ‘Hey, this is the way things need to end’.”
Authorities had no clue Julian was alive and well, living with his father on Cleveland’s west side with a woman and two other children.
“He’s (Bobby) been here three to five years,” Matt MeInyk, the Hernandez family’s neighbour, told USA Today.
“I had absolutely no idea this was happening. His son was very quiet, and from what I know, he was a good student.”
It’s unclear what happened to the pair in the years before moving to their current address but FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson said the pair had been living around the area ever since they fled Alabama.
“We applaud Julian Hernandez for his courage in taking the first steps to find answers about who he is,” Robert Lowery, vice president in the Missing Children’s Division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NMEC), told news.com.au.
“We know the work for Julian and his family has just begun and will continue over the next days, months and years as they adjust and get to know each other all over again. We respect his family’s desire for privacy at this time.
“Julian’s case is a reminder to all those parents and loved ones who are still searching for a missing child to never give up hope, no matter how long that child has been gone.
“At NCMEC, we will never stop searching for missing children. There are thousands of children who still need to come home and Julian serves as a beacon of hope for their families.”