Charlotte Sena: What we know about missing nine-year-old’s disappearance and rescue

Charlotte Sena vanished after going for a solo bike ride on Saturday evening in upstate New York. Two days later she was found hidden in a campervan and a 47-year-old suspect has been charged with her kidnap. Martha McHardy reports

Thursday 14 December 2023 18:15 GMT
Charlotte Sena vanished after going for a solo bike ride
Charlotte Sena vanished after going for a solo bike ride (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)

It began as a family camping trip.

It then turned into every parent’s worst nightmare.

Charlotte Sena, 9, was visiting a campsite in upstate New York with family and friends when she decided to go on a bike ride with a group of close friends on Saturday evening.

After doing a couple of loops of the campsite with the group, the nine-year-old decided to go around Moreau Lake State Park one more time by herself. But she never returned.

What followed next was 48 hours of growing fears for her safety as law enforcement feared she was in “imminent danger”.

Then, on Monday night, positive news came.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the little girl had been found safe and that her alleged abductor Craig Nelson Ross Jr, 47, was in police custody.

Here’s what we know so far about the case:

Last sighting

Before going missing, Charlotte was last seen at around 6.15pm on Saturday evening riding her bike in Loop A of Moreau Lake State Park, according to Lt Col Richard Mazzone of the New York State Police.

When she failed to come back, her family and friends went looking for her.

The little girl’s bike was found abandoned in the same area – but there was no sign of little Charlotte.

At around 6.45pm, the fourth-grader’s distraught mother called 911 to report her daughter missing.

Police were on site by 7pm on Saturday, Governor Hochul said in a Sunday afternoon news conference.

Charlotte Sena, 9, vanished Saturday evening from Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York
Charlotte Sena, 9, vanished Saturday evening from Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York (New York State Police)

“Last evening, she went out on a bike ride; it wasn’t dark, right around dinnertime, and did a couple of loops with close friends she considers her cousins,” Governor Hochul said.

“And then she decided after going around True Bay, she said she just wanted to go around one more time by herself – be that big girl, do it by herself.

“Literally 15 minutes later, she hadn’t come back yet,” the governor said. “And that’s really when the nightmare begins.”

Amber Alert issued

Police issued an Amber Alert for the missing girl on Sunday after search teams failed to track her down.

Multi-agency search and rescue teams were deployed to find her, including aviation, canine and civilian support, Lt Col Mazzone said.

Two drones and airboat search teams, including six underwater rescue teams, were also deployed.

“We also have the Schenectady Fire Office assisting with the search, given that Charlotte is the niece of one of the members of the Schenectady Fire Department,” Governor Hochul said.

Police said search efforts continued through the night on Saturday.

“In addition to our massive search efforts, our Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been conducting interviews with those in the park and around the region as well as pursuing all investigative leads,” Lt Col Mazzone said.

Authorities issue AMBER Alert for missing 9-year-old girl in New York

Officials said they believed it was “quite possible” the fourth-grader was abducted.

Charlotte found ‘safe’

On Monday night, New York officials announced that the little girl had been found alive – and that a suspect had been taken into custody.

In a press conference, the governor said the break in the case came at around 4.20am ET on Monday when the suspect drove to the home of Charlotte’s parents and left a ransom note.

“He literally drove up to the family’s mailbox assuming they were not home,” she said, adding that Charlotte’s parents were still searching the campground at the time, and officers who were monitoring the property had been sent to another call in the area.

Police later tested the note for fingerprints and searched law enforcement databases to see if they could find a match, and identified the suspect as 47-year-old Craig Nelson Ross Jr.

Investigators were able to determine Mr Ross was living in a campervan behind his mother’s residence and used two SWAT teams to make entry into the campervan, Ms Hochul said.

How New York police found missing Charlotte Sena

“They had what they call a dynamic entry tactical maneuver, and within the camper they located the suspect,” she said.

The New York Governor said the missing nine-year-old was found hidden in a cabinet.

Governor Hochul said Charlotte appeared to be in good health, but was taken to a hospital, which is “customary”.

The fourth-grader has now been reunited with her parents.

Speaking about her rescue, governor Hochul said: “She knew she was being rescued. She knew she was in safe hands.”

Suspect charged with kidnapping

Mr Ross Jr, 47, was charged with first-degree kidnapping in the early hours of Tuesday morning and appeared for his arraignment in Milton Town Court, according to local outlet Times Union.

He was then booked into the Saratoga County jail at around 3.40am on Tuesday morning.

He is now being held there without bail.

As well as the fingerprint, the governor also told CNN that authorities used “cell phone pings” from people in the area where the nine-year-old was last spotted to help find the suspect.

“They were checking all the different cell phones that have been in the vicinity of this park,” she said.

The governor said authorities also had information from those who came to the park as campers because they had to register and people there for the day paid an entrance fee.

Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office released mug shot of Craig Nelson Ross Jr
Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office released mug shot of Craig Nelson Ross Jr (Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office)

“So, you could start circling around possible suspects based on the cell phone data, who is in the park and also then ultimately, the ransom note,” she said.

“It was extraordinary to see how they traced it down to an individual’s home,” the governor added. “The home was surrounded by law enforcement and helicopters and they were able to bring her to safety. And not long after, she was in the arms of her parents at a hospital.”

The suspect “resisted” being taken into custody and sustained minor injuries, the governor said.

Police are attempting to determine if the Sena family was known to the suspect.

At a press conference on Monday evening, Governor Hochul revealed the address connected to the suspect’s vehicle was two miles from Charlotte’s home in Greenfield, New York.

Police will spend Tuesday interviewing Mr Ross Jr to determine if he had the nine-year-old under surveillance, Governor Hochul said.

The governor also said the suspect’s home is being searched by police to make sure he is not connected to any other cases.

Over $17,000 raised

Prior to Monday’s discovery, a GoFundMe page set up for the family of Charlotte Sena had raised over $17,000.

The page was originally set up to raise money for the search efforts for the missing child, but the money will now go to the nine-year-old’s parents to help them “transition back into some sense of normalcy.”

“Please donate to help the family during this difficult time,” a message posted on the fundraiser page reads. “Any donations will go directly to her parents to help with any expenses while they transition back into some sense of normalcy.”

Amber Alert for missing girl
Amber Alert for missing girl (NYSP)

At a press conference on Sunday, before the nine-year-old was found, the fourth-grader was described as a “joyful” child who was recently elected a class officer for student council.

“Everybody thought of her as just a really nice girl - the kind everyone wanted to be friends with, the kind that looked out for other children,” Ms Hochul said. “The pride of every parent.”

Ms Hochul added: “On a picture-perfect fall day here in upstate New York, Charlotte Sena’s family and friends gathered for a weekend of friendship and food and enjoying one of the last few days of good weather... so the kids could have a chance to be in nature, have a chance to be kids.

“They were here to make memories - the kind that last a lifetime. But instead the day turned into every parent’s nightmare,” said Governor Hochul.

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