There were tears, hugs and huge sighs of relief as five Minneapolis girls, ages 11 to 13, were reunited with their families Tuesday night more than 24 hours after they had gone missing.
“I’m still in shock,” said Kelly Ward after holding her daughter Izzy in a long embrace after the 13-year-old was found in St. Paul about 9 p.m.
At another home in south Minneapolis, Tammy Nygaard was hugging her own wayward daughter, Gabby. “Oh my God, I’m so happy,” she said. “I’m just really relieved. I can breathe. I can hug my daughter.”
But Gabby, like some of the others, also is in for some major consequences after families, friends and church members blanketed Minneapolis and St. Paul with fliers, posted pleas on Facebook, and walked parks and streets in search of the girls.
“There’s going to be a little bit of grounding. She won’t get her phone back. And there will be a little extra housework,” Nygaard said.
The frantic search began when the girls didn’t come home from Seward Montessori School Monday afternoon.
Kelly Ward said she knew immediately something was wrong because her daughter always comes straight home.
“This isn’t what she does,” Ward said. When she was younger, she didn’t even like to stay overnight at other people’s houses. “She likes to be home.”
So Ward called the police and rallied family and friends. They quickly discovered that four other girls also were missing. And eventually the pieces came together: The girls had hatched a plan to run away, maybe to Chicago.
By evening, Ward and her team began to piece together the clues. A phone call that one of the girls made to a friend came from a pay phone in St. Paul, sending two of Izzy’s aunts off in that direction. Then came a call from house in St. Paul, where two of the girls went in search of a phone. They were done with their adventure, they said. They wanted a shower. They wanted to come home.
But the other three girls were still out on the street, thinking they were going to walk to Wisconsin.
Izzy’s aunts caught up with them in the Sears parking lot near the State Capitol.
The parents had papered the city with fliers with photos of the girls: Isabel (Izzy) Marie Ward, 13; Gabriella (Gabby) Rae Woods, 12; Keneni Mekonen Legese, 11; Malina Gail-Corrine Long Crow, 12; and Alexandra Rubina O’Brien, 12. The police sent out an alert. A Facebook page was created in hopes of garnering tips.
As a second night fell with the girls still missing, the strain and worry began to take its toll.
“They’re so young. They’re so gullible,” Nygaard said. “I’m just really, really worried. … How is she eating?”
“Where is she putting her head?” added Gabby’s 16-year-old sister, Mariah Marshall.
In Ward’s house, a team of people marshaled by the worried mom kept a fresh supply of fliers ready, organized volunteers, and worked at a frenetic pace answering calls and keeping an eye on social media posts in search of tips.
When the search turned to St. Paul, “We saw three girls and three backpacks and we made a beeline right to them,” said Emily Heagle. “I told them ‘We love you. Oh my God, we’re happy to see you. Get in the car. We’re taking you home,’ ” she said.
“The girls had no idea there were fliers being posted, that the police were looking and their faces were on the news,” she said. They didn’t understand the seriousness of it all, she said.
“One of the girls said she thought they were just being rude,” Heagle said.
But the girls were glad to be found and going home.
And then reality set in. There would be consequences.
As Heagle drove the girls back to Minneapolis, one of the girls was heard saying: “Oh my gosh, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble.