As a young runaway himself who now has a 16-year-old daughter, a police chief in southeastern Minnesota made a direct plea on Facebook for a teenager missing for a month to come back to her nearby community.
Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander, who bounced around southern Minnesota early in life with his mother and siblings, wrote Tuesday to Audrey Lukes, saying that as an “old guy who’s a dad first, and a cop second,” he and his officers “are here to help if we can.”
Lukes, who turned 16 Wednesday, hasn’t been seen since Feb. 22. The Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Office suspects she ran away from her home in Montgomery.
In the posting made Tuesday and simply signed “Lee,” the 50-year-old social-media-savvy father of three made his appeal for Lukes to come back in strictly personal terms.
“Even though I don’t know you, I’m worried about you,” wrote Sjolander, who has been chief in the city of roughly 1,800 since 2007. “I don’t know your past and it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is your safety and if you are running from something, it’s not going away. You’ll need to handle whatever it is and we are here to help if we can.”
As a father, the chief continued, “I worry about kids. I’ve got three and they are all older than you, they aren’t perfect, nor am I, nor are you, and that’s OK. We tell people around here that we can do a lot with a good heart, and a willingness to change, if this sounds like you, please call our office ...”
Sjolander noted his department was staffed overnight by 24-year-old Officer Amy Reding, who’s “way cooler than me, and she would love to help.”
The chief closed with, “So that’s it, just a note from [an] old guy who’s a dad first, and a cop second. Stay safe, Lee.”
‘I ran away at 13,’ chief said
In an interview Wednesday, Sjolander said, “I also had a crappy childhood. I ran away at 13 and was raised by a foster family. I took my siblings with me and never went home again.”
He said police in Montgomery called Tuesday and said they had evidence Lukes “could be in our area.” That prompted his department to “knock on doors and show some pictures” around Kenyon.
“To see such a young person gone ... and hearing so much about kids being taken advantage of,” Sjolander said in the interview, “as a parent, I would be a nervous wreck. ... Good lord, I’ve got shoes that are older” than Lukes.
Among the more than 110 comments following the chief’s posting, one person wrote: “Reading this brings tears to my eyes. You r 1 amazing Police Officer. (Thank you) for Protecting my Home Town, I hope she is found safe n well, n b brought bk to her family. God Bless.”
Montgomery Police Chief John Schmidt said Wednesday that Lukes is “a habitual runaway,” but this is one of the longer periods of time that she’s dropped out of sight.
Lukes is described as white, with brown eyes and reddish-auburn hair. Anyone with information about her is urged to call 911.
Sjolander launched the Police Department’s Facebook page in 2009, and it’s on the verge of attracting its 30,000th follower, a remarkable total for a town so small. Crediting the Facebook page’s popularity, the chief was among the invitees last year to a White House event on 21st-century policing.
Earlier posts have run the gamut, from rescuing tiny lost dogs and issuing “citations” for free ice cream to kids wearing their bike helmets to interrogating lemonade-stand vendors peddling their beverage without a permit. Several readers have urged the chief to collect his posts into a book.
“I’m not a fancy chief,” Sjolander said in an interview during the week of his White House visit. “I go by my gut and my heart.”