In the case of missing toddler Sky Elijah Metalwala, police are facing a difficult challenge: Without actually finding the child, detectives will have a difficult time proving a crime has been committed.
Almost from the start, Bellevue police have questioned Julia Biryukova’s account of how her 2-year-old son disappeared during a trip to the hospital one week ago today.
But without any sign of the child, police concede they could have a difficult time building a case or making an arrest in connection with Sky Elijah Metalwala’s disappearance.
“In order to make an arrest and develop probable cause and identify suspects and persons of interest, we need evidence. At this point we don’t have it,” Bellevue police Maj. Mike Johnson said Friday.
Roughly 2,000 children younger than 18 are reported missing in the U.S. every day, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But in only a tiny number of those cases — about 100 annually — are children considered “lost, injured or otherwise missing,” a category that includes Sky.
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“Time is the enemy when a child is missing. As days go on, we become more concerned about the welfare of that child,” said Bob Lowery, executive director of the Missing Children’s Division of the national center, headquartered in Alexandria, Va.
He said investigators “always have to go out with the premise the child is alive” until they find evidence to the contrary.
“There are cases out there where small children are taken and we find them many years later,” he added.
Bellevue police have followed up on more than 330 tips and have spent hundreds of hours looking into Biryukova’s claim that Sky disappeared after she left him in her disabled car on a Bellevue street.
On Saturday, about 140 volunteers joined officers with multiple law-enforcement agencies at Marymoor Park in Redmond. Searchers mounted horses and used dogs and a helicopter to look for any sign of the toddler.
A spokesman for the King County Sheriff’s Office said he could not say whether a tip had led them to Marymoor. Bellevue police said Saturday’s effort simply expanded the search area around Biryukova’s apartment.
At an afternoon briefing, Bellevue police said they had found no significant leads in their day of searching.
Asked why police haven’t arrested Sky’s mother for leaving her child in the car, Johnson said that was “a strategic decision on our part.”
They haven’t ruled it out, he said, but are hoping the mother will cooperate. “We don’t want to jeopardize that,” he said.
Biryukova, a 30-year-old, stay-at-home mother of two, told police she was driving her ill son from their Redmond home to a Bellevue hospital last Sunday morning when the car ran out of gas. She said she left her sleeping son in the unlocked car and walked with her 4-year-old daughter to a Chevron station about a mile away.
When she returned, Sky was gone, she told police.
Bellevue officers, along with investigators from the FBI, King County Sheriff’s Office and Redmond and Medina police departments, have spent the past week searching Biryukova’s apartment complex and neighborhood, conducting tests on her car and interviewing her friends and relatives. But they’ve found no trace of the toddler.
After finding that the car still had gas in the tank and no mechanical problems, Johnson, the Bellevue police major, said Biryukova’s story “doesn’t add up.”
Sky disappeared as Biryukova was involved in a nasty divorce and custody battle with her son’s father, Solomon Metalwala. Sky was reported missing just two days after Biryukova indicated she wanted to back out of a custody agreement, according to court records.
The boy’s father has repeatedly said he believes his estranged wife knows their son’s whereabouts. Metalwala and his attorney passed out maps and posters to about 40 volunteers in downtown Bellevue on Saturday morning so the group could make sure the boy’s face was posted in the Eastside’s most well-traveled areas.
“What we’re looking for is somebody who might have seen the child later than the last witness report,” said Leslie Clay Terry III, Metalwala’s attorney. “The baby and the mother were very reclusive … but they had to have gone out sometime.”
Some of the volunteers were Metalwala’s friends and relatives, but others were strangers who read about the boy and wanted to help.
“I’m a mom,” said Crystal Materi, who left her toddler at home with her husband so she could spend the morning putting up fliers. “It’s just so sad, and you want to help.”
Stressing that Biryukova is neither a suspect nor a person of interest in the disappearance, Bellevue police say she “holds the key” to her son’s whereabouts.
Police have applied indirect pressure to Biryukova and her attorney by repeatedly questioning her story during a series of media briefings and by publicly urging her to come to the station and answer questions.
But legal experts say that until she is declared a person of interest or suspect, that’s about all they can do.
Thus far, Biryukova has declined recent police entreaties to come to the station and answer questions or submit to a polygraph examination
Without enough evidence to take someone into custody, police have to conduct their investigation from a legal distance, said Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander with the New York Police Department (NYPD) and now a lecturer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Once someone’s hired an attorney, you cannot approach them. And any good attorney is going to be advising their client not to talk to police at this point,” he said.
Pollini spoke only in general about investigation techniques, and said he has no information about the Bellevue case.
Pollini said such cases force detectives to find other ways to get information. Surveillance would be crucial, as would pressure through the media to force a move that might lead to a break.
“You’d see them checking cellphone records, conducting searches, maybe putting a tracking device on her vehicle,” said Pollini, who has worked as a case detective and supervisor in the NYPD’s homicide and major-crimes squads.
Sky’s disappearance has drawn comparisons to the case of 7-year-old Kyron Horman, who went missing after a science fair at his northwest Portland elementary school in June 2010. Despite more than 4,500 leads and a cost of nearly $1.5 million, the investigation has yielded no sign of the boy and no arrests.
The boy’s stepmother, Terri Moulton Horman, was the last known person to see Kyron. His father, Kaine Horman, has publicly accused her of being involved in his disappearance, and The Oregonian newspaper reported that she remains the focus of investigators. Terri Horman’s lawyer has repeatedly declined to comment.
The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office also declined to speak at length about the case or any possible suspect in Kyron’s disappearance.
“It’s an active investigation and we continue to follow up on leads and tips,” said Lt. Steve Alexander, a Multnomah County sheriff’s spokesman. “We continue to hope to bring Kyron home, and that’s our goal.”
Obvious starting point
Joe Tacopina, a high-profile criminal-defense attorney in New York City, said police have to begin missing-children investigations by looking at the parents because one or both often are involved in such disappearances. But he cautions law enforcement against “pigeonholing the investigation” and thus missing crucial leads.
“Really, they should (start with the parents). Investigations have to start there because statistically, that is frequently where the answers lie — with the parents,” he said.
Tacopina is representing Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, the Kansas City parents of toddler Lisa Irwin, who was reported missing Oct. 4.
Jeremy Irwin came home early that morning after working a rare night shift and discovered the baby was gone. He said a window was ajar, all the lights were on, the front door was unlocked and three cellphones were missing.
Bradley has admitted she spent the previous evening getting drunk on boxed wine with a neighbor, last checking on the baby at 6:30 p.m.
According to Tacopina, Kansas City police focused their attention on Bradley early in the investigation, despite her pleas that they find her child. “They, quite frankly, missed some very good leads that may no longer be ripe,” he said.
Three people contacted police and identified a man they’d seen walking with a baby in the middle of the night, Tacopina said. He also said a phone call was made to one of the man’s ex-girlfriends on one of the cellphones taken from Bradley and Irwin’s house that night.
“Obviously, with each passing day, the odds are dramatically reduced” that a child will be found, either safe or otherwise, Tacopina said. But, he said, “there are happy endings.”
Ninety-seven percent of the children reported missing to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are found and returned home, said Lowery, the center director.
“When we opened our doors in 1984, the return was 62 percent,” he said. But cases of “lost, injured or otherwise missing” children like Sky typically lack witnesses, making them “particularly difficult investigations,” said Lowery.
“In Sky’s case, I think that there are scenarios out there where he could still be alive, where someone is caring for him,” Lowery said. “… That child didn’t get out of his car seat and walk away.omeone out there knows what happened.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Christine Clarridge, Emily Heffter and Mike Carter contributed to this report, which also includes Associated Press information.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org