LAURINBURG – Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey continues to hold out hope that four-year-old Raul Johnson — missing since Wednesday — will be found.
The boy was reported missing from his home on Village Drive on Wednesday shortly before noon. An Amber Alert has been issued for the child.
First responders from Scotland County and other nearby counties and several states continued to search throughout the day Thursday for the preschooler.
Kersey — at times emotional — believes the child could have survived the cold weather Wednesday night despite temperatures dipping below freezing.
“There’s still hope,” he said Thursday.
Officials urged people to ignore posts on social media claiming the child had been found.
“There was an individual last night that for whatever reason, posted a picture on Snapchat that he had been located and was safe,” said Detective Jessica Sadovnikov of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. “That got circulated on Facebook. It’s false. We need the public to understand that this juvenile is still missing, and we are still searching.”
About 250 law enforcement officials from Pender, Cumberland, Mecklenburg, Hoke, and Richmond counties along with officials from South Carolina and Virginia joined the search with county officials beginning Wednesday afternoon.
“We’ve had search teams out all night,”Kersey said. “We’ve had a State Highway Patrol helicopter, and we had the SBI fixed wing planes yesterday and assistance from Florence County helicopter services. They were out until about three o’clock this morning.”
Area volunteers joined the effort Thursday morning after receiving assignments at Stewartsville Fire Department in John’s Station which had been set up as the designated staging area.
Clarieana Gillis, a neighbor of the Johnsons, bundled up against the wind and cold to join the search effort because her children go to school with Raul’s siblings.
“There’s a child in need. I’ve got kids too and I know my child is about the same age as them. If it was my child, I would want somebody out there with them too,” Gillis said.
The search is centered on a two-mile radius between Pea Bridge Road and the South Carolina state line. The focus is based on results from two separate tracking dogs, according to Kersey.
It’s humbling to see how we have come together,” Kersey said.
He added that some volunteers seemed to be irritated with the slow progress of the search.
“Someone said, ‘You’re not using our help.’ ” Kersey said. “We’ve had a purpose behind this, that purpose is to send folks in that are trained in tracking for the purpose of not just looking for Johnson but also looking for clues. When you have too many people you tamper with the evidence.”
Anyone wishing to volunteer is asked to go to Stewartsville Fire Department, fill out an information card and wait for an assignment. Donations of food, water and other supplies for the search teams can be dropped off at the fire station as well.
The last person to see Raul was an elderly neighbor that he often visits for cookies and candy. That was around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. The woman said the child headed back toward his home.
The boy and his six-year-old sister were being kept by a grandfather while the mother, Annie Johnson was at work. When the grandfather realized the child was missing, he spent an hour looking for Raul on the property before calling authorities.
Raul stands 3-feet tall and weighs 47 pounds. He has brown hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a white and orange tiger striped shirt and pajama pants with rocket ships on them and no shoes.
Kersey has not ruled out any factors, including custodial interference. Investigators have checked surveillance videos from neighbors’ security systems and spoken with the child’s father, Carlos Juan Gonzales.
Gonzales and Johnson were both arrested in September on 21 total counts of child sex abuse. Gonzales remains in custody in the Scotland County Detention Center, but Johnson was released.
Kersey questioned the decision to drop the charges against Johnson that initially included five felony counts of child abuse by sexual assault, eight felony counts of accessory after the fact indecent liberties, and one felony count of forcible sex offense
“(Gonzales) was charged with actually committing the crimes,” Kersey said. “She was charged with accessory to the crimes, and how you have one without the other when you’re living in the same household surprises me.”
According to an official with the Scotland County District Attorney, the charges against Johnson were not dropped by the DA’s office. The case against Johnson was dismissed by a judge because of a lack of evidence.
“There was a hearing in court and the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence and no probable cause to support the case,” the official said. “There was a legal finding by the court. Witnesses testified and didn’t implicate her. There was a full trial.”
There are also ongoing cases open on the child’s family by the Scotland County Department of Social Services, and the children have been removed by DSS from Johnson’s custody on several occasions.
April Snead, director of DSS, declined to comment on the case citing confidentiality rules. Snead would only speak in generalities as to Child Protective Service procedures.
“Law enforcement arrests are separate and apart from CPS involvement … they don’t always go hand in hand,” she said. “We are charged with ensuring the safety and protection and well being of children, so we use any information in our means to do that.”
Child Protective Services uses information from home visits, law enforcement, the district attorney’s office interviews school authorities, family members to decide whether to return a child to a parent. Snead said there was no set number of times children would be taken from a home before they were taken away from the parent permanently.
Raul’s other siblings remain in the home.