Officials of Alta-Aurelia schools issued a warning email throughout the district Thursday after an alleged attempted abduction in Cherokee was reported to them by a Cherokee County Deputy.
A teenage male was reportedly approached around 11 a.m. at Central Park in Cherokee, near the Fareway store, by an older male in a silver minivan of unknown make, according to the schools report. The suspect told the person walking to get into the van and was very persistent in trying to get the person into the vehicle with him, but the person refused. The suspect was described as 40-50 years old with short gray hair.
In response to the report, a Cherokee County deputy was posted in Aurelia for additional patrol and to stand by as students were dismissed in the afternoon. Buena Vista County Sheriff Gary Launderville said that his office provided additional coverage for Alta thorughout the day, and sent three officers to cover school dismissal time there. The schools and law enforcement planned to continue increased supervision at least through the end of the week. Parents who wished to pick up their children were encouraged to do so.
Area law enforcement ran the plates of many vans matching the description.
Cherokee Superintendent of schools John Chalstrom issued a statement later in the day, saying he needed to prevent the spread of rumors about a possible child abduction.
The Cherokee incident had nothing to do with the schools. He said the reporting party is an adult. After the incident the person went on to work, and only reported the suspicious vehicle nearly an hour later, he said.
"While we will never dismiss any allegation of this nature, I believe our students are safe and there is no immediate threat," the superintendent said, but noted that adults would be posted outside the school buildings, and that the schools would cooperate with law enforcement to ensure safety of the students.
The incident comes on the heels of several reports of a suspicious person trying to abduct or get women or girls to come to his vehicle over the past three weeks, in locations including Spencer, Lake Park, Little Rock and in northeast Nebraska.
Launderville said that he wants to increase visibility in Alta because of the proximity of the Cherokee incident, and said he wishes that law enforcement in the other communities where incidents have happened were sharing more information about their investigations. In most cases, those small communities are not used to high-profile crimes and networking with other agencies to track suspects, he said.
"I also think to some extent panic is setting in," he said, and may cause people to react to a situation more extremely than they normally would. There are hundreds of light-colored vans in the area, and Launderville noted that the Cherokee report does not really match those of the other reports, which mostly described an older white cargo style van with a dent in the passenger side, and a suspect in his 60s with longish graying brown hair and facial hair.
This is not Cherokee's first scare involving an individual with a van. Earlier this year, a source described by officials as "very credible" reported seeing a van at the junction of Highways 3 and 59 at Cherokee, with a child in the back with tied hands banging on the window.
Police investigated, but no missing person report was ever filed and no evidence of the van turned up.