By JOSEPH KOHUT, The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
More than 14 weeks later, Sue Rinaldi still isn’t really sure how it happened.
Her husband, Bill Rinaldi, and their adoptive son, Eric Rinaldi, were in their Scranton kitchen cooking homemade meatballs.
It was the end of May; Eric turned 16 less than three months prior. The summer was just beginning.
By the end of that evening, Eric was gone. He took nothing with him.
“I can tell he’s in really, really bad danger,” Sue Rinaldi said.
The family filed a police report, but never managed to find him. His missing poster remains hosted online by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one of 188 such posters in Pennsylvania as of Friday. The posters are searchable by name, age, area and other parameters at missingkids.org.
“This poor kid, he had a future,” Rinaldi said. “He loved basketball, he wanted to open up his own restaurants, he wanted to go back to school. … He really had a plan. We just can’t understand how he up and disappeared like this.”
Of nearly 30,000 cases nationwide reported to the NCMEC in 2019, 91% were cases like Eric’s — endangered runaways — three-quarters of whom were between the ages of 15 and 17, according to NCMEC data.
In Pennsylvania, most of the 188 missing children in NCMEC’s database are from the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh regions. There are 10 from the seven-county Northeast Pennsylvania region of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming.
Fourteen of those listed as missing as of Friday are from the Lehigh Valley, with their last-known sightings dating as far back as 1979. Eight of them were reported missing this year, most recently last month. Their names are Zoe DeBoer, Brody McEntee and Louis Anthony Mackerley, from Allentown; Cordney Shorter, Aiyahanna Velez, Kiaza Walker, Jewel Price, Kelvin Daniel Morazan Rodriguez and Brayan Arteaga-Flores, from Bethlehem; Luis O. Morales from Breinigsville; Robert Keck from Coopersburg; Laila Betancourt from Easton; Mari Carmen C. Caliz from Northampton; and Arianna Deras from Whitehall Township.
Richard Kotchik, chief of police in Kingston, Luzerne County, said the majority of missing child reports his department investigates involve children who ran away because of something happening at home or who were at someone else’s house and came home late. Reports of abductions are far more rare. Even if the explanation is ultimately innocent, authorities treat it seriously.
“We do get some,” Kotchik said. “They end up being a runaway or just that they didn’t come home at that time or were at a friend’s house.”
On average, about one in six of the nearly 23,600 runaway children reported to the NCMEC last year is likely the victim of sex trafficking, according to the organization.
“You could ask the man on the street the same question and get the same answer,” said Mary Ann LaPorta, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania. “Are they at risk? Immensely at risk.”
At the CAC, located in Scranton, victims of child abuse tell their stories to a forensic interviewer, which helps the police build a case against a suspected abuser.
So far this year, they’ve seen 465 children come through their doors, LaPorta said. Last year, there were 731 children.
“We don’t have a percentage of runaways but when a child does run away, certainly 12 years old to teenagers, they’re at a much higher risk of human trafficking. … One of the biggest threats to running away is being trafficked,” said Jordan Aebli, a forensic interviewer at the Scranton CAC. “We don’t have a specific number of runaways, but we have seen a number of children who did run away in the past and were also victims of sexual abuse.”
Throughout Pennsylvania, CACs handled roughly 4,800 reports of child sexual abuse this year.
“Yes, these children (runaways) are at extreme risk for sexual assault and trafficking,” LaPorta said.
It’s something that Sue Rinaldi often worries about since Eric went missing.
Eric Rinaldi was born Eric Wilson in March 2004. Three years ago, Sue and Bill Rinaldi adopted Eric because his biological parents were dealing with substance abuse issues.
Eric is an “amazing kid,” Sue Rinaldi said.
“Very easygoing, willing to please everybody. He is all around a really, really good boy,” she said. “He definitely is.”
However, Eric’s biological family continued to message him. The Rinaldis realized after Eric left just how much he had been in contact with his birth family.
He had two Facebook accounts that his adoptive parents did not know about. It was like a “double life,” Sue Rinaldi said.
Investigators suspect that Eric left to meet with his biological parents, former Scranton Police Chief Carl Graziano said. However, his biological parents are homeless.
Police entered his information into the National Crime Information Center. Should a police officer ever encounter Eric and run his information through the database, they’ll be able to take protective custody of him.
His information was published on the police department’s Facebook page, “Be Part of the Solution,” and on the NCMEC. However, Eric remains missing.
The NCMEC was founded in 1984, by child advocates and the parents of the slain child Adam Walsh as a national clearinghouse for information on missing and exploited children. They circulate photos of missing children, assist law enforcement organizations in finding them and provide resources and support for the families of those children.
The NCMEC acknowledges there is not a reliable way to determine the true number of how many children are actually missing because so many are never reported.
While there were nearly 30,000 cases nationwide the NCMEC assisted on last year, there were 421,394 entries in the NCIC for missing children. That number reflects reports of missing children. If a child runs away several times in one year, each time they do so is entered into NCIC as a new report.
Local cases in the NCMEC database include four girls missing out of Lake Ariel. State Trooper Bob Urban, a spokesman for the Troop R barracks, said that “99%” of runaways in that area come from ChildFirst Services Inc., which runs a Lake Twp. home for troubled youths primarily from the Philadelphia region. Often a child just leaves the facility and is picked up by a friend.
A woman who answered the phone at ChildFirst declined to comment.
Other missing children in NCMEC’s database from Scranton include Michelle Jolene Lakey, who vanished at the age of 11 on Aug. 26, 1986, and Sandra Hopler, who went to the Martz Trailways bus station on Sept. 29, 1973, and disappeared. She was 18.
In Luzerne County, the missing child case of an unknown young, pregnant girl whose remains washed up along the banks of the Lehigh River in White Haven on Dec. 20, 1976, continues to be unsolved.
Listed in the database as “Jane Doe 1976,” she had only been dead for a few days. Her dismembered body was placed inside three suitcases with pieces of a pink bedspread; investigators believe someone threw the suitcases from a bridge running over the river.
Investigators estimate her age at the time was 15 to 25 years old. She was in her third trimester, pregnant with a baby girl.
Rinaldi said she fears Eric may still be homeless, living out of a car somewhere in Monroe County with his biological parents.
If she had a chance to speak with him, she’d tell him she loves and misses him and urge him to make smart decisions.
She said she hopes more awareness of those who are missing helps bring about a good ending for a family somewhere.
“So many people like me who felt we were at the end of our ropes here and nobody wants to help us,” Rinaldi said.
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Supervising reporter Kurt Bresswein contributed to this report. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.