POST FALLS — Jacob Stuart had tried several times to reach an endangered 17-year-old runaway he knew. She’d been missing about a month when she finally appeared on a video chat under a different name.
The clothing she was wearing matched that of a girl's on an online escort ad in the Seattle area that Stuart and his mother, Michelle, found.
Jacob's connection with the Post Falls girl led to a human trafficking ring bust, arrests of two suspects and saving the teen and others involved.
"I had heard someone had been texting her from the Seattle area, promising her money," said Jacob, a high school junior.
"One of her old friends gave her a ride to the Spokane airport, and no one heard from her for a month until she was found."
During a recent City Council meeting, the Stuarts were presented the Post Falls Police Department's Humanitarian Award for their efforts in the case that occurred over the summer.
"The Stuarts willfully assisted and provided information in a timely manner that tremendously helped the case, ultimately leading to locating the missing person, potentially saving her life and bringing down an even larger crime ring," Chief Scot Haug read to the Council.
"Jacob and Michelle displayed an exemplary concern for the well-being of another person and also saved a number of other victims affected by the crime ring that was brought down."
Troy Roberg, the school-resource officer who investigated the case and is now pursuing a career in physical therapy, was presented the department's Police Star Award, the agency's second-highest award given for superior performance.
"He worked the case relentlessly, using multiple resources to include friends, parents, social media and other police agencies," Haug said. "He coordinated multi-agency efforts across state lines to locate this child and we were ultimately able to find her and bring her to safety. Detective Roberg's persistence and quick actions were undoubtedly what led to the close of this case and a young girl from being further victimized by a human trafficking ring."
Post Falls Police officials on Wednesday didn't immediately know the names of the male and female suspects who were arrested because the arrests were made by a multi-agency Seattle area task force.
Michelle said she encouraged Jacob to keep trying to reach the missing girl through the internet. When the girl finally responded, she was asked to send photos of where she was, which she did.
"I thought maybe she was caught in sex trafficking, and we were able to match the outfit in the photos she sent to Jacob to that on the ad," Michelle said, adding that lamp shades, wallpaper and other features in the background also matched those in the ads.
Michelle said the girl, who left home voluntarily, according to police, also appeared to be under the influence of something when she spoke to Jacob.
Michelle said the information was shared with Roberg and, within a few hours, the girl was found and arrests were made.
Michelle said she became even more concerned for the girl's well-being after her contact with Jacob because she could hear a man and woman in the background asking her who she was speaking with.
"It was aggressive in nature toward her," Michelle said. "I was fearful about what would happen to her after that point. But I found out that the next morning they had found her."
Michelle describes herself as a "puzzle solver" and said it was humbling and surprising to be honored.
"I just did what any other parent would do in that situation," she said. "It's important to follow your guts."
Jacob said there are "stranger danger" lessons to be learned from the case.
"If you talk to someone, get to know them better before going to see them miles away," he said. "They weren't talking to her long and already promising things."
Roberg said the Stuarts' connection with the girl was "groundbreaking" in the case.
"Without that, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did," he said.
Both the Stuarts and Roberg said the girl's family thanked them for their efforts. The three believe the girl wanted to be found since she finally responded to Jacob.
"Once I knew she was missing, it wasn't in my nature to stop looking," Roberg said.