ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County has sent its mobile command unit to aid in the search for 4-year-old Raul Johnson, who disappeared from his grandfather’s house in Laurinburg on Wednesday.
Two representatives of Richmond County Emergency Services delivered the unit just hours after the boy went missing, said Donna Wright, emergency services director for Richmond County. Thursday afternoon, two more Emergency Services representatives joined about 250 law-enforcement officials from Richmond, Pender, Cumberland, Mecklenburg and Hoke counties, as well as South Carolina and Virginia.
“We’ve had search teams out all night,” Scotland County Sheriff Ralph Kersey said Thursday. “We’ve had a State Highway Patrol helicopter, and we had the (State Bureau of Investigation) fixed-wing planes yesterday, and assistance from Florence County Helicopter Services. They were out until about 3 o’clock this morning.”
Police Capt. Randy Dover — one of two Hamlet detectives and several Hamlet firefighters to join the search — said Thursday that officers also “searched a couple ponds (Wednesday) night” but did not find the boy, last seen wearing only blue-and-white pajamas and no shoes.
On Thursday, Kersey said he held out hope that Raul would be found unharmed despite freezing temperatures overnight.
The search is centered on an area within a 2-mile radius between Pea Bridge Road and the South Carolina state line. Kersey said officers had set the search area based on finds by tracking dogs.
Late Wednesday, K-9 officers from Scotland and Richmond counties picked up the boy’s scent in a barn in woods more than three miles from his grandfather’s house on Village Drive, said Detective Sgt. Jessica Sadovnikov of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. The dogs lost the scent in the barn, she said.
“He is not the type of child to just walk off the property and walk four miles down the road, where our dogs ‘hit,’” said Sadovnikov, who has had multiple contacts with Raul’s family before his disappearance.
“There’s no way” the boy could have made it to the barn by himself, Sadovnikov said, but she had no idea how he could have gotten there.
“We’ve searched the barn and haven’t found any indication of foul play,” she said. “We saw some disturbance in the pine needles, but we can’t find him.”
Area volunteers joined the effort Thursday morning.
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,” Gillis said. “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.”
Other volunteers grumbled that they weren’t being used enough.
“We’ve had a purpose behind this,” Kersey said in answer to the complaints. “That purpose is to send folks in that are trained in tracking, … not just looking for (Raul) but also looking for clues. When you have too many people, you tamper with the evidence.”
The last person to see Raul on Wednesday was an elderly neighbor who fed him cookies at about 10:30 a.m., Sadovnikov said. After being given the cookies, Raul left in the direction of his house, the neighbor said.
Raul had been known to wander his family’s property — home to several trailers, sheds and a chicken coop, Sadovnikov said — but he never has left the property before.
The grandfather didn’t realize Raul was missing until 11:30 a.m., Sadovnikov said. The family spent an hour looking for the boy on the property before calling 911. Raul’s mother, Annie Johnson, was at work.
Kersey has not ruled out any information gleaned during the search, including custodial interference. Investigators have checked surveillance videos from neighbors’ security systems and have spoken with the child’s father, Carlos Juan Gonzales.
Gonzales and Johnson both were charged in September on a total of 21 counts of child sex abuse. Gonzales remains in custody in the Scotland County Detention Center. Johnson was released after charges against her were dismissed for lack of evidence.
On Thursday, Kersey questioned the wisdom of dropping charges against Johnson, which included five felony counts of child abuse by sexual assault, eight felony counts of accessory after the fact of indecent liberties, and one felony count of forcible sex offense.
“(Gonzales) was charged with actually committing the crimes,” Kersey said, with Johnson being charged as an accessory.
The Scotland County Department of Social Services also has been involved with the family, removing the Johnson children from their mother’s custody several times.
DSS Director April Snead declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality rules.
Beth Lawrence is a staff writer for the Laurinburg Exchange. Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]