A northern New York couple has been arraigned on charges they intended to physically harm or sexually abuse two Amish sisters after abducting them from a roadside farm stand.
Stephen Howells II, 39, and Nicole Vaisey, 25, both of Hermon, were each charged Friday night with two counts of first-degree kidnapping. They appeared in court with lawyers, but were not allowed to enter a plea. A town justice ordered them jailed without bond, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
The St. Lawrence County Sheriff's Office issued a statement late Friday saying the arrests of Howells and Vaisey "no doubt saved young children from future abuse."
On Saturday morning, authorities say a New York couple may have also planned to abduct other children. St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells said Saturday that "there was the definite potential" of additional victims. Wells says the motive was "to take these girls from their home and victimize these girls."
On Friday, Wells said in a statement that the older of the two girls provided "crucial information" that led to the arrests.
District Attorney Mary Rain declined to discuss a motive for the abduction or provide any other specifics about the suspects. She said information provided by the girls helped lead to Howells and Vaisey. The suspects' home is about 13 miles from where the girls live.
"The suspects agreed to go to the sheriff's office to be interviewed earlier today and they were arrested after those interviews," Rain said.
The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.
The 7-year-old and 12-year-old vanished Wednesday evening in Oswegatchie, touching off a massive search in the farming community near the Canadian border.
The girls’ disappearance prompted the New York State Police to activate the AMBER alert system, which triggers notifications on local radio and television stations, highway signs, and lottery terminals, reported WNYT Channel 13 in Albany.
But the alert did not go to the entire state – and that is by design. State Police use law enforcement intelligence to determine which of New York’s 12 activation regions should receive the alert. "We don’t want to desensitize the public," said State Police Sr. Investigator Gary Kelly, the state’s AMBER Alert coordinator. "We want the public to continue to be engaged when they see the alert."
Since the program launched in 2002, the State Police have issued 52 AMBER alerts for 64 missing children. All were found alive, and the alert played a direct role in half of those cases, Kelly said.
The sisters turned up safe about 24 hours later at the door of a house 15 miles from where they were taken. Hermon is about 13 miles from Oswegatchie.
"The children seemed to be healthy, a little wet and cold," the prosecutor said earlier Friday. "They were dropped off at a residential area in Richville. The children knocked on the door of a stranger. The stranger brought them home to their house and the police were there waiting."
ABC News reported that the two sisters showed up on the doorstep of Jeff and Pam Stinson barefoot, cold, wet and hungry:
The Stinsons opened their door to the two girls, who asked the couple to drive them back home. The Stinsons said they recognized the girls because they had bought produce from them before and were aware of news reports about their abduction.
When the girls arrived on their doorstep, the Stinsons fed them watermelon and grape juice and the girls were so hungry they couldn't stop eating the watermelon.
"They ate that watermelon in 30 seconds. It was fast," said Jeff Stinson.
Searchers had scoured the farming community of about 4,000 people, in a hunt hampered by a lack of photos of the girls for authorities to circulate.
The Amish typically avoid modern technology, and the family had to work with an artist who spoke their language, a German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch, to produce a sketch of the older girl.
The episode left a sense of vulnerability in a community where residents said even small children often walk unaccompanied to school.
"One thing that comes from this is that people learn this can happen in a small town," the prosecutor said. "I think the public will take precautions, and that's the sad thing."
Patricia Ritchie, the state senator representing the region, said many are now reluctant to let their children play outdoors unattended.
Ritchie said the Amish are responding in a way that may forever change a familiar feature of the local landscape: Some are taking down their roadside stands.
"This has sent a shockwave through their community," she said.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York City contributed to this report.