(Related Cover Story) by Rick Langenberg:
A nearly two-week pursuit for a missing 14-year-old Woodland Park teen, involving federal authorities and culminating with an exhaustive all-day volunteer search, ended on a happy note Sunday evening.
According to Woodland Park Police authorities, Alexandra “Ali” Ponte was discovered Sunday evening. However, few details have been released and her mother, Chrissy Duis, has asked for privacy and indicated that she will disclose more information in the near future. “Ali has been found alive and well and is home with us this evening,” stated Duis on a posting on Facebook, who also thanked the many people who assisted her family during this time.
The Woodland Park Police also didn’t release any specific details about the circumstances surrounding the teen’s discovery, but have indicated an investigation into her disappearance still continues. According to Woodland Park Police Chief Bob Larson, Ali was discovered by a WP police officer Sunday evening near her parents’ home at the Tamarac subdivision around 9:30 p.m. She was taken to the police station and then released to her parents. Ali told the police that she had received a ride from an older male, but didn’t provide too many details, according to Larson.
The police say they plan to talk to the teen more this week, once she has recovered from her ordeal. According to Larson, the WP Police had been providing regular patrols around her parents’ residence, and said some preliminary reports had indicated she may have been spotted near the home during her week and a half disappearance.
Despite a number of unanswered questions, local law enforcement authorities are ecstatic about the outcome. “We are very happy she is safe and are thankful for the community support we received,” said the police chief. “People were very helpful. This could have turned out very bad. We were very concerned.”
The news of the teen’s return is being warmly welcomed by many community residents. A bevy of “thank you” comments flooded the Help Find Ali Facebook page late Sunday evening and early Monday morning. Many had started to fear the worst, especially when officials confirmed that her cell phone had been inactive since she disappeared.
And on Saturday, the search for Ali got quite serious and became a community-wide quest. A large group of more than 50 residents, parents and teens took advantage of a break in the weather and partook in a detailed search for the 14-year-old teen, who was last seen in Memorial Park on the evening of Sept. 4.
This marked the first intensive search for Alexander “Ali” Ponte, organized by community residents, civic leaders and national law enforcement authorities. Besides the Woodland Park Police Department, the inquiry had involved the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Despite her lengthy absence, officials and parents remained optimistic about their prospects of finding the teen. Detective Sean Goings of the Woodland Park Police Department told the large crowd, who assembled in the Woodland Park High School parking lot Saturday, that the case was still considered a search for a missing person and “not the search for a body.” From the get-go, law enforcement authorities maintained that they found no traces of foul play and continued to actively pursue leads.
But Goings cautioned the searchers that the last known place Ali was spotted for sure was in Memorial Park on Sept. 4. He stressed that a number of tips had bombarded the police agency, but these had resulted in no confirmed sightings. In the last week, rumors abounded regarding kids who may have resembled Ali in other parts of Colorado. However, based on information from a local restaurant owner and the scent of her clothing picked up by a professional canine unit, authorities believed last week that Ali left Memorial Park and walked on Baldwin Street and then headed southwest towards the other side of U.S. Hwy. 24 and may have traveled near the Wal-Mart store and Old Crystola Road area.
Still, the case had raised many questions. This is longest time Ali has been away from home. She left home a year ago, but was found by authorities less than an hour later. “When kids leave home, they have to depend on other people,” said Larson. And according to the police chief, this reliance can sometime get tricky when it comes to young juveniles who aren’t old enough to drive.
The latest news, though, marked a great development as some volunteers described the search for Ali as “looking for a needle in a haystack.” Still, community residents weren’t throwing in the towel.
Massive volunteer pursuit
In a no-nonsense style, and with the help of leaders from the police and FBI, volunteer parents and teens assembled into three groups Saturday and vigorously hit the search trail with a special emphasis on the Rampart Range Road area, sections near Crystola and Green Mountain Falls and many locations surrounding Woodland Park, including the Rampart Range Reservoir area. The group was split up, based on those who were willing to embark on difficult treks uphill along Rampart Range Road in back of the school, conduct a long-distance search on foot or explore the area in-depth through their automobiles. Searchers were advised not to touch anything they found that may belong to Ali such as clothing or a cell phone case. “We have to think like a kid,” said Goings, who stressed the importance of examining the Rampart Range Road area and other popular getaways for local teens.
The search, according to authorities, netted a few notable discoveries, but none of them related to the Ali Ponte case. The police chief said that some volunteers continued their pursuit efforts until mid-afternoon Saturday.
According to Larson, a few other brief searches were conducted in the last week. But with the spree of rain and floods that bombarded the region, no comprehensive search could be conducted until Saturday morning. “We were very happy with the turnout,” said Larson, regarding Saturday’s volunteer effort. He also reported much cooperation from the community and from local realtors in identifying possible vacant homes that may serve as a potential hang out or an escape spot for the missing teen.
The police chief said many local resources were being used for this investigation. In the past, most missing teen reports get resolved in several days, according to local authorities. “Usually they will come back several days later when they run out of money,” said the police chief.
According to previous reports, Ali left home following an argument with her mother on Sept. 4 regarding a Facebook post. She then got a ride to Memorial Park in Woodland Park from the mother of one of her friends to supposedly meet another friend for a “sleepover” that evening. However, the friend’s family didn’t know anything about the sleepover.
If Ali hadn’t turned up, Larson stated that authorities had planned to re-interview many kids and acquaintances of the teen at both the Woodland Park schools and in Ellicott, where she went to school previously. He also said phone records of some of her friends were going to be examined. Larson said the FBI was in charge of the technical aspects of the case, such as examining her cell phone and social media sites she may have used. Unfortunately, her cell phone didn’t appear active during the time she disappeared, according to Larson.
The case, though, is still under investigation. The police chief said the authorities want to get more information about Ali’s whereabouts for the last week and a half and the details surrounding the person who reportedly gave her a ride home. “If someone just gave her a ride home, that is fine. But if a person contributed to her disappearance, that would be a crime,” said Larson.