FITCHBURG — After a search that took them “up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” authorities have located a 5-year-old Fitchburg girl missing since Wednesday in North Carolina.
Alize Whipple, 5, was found unharmed Saturday by Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office deputies in a Shelby, N.C., home along with her mother, who is accused of abducting the child after learning the state planned to take custody of her, Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early said during a late-afternoon press conference in Fitchburg.
Leeanna Wilson, 50, is being held without bail in North Carolina pending a rendition hearing, Early said. She is expected to return to Massachusetts, where she will face charges of kidnapping and reckless endangerment, he said.
The two were found after Wilson called the state Department of Children and Families from South Carolina Saturday morning, Early said. He did not disclose what Wilson said or why she called, citing the ongoing investigation, but said the call eventually led investigators to a relative’s house in southern North Carolina, not far from the state line. They tipped off local authorities, who made the arrest.
The girl will stay in a North Carolina foster home until arrangements are made to return her to Massachusetts, Early said. It was not immediately clear who would care for her here.
The ordeal began Wednesday, when workers with the state Department of Children and Families visited Wilson’s home to investigate allegations of abuse.
When DCF workers and law enforcement officers returned later that day to take custody of Alize, the girl and her mother were gone, officials said.
Early said Wilson had a history with DCF dating back to the 1990s.
Fitchburg’s Sentinel & Enterprise reported Saturday that Wilson called the paper Wednesday afternoon, saying she had information about DCF separating children from their families without cause in the wake of the scandal around Jeremiah Oliver’s disappearance.
“I have a story for you about DCF taking children they normally would not take, including mine, since this 5-year-old went missing,” Wilson said, referring to Oliver, in a recording of the message posted online by the paper. “They’re taking my daughter today . . . and they’re just out of control.”
Later that afternoon, Wilson took her daughter off a school bus and fled, Early said.
Asked why police waited until Friday to issue a high-profile Amber Alert for the missing girl, Early said authorities initially saw no imminent threat to Alize.
“All the criteria of the Amber Alert were not met until Friday,” Early said. “It kept rising to another level as time went by. . . . Finally, it got to the point where we believed the child was in imminent danger.”
Overnight Friday, police located a 1996 Buick sedan believed to be driven by Wilson, which had been abandoned in Leominster.
Police initially believed Wilson was fleeing with Whipple to Enoree, S.C., where they said she had ties. Enoree is located about one hour south of Shelby by car.
The two traveled south by car, Early said. He would not disclose the route Wilson took, when she left, or how she obtained a vehicle, but said police were investigating whether anyone assisted Wilson in evading law enforcement.
Early said police had received more than 100 tips after issuing the Amber Alert on Friday.
Allison Kimball, a 26-year-old neighbor of Wilson, said Alize would sometimes play with her 3-year-old son or have dinner with her family.
“She was a good girl, but you could tell that she was troubled,” Kimball said, describing Alize’s demeanor.
Wilson would often come outside as late as 10 p.m. to call for Alize, Kimball said, apparently unaware of the 5-year-old’s whereabouts.
Kimball eventually came to suspect Alize might be being abused.
Those fears grew after an incident last year when Wilson physically struck Kimball’s young son because he was roughhousing with Alize.
“She didn’t seem to see anything wrong with it,” said Kimball, who said she complained to authorities about it. “I wanted to make sure she didn’t do that to another child.”