In the late evening hours of Sunday, October 18, 2015, 6 patients escaped the Sovereign Health Group (a rehabilitation center in El Cajon, California) by climbing over the fences.
5 were quickly found, but a month later, 16-year-old Michael Ryan Peterson was still missing.
This case landed on my desk on November 17, 2015 – nearly 30 full days after Michael went missing – when Michael’s grandfather called our Newport Beach office.
This is the story of the entire case, and what happened to Michael.
At first I was reluctant to take on this case. I even turned it down. I had two specific reasons:
First, most runaways reach a comfort level after the tenth day of being on their own. They have established a place to stay, a means to get food and a certain kinship with other street people. They become very street smart and can easily remain undetectable.
Second, what exactly could we bring to the table to help find Michael? The San Diego Sheriff’s Office, under the direction of Detective Abutin, had expended untold man hours of time and devoted a Herculean effort to locate all 6 minors.
During the next week, I met with Michael’s mother, step-father, grandparents and an aunt. I explained that we only take on 1 out of every 10 such matters. The families love and concern for Michael was painfully obvious. Our meetings lasted a total of 6 hours over 2 days. The family convinced me that Michael was savable, and I agreed to accept the assignment.
My first call was to Detective Abutin. He was advised we had been retained and we inquired if there was any update on his end or anything specific he did not want us to do. He was generous with his time and information and welcomed our assistance.
My first instruction to the family was to create HelpFindMichael.com.
Over the next two days we conducted dozens of interviews. We made our position crystal clear to those we spoke with: If you are harboring Michael, we will attempt to file charges against you in concert with the San Diego Sheriff’s Office once Michael is found. Do not believe that he is 18 years of age. Tell Michael that myself and staff have done hundreds of these cases. There are two sides to every story and, although we think we know Michael’s side, we want to hear it directly from him.
On Monday, November 30, 2015 Michael’s mother received a call from an anonymous source who knew we were looking for Michael. She immediately called me and we conferenced into the call. The caller stated he had a visual of Michael and that he was at the Amtrak station in San Diego. One of the investigators assigned to my San Diego office was dispatched to the area but did not find Michael.
We then contacted Detective Aubtin with the San Diego Sheriff’s Office. The anonymous caller then advised about 30 minutes later that Michael was in the Gaslamp District of San Diego. Even though it was Detective Aubtin’s day off, he immediately responded to the area. He eventually spotted Michael and took him into custody.
We then drove to the San Diego Sheriff’s Office in Spring Valley, California where Michael was being held in lockup. I personally interviewed Michael and he agreed to return with me to the Orange County area.
As in the majority of our runaway teen cases, I had previously discussed with the family a specific rehabilitation facility to which Michael would be transported if he was found. In this case, it is in the state of Utah.
I spoke with two “transportation” agents who agreed to meet with me near our Newport Beach office. Given the late hour in the evening, the agents, both former law enforcement officials, would take Michael to a local hotel for the night. This morning all three boarded a plane from Orange County airport to Utah.