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Search group asks Youngkin for more resources with missing person cases

W.A.T.E.R. Team Inc..png
Posted at 10:48 AM, Apr 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-13 10:48:52-04

HAMPTON, Va. — Search and rescue crews are in their eleventh week looking for a missing four-year-old boy from Hampton, Codi Bigsby.

Hampton Police said they're still working with the FBI and going through massive amounts of evidence in connection to the case, but there are no active large scale ground searches at this time.

But there is one group is committed to finding any trace of Codi.

“This has become Hampton Roads’s child,” W.A.T.E.R. Team Inc. CEO Joe Slabinski told News 3. “He’s still a missing four-year-old. If it was my child, I’d be out there 24 hours a day.“

"W.A.T.E.R." stands for "We Are The Emergency Response." It's a nonprofit group made up of veterans who typically help with searches in natural disasters, according to their website.

Slabinski’s group has been involved with the search for Codi from the start.

But W.A.T.E.R. Team Inc. has also been busy with other local missing person cases, like Hampton runaway teen Joshua Fernandez.

“The more eyes and ears out there and overall awareness is great,” Fernandez’s guardian, Matthew Whiteford, said. “Through hope [and] prayer, we’ve been able to keep together and stay strong.”

Fernandez was originally missing up until three weeks ago, when Slabinski saw Fernandez on News 3’s “Have You Seen Me?” series.

“That was the first time it came to us,” Slabinski said.

The team found Fernandez at Peninsula Town Center. “We sat on the place for two to three days, and low and behold, we came across Joshua,” Slabinski said.

But Slabinski feels more needs to be done for these cases.

For more than a month, he’s written five letters to Gov. Glenn Youngkin to talk about training and suggesting more certified search teams from the state to help with these types of cases — including the search for Codi.

“If we had more vetted and verified teams, the police know who they can call on,” Slabinski said. “Those verified teams can then be passed on to the families.”

News 3 reached out to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) about Slabinski’s suggestions and the search for Codi.

A spokesperson for the agency sent us this statement:

"Per the Code of Virginia §44-146.18 Section G 1-11, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) coordinates search and rescue in Virginia. This includes training the teams that are part of the Virginia Search and Rescue Council (VASARCO) and our public safety partners affiliated with localities across the Commonwealth.

The SAR Program at VDEM has a dual role of 1) providing specialized search and rescue training at no cost, to first responders and SAR programs; and, 2) conducting search and rescue operations upon request from and in support of local jurisdictions. The Code of Virginia §44-146.18 Section G, part 2 states that VDEM will establish a Coordinator of Search and Rescue who is responsible for “coordinating with local, state, and federal agencies involved in search and rescue.”

The Virginia SAR teams respond at the request of a locality. No language in the Code of Virginia allows VDEM to seize control of a search and rescue mission from the local authorities, and the locality remains in charge. The 20 teams, who all hold a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with VDEM, do not respond without official requests from the locality. This places the proper liability on the locality to ensure they are requesting resources as needed and they remain in charge of the law enforcement investigation side of a mission. We also do not respond at the request of families and we advise those individuals to contact their local law enforcement agency. The SAR Program has found that law enforcement is usually aware of the missing person and, at times, local law enforcement has a specific reason they have not requested resources from outside the locality.

Virginia’s SAR volunteers have been providing training and search and rescue services to localities at no cost since 1985. The SAR program is structured to ensure the requesting locality receives professionally trained resources who have all trained to a statewide standard, ensuring an expected level of response. Spontaneous and unaffiliated volunteers with no formal or standardized training can divert trained resources away from the response to manage and vet unaffiliated personnel. Having these individuals as part of the search can also pose liability issues. This is why we encourage everyone to become affiliated with one of the VASARCO teams to ensure they are ready, trained, and deployable at a moment's notice.

There are currently two VDEM SAR groups in the Hampton Roads area, and they have responded to every request for support from the localities. Due to liability, they will not respond at the request of a family and will follow the process as stated above in order to ensure the locality properly manages the incident along with the relevant law enforcement concerns.

Per the Code of Virginia, we train the teams who have an MOU with VDEM to provide SAR services to localities in the Commonwealth. We also train local, state and federally recognized agencies involved in search and rescue. To date, VASARCO and the VDEM SAR program have not received any communication from the W.A.T.E.R Team. The VDEM SAR training program has also not received any requests for training from the W.A.T.E.R. Team, Inc.

We have continued to support the City of Hampton with their investigation into the disappearance of Codi Bigsby by searching specific target areas at their request. Outside of the initial search effort, which was very public, most of this work is done quietly and beyond the attention of the local news."

The two VASARCO teams in Hampton Roads are Tidewater Search and Rescue and Greater Atlantic Rescue Dogs.

For Slabinski, his team is looking into training with VDEM. “W.A.T.E.R. Team Inc. is ready, willing and able to attend any certification training,” he said.

News 3 also talked with Youngkin about the search for Codi, and Slabinski’s letters to him about suggestions for help with missing person cases.

“The overall effort, both local with state resources, is something that’s being discussed so that we can in fact do what the state can do to help,” Youngkin said.

For Slabinski and Whiteford, they hope to see their points addressed soon.

“I think it’s going to take many months, if not years, to get this down the path where we can get [a] resolution, but the conversation has to start today,” Slabinski said.

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