Law enforcement increasing patrols near MSB schools after reports of suspicious behavior
Parents, schools say that a woman in a red SUV has asked children to come with her.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska State Troopers and the Wasilla Police Department are increasing patrols around schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, after parents and school officials reported an older woman has attempted to get children to come with her.
Troopers and local schools are also encouraging parents to remind their children to be aware of their surroundings and to never accept rides from people they don’t know.
At least two reports have been made of an older woman in a red SUV attempting to make contact with students, asking them to come with her. The first incident was reported earlier in April and allegedly occurred on Knik Goose-Bay Road, and the second incident happened Monday in Big Lake.
Maranatha Jubilee told Alaska’s News Source the mystery woman approached her 10-year-old daughter on March 30 while the family was on a walk near mile two of Knik Goose Bay Road. Her daughter, who was maybe two blocks ahead of the family, came running back to tell her mom someone tried to get her into a car.
“You don’t ask a kid to get in your vehicle,” Jubilee said Tuesday. “Nobody does that, not even your friends.”
Jubilee said her daughter told her that after she declined an offer of a ride, the woman pulled over, got out of her car and said “Get in my car now.”
Troopers have said the photo of a red SUV circulating online after the first incident belongs to a person who lives in the area and who is not involved. Troopers said they do not have an official photo of the vehicle or the driver. The original report described the vehicle as a red SUV, possibly a Dodge Journey, troopers said.
“The similarity of reported incidents is concerning, and troopers are putting a directed effort into figuring out who this person is and what their intentions are,” Gretchen Weiss-Brooks with the Department of Public Safety wrote in an email.
On Monday, a car and a woman of similar description were spotted at Big Lake Elementary, where the woman approached two children near the school yard fence in an are not covered by security cameras, according to the school.
Afterward families of students at Big Lake Elementary were sent the following email:
“Good afternoon Big Lake Elementary Families,
This afternoon at BLE, we had reports of an elderly female with white hair, driving a red vehicle with 4 doors who approached our school fence and asked students to come with her. Our school immediately brought all students inside the building and stayed indoors the rest of today. We worked with Alaska State Troopers and District Office to report the situation and I feel confident that the AST presence will increase in our area over the next several days.
I want to encourage families to talk with your students about Stranger Danger and please let us know if you have any questions or concerns in regards to today’s situation.”
School District Spokesperson Jillian Morrissey said interest is high in locating the person, and that the Wasilla Police Department and the Alaska State Troopers are working on the case.
WPD spokesperson Amanda Graham told Alaska’s News Source only one of the incidents happened within Wasilla city limits, which would be the Mar. 30 incident described by Jubilee near mile two of Knik Goose Bay Road.
Jubilee said her daughter had nightmares after the incident, and she’s now more nervous about being outside.
“She always stays ... exactly where I can see her,” Jubilee said, fighting back tears. “All the bike rides are gone, you know. She does walk sometimes, but she’s constantly on the phone with me or someone else.”
Several reports of similar events are circulating on social media, including photos posters claim are of the suspicious vehicle and its elderly driver. Troopers say the Wasilla Police Department has verified that the woman shown in those images is not involved.
Graham said police do not know where the image of the woman originated and could therefore not validate it. However, Graham did say they believe the suspect vehicle is a red SUV.
Gretchen Weiss-Brooks wrote that neither of the two reports so far rise to the level of criminal activity. The events do not meet the statutory definitions of an attempted kidnapping, she said, which require use of physical force and detaining or ransoming somebody.
Right now, the case is considered a suspicious circumstance investigation by the Wasilla Police Department, according to Graham. The department also has increased its presence at local schools, and is monitoring vehicles around the schools that people report as suspicious, she said.
MSBSD sent information to additional schools Monday, which was then circulated to parents. In a message sent to parents at Iditarod and Tanaina Elementary schools, the school district informed families about the woman and the reported suspicious behavior. The district wrote that a vehicle “approached two students” at Big Lake Elementary, that the students reported it to staff, and that all students are safe.
The district wrote that the person involved is suspected to be an older woman with grey or greying hair. The letter asked parents to be on the lookout and to call the Wasilla Police Department if the driver or the red SUV is seen.
The letter continued:
“Parents, this would be a good time to review Student Safety Tips with your child(ren). Student Safety Tips:
• Don’t talk to strangers.
• Don’t take anything from strangers.
• Don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know.
• Stay more than an arm’s reach from strangers.
• Trust your instincts, if you feel you are being followed or something is not right, seek help immediately.”
Morrissey said the district’s bus contractor, First Student, is aware of the reports and has taken additional safety measures.
Additionally, members of the Palmer Criminal Suppression Unit are attempting to identify and locate the person involved in the reported incidents, according to troopers.
At this time, the case is multi-jurisdictional, Weiss-Brooks wrote in a follow up email. Troopers have a team assigned to the reported suspicious behavior, while WPD is continuing to take calls and tips, she said.
“I don’t want to remind my kids that they could get taken all the time. They should be able to go through their life, being like ‘Okay, that person’s not a threat anymore,’” Jubilee said.
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information from the Alaska State Troopers and Wasilla Police Department, as well as a local parent. The photo originally included in this article has been removed because troopers have verified that its owner is not involved. The headline was changed to reflect what law enforcement agencies said after schools reported the incidents described in the article.