It’s one of those stories people talk about long after it’s over. Not because it’s tragic. Precisely the opposite. But it is the kind of story that usually does not end well.
A 13-year-old girl, possibly lured by an older man, was missing from school.
The details of how this story came to a happy conclusion sound like an episode of Forensic Files.
Even more remarkable, we get to see the whole thing unfold thanks to the body camera Volusia County Deputy Royce James was wearing. It shows the moment James saved the scared teen from almost certain doom.
It’s the kind of story that could have ended with the teen’s family either planning a funeral or launching a search party and praying for her to come home. Neither of those things happened because James likes solving puzzles.
Anchors Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin are joined this week on Florida’s Fourth Estate by James, who said he was just doing his job.
However, once you hear the details of how this all unfolded‚ you’ll understand why he is now being called a hero, not only by the teen he rescued and her family but to those of us who marvel at his perseverance and dogged determination to find her.
We should add, James does not consider himself a hero but we have eyes and saw what he did.
James says he was just starting his overtime shift on the south end of Volusia County when he learned grandparents had reported their teen granddaughter missing.
For James, this is go time.
He explained, “I learned she went to school that morning and was supposed to go to a basketball game thereafter. When they went to pick her up from the basketball game they learned she went to school but never made it to the basketball game.”
After finding out this was not normal behavior for the teen, he began to do what can only be described as good old-fashioned police work.
He started with the girl’s best friend.
James said he learned from the friend the girl was going to meet up with a guy and have a sleepover at a hotel. He also learned the guy was possibly from Orlando and his name started with a T, possibly Tyler.
The girl’s friend continued to give James more information he followed up on. She told James her friend likely walked to the nearby Dollar General store to be picked up by the mystery man. James then found himself at the Dollar General looking at security footage.
“Right around when school ended, sure enough, I see her walk into the Dollar General” James said.
That’s when he says she takes out her cell phone and makes a call.
James said the girl was inside the Dollar General for about 45 minutes and told the clerk she was waiting for a ride.
A short time later James said the teen appears to recognize someone outside the store and leaves.
This is where it got dicey. The store does not have security cameras outside.
Dead end, right? Nope.
James then launched a Google search for all the hotels in the area and started visiting them one by one.
It’s now hours after the initial call and James said he became concerned because the clerks working the front desks now are likely not the ones who would have seen the 13-year-old check-in.
No problem. James began to go through each of the hotel’s daily check-ins one by one.
He explained, “I am assuming if this person is driving age and they can rent a hotel, I am at least looking for a person 18 years or older.” He added, “My gut feeling is I am looking for a younger male.” He said the guy would be no older than 30.
James looks through the daily check-ins at the first two hotels. He said he was seeing a lot of families but nothing that matched what he was looking for.
Things changed when he arrived at his third location.
Something caught his eye right away. It was a copy of a driver’s license.
“… their license was printed in a vertical manner which means they are 21 or under” he explained.
Turns out that vertically printed license belonged to a Tyler with an Orlando address.
James said he got excited when those pieces came together.
He knocked on the hotel door and pretended to be from the front desk. A young, shirtless man opened the door. James said he immediately stuck his foot inside so the guy couldn’t slam it shut.
At this point on the body camera footage, you can see in the young, shirtless man’s eyes. He knows his moment of reckoning has arrived but James still had to find the teen.
James sternly tells the shirtless guy to sit down then calls out for the girl who came dashing out of the bedroom and right into his arms.
He said for a split second he was freaked out because the room was relatively dark and someone was running right at him.
“When I recognized her from the photos it was an overwhelming sigh of relief and again her body language told me she was desperately in a situation well over her head, had no clue what to do,” James said. “Again, I am a complete stranger so for a 12 or 13- year-old to come sprinting to a complete stranger they are in dire need of help.”
James is a dad himself and couldn’t help but think about his own daughters.
With the girl out of harm’s way, James turns his attention back to the shirtless man still sitting on the couch with a look of shock, disbelief and fear on his face.
The level of James’ anger is palpable as he asks the man his age. The guy finally answers that he is 22 years old.
James lets Tyler Thompson know he is in a world of trouble.
It’s such a remarkable story, yet James said he was just doing his job. Did we mention all he had to go on was the letter T and maybe an Orlando address?
James has been in law enforcement for 8 and a half years. Yet listening to him describe how he put all the clues together you get the feeling this guy had another life before solving crimes.
So, we asked him what he did before his years in law enforcement.
There was a brief pause from James, a smile, a laugh and then the revelation.
“I actually was a financial advisor,” he said. “I specialized in investments. I helped people with stocks, bonds, 401k’s, IREs, mutual funds, taxes. I did that for almost 10 years.”
James said law enforcement was something he had always been interested in but being a financial advisor was such a good career he says it didn’t make sense to make the switch.
Finally, the monotony of the job got to him and he decided to take the law enforcement plunge.
He admitted the transition was rough at first but says he knows he made the right decision.
“I like the fact that law enforcement is ever-evolving and my job is different every single day. I could be sitting somewhere doing nothing and two seconds all hell is breaking loose. I love that fact of law enforcement. It always keeps me guessing,” James explained.
He says he has no intentions of going back to being a financial advisor.
Thank goodness. We need him in that uniform getting crime results in the community and making sure every little girl or boy who disappears is reunited with their family.
If you would like to hear more from James about what it was like to find the missing 13-year-old girl, listen to this week’s edition of Florida’s Fourth Estate by clicking on the link below.
Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.
Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.
Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.