Community rallies to help find missing teen — family grateful

Realizing a child is missing is a parent’s worst nightmare. When Maria Benton, a 15-year-old special needs student at Patch High School, didn’t return home from school Sept. 17, that nightmare came true for the Benton family. 

Jerry Benton, her father and a local contractor, made a call to the school bus office staff, who verified that Maria never got on the bus. After a search around the school and other facilities on Patch Barracks by administrators, she was nowhere to be found. 

 A disruption of Maria’s daily routine contributed to the cause of her disappearance. Maria’s brother, Riki, was at home sick, so she was alone that day. The bus wasn’t in its usual spot, as it arrived late because of traffic.

Jerry Benton contacted the provost marshal’s office, who after reviewing the security cameras at the front gate, saw that Maria had walked off the installation shortly after 3 p.m. U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Military Police immediately jumped into action, preparing missing child posters that were shared with the Polizei and community members.

The Polizei shared Maria’s photo and description with their patrols throughout the city of Stuttgart, and the search was on.

While discussing the details with the MPs, Jerry Benton had the idea that Maria may try to make her way back home to Denkendorf,  more than 20 miles away from Patch Barracks.

“She knows her bus route, and she’s really good with her memory” he said.  “I started thinking about normal walking speed and the time that had elapsed, trying to determine where to start looking.”

Around 6 p.m., a missing child alert with Maria’s photo and description was posted onto the USAG Stuttgart Facebook page, and within minutes, the word began to spread. The posting about Maria was shared more than 1,200 times in just a couple hours. 

Many members of the community weren’t content with simply passing on the message and hoping for the best. More than 70 people, to include Jerry Benton’s co-workers and several school faculty members, showed up at the PMO to volunteer to search for Maria. 

“I wasn’t at the office, but I got a call that a couple people had shown up to volunteer,” said Maj. Paul Goyne, USAG Stuttgart Director of Emergency Services. “By the time I got there, 45 to 50 people were there, so we got a plan together in about 15 minutes to send groups out.”

Goyne and the military police put the volunteers — split into search teams of three cars each — to work, following Maria’s usual bus route. When they would come to a traffic circle, each car would take a separate exit and drive a few miles looking for her before meeting up and reporting back to the PMO. Minutes after 11 p.m., Jerry Benton received the relieving phone call from the Polizei that they had found Maria in Filderstadt.

“A lot of people thought that since she was found near a train station, she must have taken public transportation, but no,” Jerry Benton said. “She walked about 15 miles along the bus route, and was about five miles from home.” After more than eight agonizing hours, Maria was finally reunited with her family, but the reunion wasn’t as dramatic as you might expect. 

“When I finally got home that night, I went in her room to check on her,” Jerry Benton said. “She was still awake and she looked up at me and asked “School tomorrow?”

After a week they’ll never forget, the Benton family is getting back to their regular routines, and they want the community to know how appreciative they are for their assistance.   

“It was humbling to have all these people I don’t know come out to try and find my daughter,” Jerry Benton said, adding that he was especially grateful to the Polizei who ultimately found Maria.  “I feel privileged to live in a community that comes together when things like this happen.”

If your child goes missing …
There are several steps that should be taken in the event that your child goes missing, according to the U.S. Army Garrison Directorate of Emergency Services. 
Parents should call the military police desk immediately after realizing that a child is missing.  When calling, the parent should also have as many details as possible about the physical description, clothing, and other identifying features of the child. Providing a recent photo and listing your child’s usual “hangouts” also assists MPs with finding missing children. 

“One of the common misperceptions is that you’re not a missing person until 24 hours exceeds,” said Maj. Paul Goyne, USAG Director of Emergency Services. “That’s untrue. Don’t wait. Call us immediately so we can start putting together a plan.”