On a recent Sunday morning, Dave Fallon got an urgent call from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC): A 9-year-old girl had been abducted while riding her bike alone at Moreau Lake State Park in Upstate New York, the child was in “imminent danger” and state police wanted his help.
A member of NCMEC's Team Adam, Dave grabbed his gear, jumped in his car and made it there in 25 minutes from his home in Ballston Lake, New York. At the command post, Dave, who investigated crimes against children during his nearly 30-year career with the FBI, offered investigative advice and NCMEC resources for the search. He also said NCMEC could help her frantic parents who were camping in the park with their kids when their 9-year-old daughter did not return to their tent.
"In my personal opinion, we should be using every resource possible when you have a missing kid, especially when you have someone as experienced as Dave," said New York State Police Lt. Andrew Cornell, who appreciated the help from Team Adam. "It was nice to have a sounding board to say, 'Hey, anything else we should be doing?'"
After a three-day search involving hundreds of people, with the New York governor on the scene comforting the parents, the little girl was found safe. The rescue happened after a fingerprint was found on a ransom note left in her family's mailbox.
Dave is one of 158 Team Adam Consultants, or TACs as they're called, who are rapidly deployed to help law enforcement find critically missing children. Like Dave, they’re retired law enforcement professionals with years of experience at the federal, state and local levels who are selected in a competitive process.
Since NCMEC started Team Adam 20 years ago, TACs – who live all across the country – have been deployed 1,289 times to help search for 1,478 missing children in all 50 states.
Team Adam was named after 6-year-old Adam Walsh, the abducted and murdered son of NCMEC co-founders John and Reve′ Walsh.
“We expected the government to swoop in, mount a huge search and bring us back our little boy alive within 24 hours,” John said of the devastating time in 1981 when Adam was abducted from a Florida shopping mall. “Nothing remotely like that happened. The search was minimal. We had no idea how to look for a missing child and, of course, the ending was horrific.”
After he and his wife co-founded NCMEC, they were approached by Michael and Susan Dell who wanted to help and donated $5 million from their foundation. With that, NCMEC was able to create its own rapid-response team, promising law enforcement TACs would never interfere with the search and would only be there to work, teach and assist.
“And for 20 years, Team Adam has been a powerful arrow in our quiver,” said John, who hosts In Pursuit with John Walsh with his son, Callahan. “Thanks to Michael and Susan Dell for making such a difference in people’s lives.”
Team Adam's mission is now mandated by Congress: To rapidly deploy anywhere in the U.S. where a critical case is unfolding. The investigating agency decides what help it wants. Team Adam has subject-matter experts who can advise law-enforcement – either in person or over the phone – with search-and-rescue strategies, landfill search assessments and investigative recommendations. Team Adam is also tasked with giving “fresh eyes” to long-term missing children cases.
Team Adam Consultant, Lisa Briggs, assists law enforcement with a case.
In addition to offering technical assistance, TACs can connect law enforcement to a national network of free resources from NCMEC and our partner law enforcement agencies, government entities, search-and-rescue organizations and private corporations. One of NCMEC’s 50 case managers is assigned to each case and communicates with the TAC, who relays what resources are needed, including search dogs, drones, cell phones, computer forensics, case analysis, family emotional support, help with the media or something as simple as gas for a helicopter.
More than half of the nation's law enforcement agencies have fewer than 15 officers and often don't have the necessary resources or manpower. Critically missing child cases can be complex and costly and generate national media attention, putting a strain on already strapped agencies.
“Our program taps into the most underutilized resource in law enforcement – retired, experienced investigators,” said Rich Leonard, who oversees Team Adam and has 32 years of law enforcement experience. “Due to age, we can no longer chase the bad guys on foot, but our years of experience and knowledge investigating cases of missing and abducted children is invaluable.”
Map shows current areas covered by Team Adam Consultants. TAC Dave Fallon lives in New York.
Priscilla Stegenga, the senior Team Adam Coordinator who has been with the program since the beginning, said TACs are assigned to cases based on their expertise and proximity to the scene, like Dave. The program has steadily expanded its reach over the years and is close to meeting its goal of having at least one TAC in all 50 states to hasten the response, she said.
While Dave was welcomed with open arms into the command post in upstate New York and kept abreast of the fast-moving investigation, that's not always the case, particularly when Team Adam first started in 2003. Initially, law enforcement was not familiar with Team Adam and not always comfortable giving someone who no longer wears a badge access to sensitive information. Some were wary that TACs were coming in to try to take over their investigation, which is never the case. Their role is strictly advisory.
Bill Hagmaier, a well-known FBI profiler who has interviewed some of the most infamous serial killers on the planet, including Ted Bundy, was one of the first seven TACs and is still on the team today. With so few TACs in the very beginning, they had to fly to the scene or drive long distances if a flight out wasn't possible.
"Early on, we were trying to build up our credibility as well as help," said Bill, who has decades of experience in law enforcement. "When I'd go in, I'd say, ‘It's your case, not ours. We're here to help.' I’m very proud I was one of the first ones. There's no doubt that some of the Team Adam folks were responsible for getting kids back alive and not taking a bow. We’re shadow people.”
One of the largest Team Adam deployments came early on, in 2005, in response to Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Over a six-month period, dozens of TACs were deployed to New Orleans or NCMEC headquarters, where a special hotline was set up to track down the 5,192 children reported missing or separated from their families. The unprecedented effort ended on March 16, 2006, when the last child, a four-year-old girl, was reunited with her mother and siblings in Houston.
Team Adam has won over many law enforcement agencies over the years, with one sheriff calling Team Adam NCMEC’s “crown jewel.” They’re especially appreciated in difficult cases, including missing children with autism for whom a unique set of search protocols have been developed and landfill searches in cases of deceased missing children, which can be prohibitively expensive and tantamount to looking for a needle in a haystack.
Team Adam provided Sumter police with a detailed blueprint for conducting a landfill search.
For example, in 2020, Team Adam showed how the impossible could be possible in a heart-breaking South Carolina case. Team Adam’s landfill experts helped the Sumter Police Department do an assessment to see what it would take to recover the body of a 5-year-old missing girl they believed was in a landfill. Developing algorithms, the TACs were able to mathematically determine where to search – they’d need to go 10 feet deep – and what it would take: 392 searchers, 839 shifts, 60 to 80 support personnel, 7,672 search hours, four million pounds of search material and 48 state and local agencies. Read the full story here.
Determined to give the child a proper burial, the police department decided to go for it despite the low odds, vast resources and hefty price tag of more than $1 million. After working in oppressive heat in protective gear, the search was one week from ending when they found the child’s remains. Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark said his agency could have never attempted a landfill search without the detailed blueprint provided by the TACs.
“If you have a child that is missing, I don’t know another group of subject matter experts in the country than the National Center to get us in the right direction,” the police chief said. “None of us in law enforcement ever thought during our careers we would be in a landfill picking through debris in an attempt to find the body of a 5-year-old child.”
When Dave arrived at the park in upstate New York on October 1, he already knew some of the FBI agents there, and had even trained some of them. When the 9-year-old girl was finally found safe in a cabinet in the suspect’s camper behind his mother’s house, there was “absolute elation” in the command post, he said.
“I love it,” said Dave, who joined Team Adam in 2021 and has helped law enforcement with cold cases. “I think having the experience available to law enforcement nationwide is invaluable.”
Team Adam is accepting applications. To learn more, go to: https://www.missingkids.org/ourwork/caseresources.