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Charlotte is My Hero: My missing niece came home and put her captor away for life


Charlotte was 9 years old when her shocking abduction from an upstate New York campground made national headlines. She vanished while riding her bike during a family trip at Moreau Lake State Park on Sept. 30, 2023. Charlotte was rescued 47 hours later, found safe inside a camper RV belonging to the suspect, who was caught after leaving a ransom note at the child’s home. In February, Charlotte’s abductor accepted a plea deal and was sentenced today.

As someone who makes a living through words, I’ve been at a loss for them lately. 

Throughout my 25-year journalism career, I’ve been like a proverbial open book, publishing nearly every negative experience in my life, from my divorce to nearly dying of a blood clot, in hopes it can somehow help others. I’ve always been motivated to share. But this time, it feels different. I’ve opened and closed my laptop a hundred times over the last few months. It’s not writer’s block, it’s something else. The past six months are unlike anything I’ve ever been through. It’s something no family should ever have to go through. Yet, here we are. 

The days of fight or flight running on adrenaline mode seem to wane, and our purpose is becoming clearer. As we come out of the fog, my family can take some solace in knowing that the man who stole my adorable, sweet little 9-year-old niece from right under her parents’ noses and held her captive for two days while hundreds searched for her and an entire nation prayed for her, will be rotting in a 6x8 cell where he belongs for the rest of his life. 

This is the part where I was going to tell you what happened, how those torturous two days were for us, and the many long days that followed. But it’s not my story to tell. It’s hers one day when she’s ready. I will tell you that she’s the bravest person I know (and my husband runs into burning buildings for a living), and her strength and resilience are nothing short of remarkable.

At sentencing today, the judge ruled that Craig Ross Jr. will serve 47 years to life. He will be 94 when he’s eligible for parole. That’s primarily due to our sweet niece and her courage. I’m not sure what ‘most kids’ would do in this instance, as this is something NO CHILD should ever have to endure. But I do know that she shocked family members and investigators with her ability to calmly and articulately recount every last detail, no matter how small, of what happened to her during those 47 hours, effectively building what could be considered an airtight case for the prosecution. More than a million pieces of evidence were sent to the defense, and that’s not an exaggeration. 

The FBI, the New York State Police Special Operations Response Team, the forest rangers and multiple other agencies responded not only to locate her in the small camper hidden away in a trailer park, but to apprehend the monster that took it upon himself to kidnap her from her family camping trip and take her there. The special ops team that raided the camper were recently honored as the heroes they are, and they deserve those accolades and many more. Our gratitude to them is immeasurable. But she is the real hero, having not only kept herself alive during those harrowing hours but also having the remarkable ability to put him away for life so he can never harm another child ever again. SHE did that. The petite little angel who barely scrapes 5 feet tall went up against a giant scary monster – the boogeyman in the flesh – and she won. No one can ever take that away from her. Not all heroes wear capes. Mine wears a Pokémon T-shirt. 

Charlotte's mother, Trisha, shared this victim impact statement at today's sentencing:

There will never be a sentence that is sufficient for what you did in my daughter. You were shown leniency, not because of the people in this room but because of our laws. But that is a subject for another day.

I don’t understand why people like you do the things that you do. You took something from my daughter that cannot be replaced and I will never forgive you for that. You don’t deserve forgiveness. Maybe that says something about the type of person I am, but I will deal with that when I am no longer a part of this world. Maybe it makes you feel powerful to alter someone’s life, to change who they are mentally, emotionally and physically.

You didn’t know my daughter so let me tell you about her. She loves to sing but she hates dancing. She loves snakes and all wildlife but she is afraid of ladybugs. She loves Pokémon and cats. She loves deeply and is never afraid to apologize. She is kind and cares about everyone around her, whether they are a family member, a friend or someone she just met. She is incredibly smart. Her Kindergarten teacher called her a “big thinker” because she couldn’t take anything at face value – she needed to know the how and the why.

I know I said all the things that a parent is supposed to say about their child. But it’s all true. And you tried to ruin that, you took advantage of her kindness. But I want you to know that you failed. She’s stronger than what you tried to do. She wanted to come today so she could see you be punished for what you did to her. Because you didn’t change her, and though her trust is hurt right now, it will not be forever. Even after what you did to her, she was concerned for your cat and asked if you did this to her because someone did it to you when you were a kid.

THAT IS THE KIND OF PERSON MY DAUGHTER IS. She is everything that you are lacking. She is everything good in this world and you are nothing. She will make this world a better place and already has because she wasn’t afraid to tell her story and now you are no longer allowed to be a part of society. She put you here. I hope you understand that. She put you here because she was not afraid.

When I look around this room, not only can I see the love everyone has for my daughter and my family, but I can feel it. We could never thank all of you enough for your support. When you look around, Craig Ross Jr., I hope you feel your family’s absence for the next 47 years.

Media, when we are in this court room today, the lawyers will refer to my daughter as the victim. I understand this is standard court room terminology, but I ask that when you leave today and choose to report on this case as you see fit, please do not call her a victim. She is a survivor. She experienced something horrific, but she will overcome this. And she works hard every day to continue being a survivor. This horrific situation does not and will not define her.

We understand that we beat the odds. That SHE beat the odds. Statistics show that when a child is abducted, the likelihood of them returning home becomes null at hour 48. Roughly half of all abductions are custodial, meaning the child is taken by one of their parents. Having your child abducted by a stranger in the first place is about as likely as dying in a plane crash. Yet, it had happened to our family. 

But we have to remind ourselves how lucky we are. She’s here to share her story with others; one day, she will help many people. She is going to change the narrative of what a victim is. She’s a survivor. Her parents are now focused on helping her return to the ‘normal’ childhood she once had, with plenty of ice cream, sleepovers, school plays and, yes, even camping trips – the beloved family pastime they enjoyed so much. She will carry this experience with her forever; one day, it will fuel change. 

Helen Keller famously said, “Keep your face to the sunshine, and you cannot see a shadow.” 

Focusing on the positive that can come from this horrific situation has collectively kept us going. My sister-in-law Trisha and I have been working on ways to get the wheels of change rolling. We are working with state lawmakers on a bill that would ensure each minor victim of sexual assault is assigned an advocate (someone whom they are comfortable with) who stays with them throughout the entire legal process, among other things. It’s time that we put protecting our children first. 

We’ve also teamed up with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to determine how our experiences can help other survivors’ families in the future. We have been advocating for survivors and victims in the media. We want to teach the media how important it is to be more sensitive and understand that there are ripple effects to their reporting. In our case, we ask people to remember that Charlotte is a living, breathing little girl who is trying to lead a normal life. In our efforts protect her, we have some suggestions for the media.

  • Please, do not pair Charlotte’s picture side by side with her abductor in your stories. 

  • Because of the sensitive nature of this case, we kindly ask that you not mention the charges involved. Please imagine how you would feel if this were your child.

  • Please do not use her full name. Remember, not only is she a minor but it’s not ethical reporting.

As we look to support others, we plan to start a non-profit foundation to help survivors and their families with expenses that might not otherwise be covered or help the survivors themselves recover through theater and the arts that our niece will be in charge of one day. Those are our rays of sunshine, and soon, the shadow of this will be in the rearview mirror.


Jené Luciani Sena is a veteran journalist and internationally-renowned bestselling author of The Bra Book: An Intimate Guide to Finding the Right Bra, Shapewear, Swimsuits, and More! 1st and 2nd edition (BenBella Books) and Get It!: A Beauty, Style, and Wellness Guide to Getting Your #It# Together (BenBella Books). She’s also a contributing writer to national magazines including Woman’s World and First For Women, and a style, beauty and bra expert regularly seen on shows like Access Daily and Good Morning America. She lives in New York with her husband Patrick and their four children.