The FBI used information transmitted from a Nintendo Switch to help find a missing 15-year-old girl in Arizona last summer, according to court records.
The teen, who Scripps News Phoenix is not identifying due to the nature of the case, disappeared from her home in Virginia on August 3, 2022.
Volunteers, including Keitra Coleman and her group, Hear Their Voices, came to help.
"We immediately reached out to her family and spoke with her grandmother and her stepdad, and that next day, we were out there ‘boots on the ground.'"
They canvassed the neighborhood with flyers. At the same time, they learned the teen was a homebody and not likely a runaway.
“She reminded me so much of my daughter,” Coleman told Scripps News Phoenix in an interview this month. Hear Their Voices helps missing and exploited children, domestic violence victims, and people experiencing homelessness.
In Virginia, teams widened their street search but hit dead ends day after day. The missing girl was already on a bus headed more than 2,000 miles away.
Her destination was an apartment complex in Tolleson, Arizona. According to court records, a then-28-year-old man, Ethan Roberts, had befriended her on the internet, traveled to Virginia to get her, and later forced her into child pornography.
"She went through a lot in those few days," Coleman said.
Federal court records show Roberts did let the girl bring her Nintendo Switch gaming console. When she connected to the internet to watch YouTube and download a game, she dropped digital breadcrumbs.
The Switch has a feature that lets you alert gaming friends on their Switches every time you get online. It is designed to encourage group play. In this case, it may have saved the 15-year-old girl's life. A friend saw her name appear with recent activity and alerted the authorities.
"It's probably nothing that anybody even had thought of at this point," said retired Arizona DPS Director Frank Milstead. "The fact that somebody else down the road — another child — was bright enough to go, 'Hey, look, my friend is online, and she's been missing, and I need to tell somebody.'"
Milstead was not involved in this case, but he said police agencies frequently use digital device tracking to capture suspects and find missing people.
And the list of what can track you is growing.
"Everything's connected to Wi-Fi to LTE (long-term evolution devices)," Milstead said. "A cell phone, an iPad, a watch, whatever it is — you can use those things to locate people."
With help from Nintendo, the FBI obtained the Switch's IP address which led them to the abductor's apartment complex.
"He definitely underestimated that part," Coleman said.
Eleven days after the girl disappeared, court records show the FBI and Tolleson police surrounded the man's apartment near 91st Avenue and I-10. He was arrested.
The next morning, Coleman's phone rang. The teen's stepdad was on the line with the happy news that the 15-year-old was coming home.
"We cried on the phone," Coleman said. "It was just joy."
The missing child posters came down. The teen returned to her family in Virginia to recover from the ordeal, which could have gone on for so much longer if it hadn't been for that Nintendo Switch.
"The bad guys need to know that the police are watching and that you're leaving a digital footprint everywhere you go," Milstead said. "We will find you."
Roberts was later indicted in federal court for charges including child pornography and transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
He made a plea deal, and in April, he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
This story was originally published by Melissa Blasius at Scripps News Phoenix.
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