One-On-One: Sheriff Chip Hughes reflects on search for missing toddler

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Tuesday marks one week to the day since a toddler in Craven County first went missing.

Three-year-old Casey Hathaway was found Thursday afternoon after a massive search effort lasting nearly 55 hours.

The toddler ran away from his great-grandmother’s backyard in Ernul.

A tip from a woman walking her dogs along Aurora Road led to the discovery of the boy.

Nearly as quickly as the news spread of the boy being found alive, so did the rumors and speculation on how he could have survived.

Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes sat one-on-one with Nine On Your Side to give his take on the search and its outcome.

Hughes said this case was no doubt a memorable one for him. “Definitely the emotions of it are something that I have never experienced in my thirty plus years in law enforcement,” said Hughes. “He belonged to all of us as we were moving through this thing.”

Hundreds of professional and volunteer search teams worked around the clock to find the boy.

Hughes said, “As more time passed the greater the concern became for his well-being and safety.”

While he was missing, Casey faced temperatures in the teens, hours worth of rain, and the threat of wildlife in the dense woods of Ernul.

As some call the boy’s discovery a miracle, others are casting doubts. Questions ranging from how Casey could have survived to whether he had been kidnapped.

Hughes said, “The notion that maybe he was in a car, or something like that, just prior to us finding him and then he was placed out there, is not likely at all. There’s just nothing that points to that.”

Over the course and the search, hundreds of tips were called into the Sheriff’s Office.

Hughes said none of the tips have pointed to, or suggest, wrong-doing in Casey’s disappearance.

Hughes added Casey’s core temperature was dangerously low when he was found.

Doctors analysis of the child indicated the boy had been in elements for days.

During the search, crews ran up against rugged terrain with saturated grounds. 

Ernul sits just off Highway 43 where cell phone service can be an issue.

“It made it difficult to transmit data video footage, pictures, maps stuff that we needed,” Hughes said.

The sheriff added many of the agents with the FBI who came into help on the case, were not getting paid at the time due to the government shutdown.

Hughes was called late Thursday evening with the news everyone was hoping for in this case.

He rushed to the hospital to meet the toddler as he was carried out of the ambulance.

“It was tear-jerking. It was very emotional that he was actually found and alive because he defied the odds. Make no mistake about it, he did.”

And as for that bear Casey said helped keep him company while he was gone. Hughes said, “If this was that the child saw, or in his thoughts, that helped him get through this ordeal I’m going to embrace it.”

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