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S. Manatee scoured in hunt for possibly abducted boy

MANATEE — Authorities still had no solid leads Thursday night after searching a south Manatee neighborhood for six hours in hopes of finding more information about a boy who was possibly abducted.

A 23-year-old woman who resides in the 7300 block of Phillips Street called authorities when she saw a boy with sandy blond hair get snatched up by a man in a van near the intersection of Phillips Street and Whitfield Avenue, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

The woman was walking her dog when she witnessed the incident from about a football field’s length away at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday and immediately contacted authorities, said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Dave Bristow.

However, even after the Manatee County School District used a automated phone system to place 42,000 calls to families in Manatee County, no one reported a missing child.

“That’s the whole key to this thing,” Bristow said. “There’s no report of a missing child. There’s somebody who knows by now if their child is missing.”

The boy, who was about 7 or 8 years old, was about 4 feet tall, weighing 60 to 80 pounds, according to authorities. He was last seen wearing a grey short-sleeved shirt over a white long-sleeved shirt with a design on the back. He had light-up tennis shows and was wearing headphones.

The woman told deputies that the child was kicking and screaming when a dark green full-sized van with faded paint, possibly with a ladder on the rear door and letter ‘G’ in the license plate, screeched to a stop, authorities said.

There were three men inside. One of the men, who appeared to be in his early 30s and about 5 feet 8 inches with a thin build wearing a dark T-shirt, a black hat over his shoulder-length hair and jeans, threw the boy into the van, according to authorities.

The van sped away and was last seen heading east on Gaines Avenue.

Suellyn Hernandez, 46, who owns a home on Broughton Street that overlooks the area marked off with crime scene tape, said she works from home and saw nothing unusual.

“My front office window looks out there,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if anything happened being this close to Tamiami. We’ve had a rash of robberies because we’re right off of U.S. 41.”

Hernandez said there aren’t many young children who live in the area. A group of boys about 11 to 14 years of age live nearby, she said. There’s a nearby bus stop, but no children normally walk toward the area, she said.

“I hope to God it’s nothing. It’s awful to send the cops on a wild goose chase, but I hope that’s all it is,” Hernandez said.

Bristow said the woman seems to be a credible witness.

“That’s all we have to go by,” he said.

The woman declined to comment Thursday night and appeared to be visibly upset.

The sheriff’s office had deputies and detectives canvass the neighborhood, going door to door several times looking for leads. A sheriff’s helicopter patrolled above. Bloodhounds were brought out just before 8 p.m. to search the spot. Crime scene technicians lifted a couple of possible shoe prints.

Authorities in Sarasota stopped a couple of vans matching the description, but yielded no results, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said at the scene.

Surrounding counties were notified of the possible abduction.

Authorities received a handful of tips in the case, but not enough to go on, Steube said.

Margi Nanney, spokeswoman for Manatee County School District, said school district administrators and transportation staff assisted with the search.

“That began immediately after we found out,” she said. “There’s just deep concern. We hope for the best.”

Nanney stressed to parents to be vigilant regarding their children’s safety after receiving several recent reports of people trying to pick up children.

She advises parents to know what routes their children travel to school, the exact time they should be home and encourage them to travel in groups if a parent cannot be with them. The sheriff’s office will continue to investigate the case and has set up a tip line at (866) 808-9508.

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