Dive teams join in search for missing NC toddler; volunteer sear - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Dive teams join in search for missing NC toddler; volunteer search effort announced

Mariah Kay Woods (Source: WITN) Mariah Kay Woods (Source: WITN)
Authorities are searching for a missing toddler in Onslow County. (Source: WECT) Authorities are searching for a missing toddler in Onslow County. (Source: WECT)
Search crews on Thursday turned their attention to a creek along US 17 in Onslow County. (Source: WECT) Search crews on Thursday turned their attention to a creek along US 17 in Onslow County. (Source: WECT)

A statewide Amber Alert was issued Monday morning for a missing toddler in Onslow County.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, authorities are searching for 3-year-old Mariah Kay Woods. She is about 2-feet-9 and weighs around 30 pounds. She has brown hair and blue eyes.

The Amber Alert states this is a child abduction case and the abductor was unknown at the time the alert was issued.

On Thursday, search crews turned their attention towards a creek along US 17 about three miles from Mariah's home on Dawson Cabin Road in Jacksonville where she was last seen.

WITN reports that a dive team from the Onslow County Sheriff's Office with at least one K9 unit and a boat, are at the Southwest Creek Bridge. Authorities have blocked off a southbound lane on US 17 while crews conduct their search. Dive teams are also searching surrounding ponds and other waterways off Dawson Cabin Road, WITN reports.

Horse patrol units from the Wilmington Police Department and the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office were also brought in to help search difficult terrain areas.

Earlier in the day, a team from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) placed white orb devices around Mariah's home to take 360-degree pictures of the property.

FBI officials said during a Thursday afternoon news conference that experts at their labs in Quantico, Virginia are testing "items of interest" that could help lead them to Mariah. Those items were transported directly to their labs by an Osprey aircraft.

Sheriff Hans Miller said during the Thursday afternoon news conference that volunteers who wish to help search for Mariah should arrive at the Dawson Community Church located at 2311 Dawson Cabin Road in Jacksonville between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Friday. Please have your IDs ready. Volunteers should wear appropriate clothing and bring their own water and snacks.

"Personally as a father, as a grandfather I'm looking at a little three-year-old girl and I'm emotional about this. We want to find Mariah and bring her back," Miller said.

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, officials with the FBI and Onslow County Sheriff's Office said that more than 100 interviews have been conducted since Mariah went missing, and that law enforcement officials were working 140 different leads in the case.

"More than 225 investigators, agents and other law enforcement employees are working around the clock with one goal in mind," Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller said. "That goal is to find Mariah and bring her back home."

Speaking to the community, officials said the best way to help was to search familiar areas for any clues that could help law enforcement in their search. 

Regarding citizen search parties, an FBI spokesperson said on Wednesday night that plans are being made for a volunteer search.

"It will take a lot to organize, so please be patient," said Shelley Lynch, an FBI public affairs specialist. "Team Adam from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is here to assist."

Mariah's father, Alex Woods, was at work Monday when he heard the Amber Alert come over the radio and he couldn't believe what he heard. 

"It said, '3-year-old Mariah Kay Woods' and I was like, 'What? Wait a minute.' I sat there for a minute. I have a daughter named Mariah Kay Woods. That's my daughter. I was like, 'Nah, couldn't be,'" Alex Woods said. 

He called his fiance to find out if the news he heard was true. She called him back and said it was, so he called authorities. 

"Nobody called me," Woods said. 

The authorities showed up at his work shortly after he reached out to ask questions. Woods said he cooperated and gave as much information as he could.

It has been about a year since he had seen his daughter, but he remembers Mariah as being a happy little girl who was always cheerful, playing and smiling.

"Daddy loves you and misses you so much," Woods said. "Daddy wants to hold you in his arms. Daddy loves you, baby." 

Late Tuesday evening, the FBI released surveillance images of a woman and a child taken from a Walmart in Morehead City, asking for the public's help in identifying the people in the pictures.

The Onslow County Sheriff's Office and the FBI confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the child in the pictures is not Mariah Woods and that the woman pictured is not connected to the ongoing investigation.

"(I'm) trying not to give up hope," Alex Woods said. "You know, I mean, if she's out there in the woods or something like that...it's not looking good for my baby." 

The Onslow County Sheriff's Office and FBI held a press conference Tuesday afternoon as well, making a plea to the community to continue searching for the girl. 

"Mariah is a member of our community, and we will use every possible means to bring her home," said Sheriff Miller, emphasizing that time is important in this type of case. "Every second counts when a child is missing, especially after the cold night we just had. A detailed timeline is crucial in helping us find this little girl."

Several agencies are working together in an effort to bring Mariah home. 

In addition to many state and local resources, the FBI has brought in the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team. This is a group of highly trained and experienced subject-matter experts on missing child cases. 

The FBI has created a new missing person poster that will be featured on its social media sites. 

"This is a very fresh investigation, and there are certain things that we have to maintain close hold or confidential. So that is going to come out in the long run but not at this time because investigative details must maintain confidentiality," Miller said.

"I don't feel that she just walked out the house. I mean she's three years old. You gonna wake up and go to the door at, you know, 2, 3, 4, whatever time in the morning they said she left and you're gonna walk outside in the cold and dark and just walk? Possible, but no," Alex Woods said.

Crime Stoppers is offering cash rewards of up to $2,500 for information that is deemed of value or assistance to law enforcement. 

According to WITN, the girl was last seen Monday around 6:45 a.m. at her home on Dawson Cabin Road in Jacksonville.

WITN is reporting investigators seem interested in a trash can outside of the home and have removed it from the scene. 

The media outlet is reporting Melissa Hunter, Mariah's grandmother, says Mariah's mother put the girl to bed at their home and she checked on her about 9 or 10 p.m. Hunter says the mother went to check on Mariah Monday morning, but she was gone.

The Onslow County Sheriff's Office has interviewed the girl's mother and her live-in boyfriend, who said he saw Mariah around midnight.

The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office Aviation Unit is assisting with the search, according to WITN. 

"Our intention is to search everything that we can search. We've been very active, but as the investigation goes on, we continue to search in expanding circles," Miller said.

"If somebody has her please, you now, bring her back, you know. Call somebody, tell you found her. Return my baby girl, you know, please," Alex Woods pleaded. 

If you have any information regarding this abduction, call the Onslow County Sheriff's Office immediately at 910-455-3113, Crime Stoppers at 910-938-2373 or call 911 or *HP. You may also contact your local FBI office, or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate. 

Information can also be anonymously texted via Text-A-Tip by typing TIP4CSJAX and your message to 274637 (CRIMES). Callers to Crime Stoppers may remain anonymous and never have to reveal their identity.

Copyright 2017 WECT. All rights reserved. WITN contributed to this report.

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