When 13-year-old Joseph Wade Czyz was located after a two-day search in Owasco last week, relief quickly gave way to questions.
Why were police bloodhounds and a helicopter being used to find this local youth but few, if any, of the others who go missing?
And how did the teen manage to enter Owasco Elementary School and elude searchers from under their noses for almost two days?
The answers, The Citizen has found, involve several unique and unlikely circumstances. Among them, Joseph “basically just disappeared without a trace,” Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck said.
When most youths go missing, authorities have reason to believe they ran away to a friend’s home or another familiar destination. But Joseph’s disappearance was so unique, Schenck told The Citizen, because he didn’t have a history of running away. The teen didn’t have a cellphone, either. His parents, Joshua and Rachel Czyz, posted on Facebook that he didn’t even take any of his shoes.
“If we had evidence to suggest he was a runaway or he had a place to go, certainly he wouldn’t have gotten that much attention,” the sheriff said. “It was just a unique situation.”
Without any indication that Joseph was intentionally hiding, as authorities would learn when they found him, they had to consider the possibility he was a victim of abduction or another form of foul play. That’s why, after he went missing from his family’s Owasco home the night of Monday, Aug. 14, Schenck’s office was joined by a New York State Police K-9 unit to canvass the neighborhood the next day.
As the search intensified, the missing teen received significant interest on social media. The Facebook post from the sheriff’s office announcing the disappearance was shared more than 5,000 times. While that interest led hundreds of volunteers to help with the search, Schenck stressed that it did not influence the search itself — nor did Joshua Czyz’s role as chaplain for the sheriff’s office.
“(That) did not trigger a different response than would have been given for any other child missing under the same circumstances,” Schenck said.
That Wednesday, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office’s Air 1 helicopter swept the area as Cayuga County Highland Search and Rescue and others searched and handed out fliers. But it was the criminal investigation division of Schenck’s office that traced Joseph to Owasco Elementary that evening, the sheriff said, by determining he was accessing the internet from a school in the Auburn district.
“Being in that area, we went to search the school for him, and sure enough we found him,” Schenck said. “Looking back, people might say that was a lot of resources to find a kid who wasn’t very far from his own house when he was found, but we didn’t know that at the time. … Had we found that he did in fact meet foul play, or was being held against his will, would the question be — did we do enough?”
Joseph entered Owasco Elementary by jimmying a window, Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo told The Citizen. A security camera recorded him working on the window’s lock for about five minutes before breaking it. But the school’s alarm system was disarmed at the time due to capital projects underway there, including an upgrade to that very alarm system.
For the same reason, Pirozzolo continued, the teen’s presence in the halls for two days didn’t set off any motion sensors. No staff was at the school on those days, either, because the county sheriff’s office was holding a school resource officer training. If the janitors were there, the superintendent said, they likely would have spotted the food wrappers Joseph left in the teacher’s lounge.
“I don’t want people breaking into our buildings. But at least the school provided an environment that kept him safe,” Pirozzolo said. “I’m just so glad it was a happy ending.”
Gallery: Volunteers step up to search for missing Owasco teenager