LAKE PLACID When on Jan.14 Lake Placid Police Office Heather Mulligan looked through an opening of trees into a huge pasture surrounded by a barbed wire fence, she saw "something running and falling that looked like a little white dot," she recalled Thursday.
That little white dot turned out to be 2-year-old Denise Hernandez, who was missing from her Immokalee home in Collier County for about 10 hours.
Mulligan had joined the search for the 2-year-old girl because she belongs to the area Child Abduction Response Team that is based out of Fort Myers, but handles such cases in a wider area.
Although her sharp vision resulted in the successful recovery of Denise, Mulligan emphasized that she was part of a team effort and that she just happened to be the first one to spot Denise.
"I wasn't lone-wolfing it," she said. 'There were hundreds of people involved."
After seeing what appeared to be a white dot, Mulligan yelled several times, "Hey is that her," she said.
Officers ran toward the pasture, with some being so anxious they split their pants on the barbed wire, she said.
At first, Mulligan said, that Denise "was running. She couldn't see us."
When they finally reached her, the 2-year-old "had bug bites all down arm, poor thing," Mulligan said. Other than that and being hungry and thirsty, the child was doing OK, she added.
Denise had apparently crawled under the barbed wire fence, about a mile from her home, Mulligan said.
About 10 hours earlier, Denise's brother went into her bedroom to check on her and discovered that she was missing around 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 13, Mulligan said.
He alerted their parents and in a short time law enforcement got the information, prompting an Amber alert, which is issued when a child is missing, she said.
That night, many officers, as well as a helicopter with heat sensor technology, searched for Denise, but unsuccessfully, Mulligan said.
When they couldn't find her, authorities "began thinking that it was an abduction," Mulligan said
It was at 5 a.m. the next morning when Mulligan got called out as a member of the abduction team, she said.
After arriving at a staging location in Immokalee, Mulligan said she was part of one of a many teams doing grid searches. Her team included Barbara Hair and Brian Livesay, detectives with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office. Det. Sgt. Brian Kramer, also of the sheriff's office, was also involved.
During the search, they looked over and under everything and went past several houses before coming to the pasture area where Denise was found, Mulligan said.
Following the search, an investigation led authorities to conclude that Denise climbed out of her bedroom window, she said.
Mulligan said that she's been a member of the abduction team for two years, but the search for Denise was the first time she got called out.
"It's rewarding when you actually find one (a child) and they're safe," she said.