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Published: Tuesday, 7/1/2003

Smart teen thwarted abduction, police say

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A former youth minister at a Hillsdale church remained in jail yesterday on charges that he tried to abduct a Branch County girl, authorities said.

Troy Stoner, 30, of Hillsdale is charged with child accosting for immoral purposes, a four-year felony, and false impersonation of a police officer, a one-year misdemeanor, Branch County Prosecutor Kirk Kashian said. Mr. Stoner is being held in lieu of $100,000 bond pending a preliminary exam July 9 in Branch County District Court.

Gary Chester, director of police and fire services in Coldwater, Mich., said the 13-year-old girl used quick thinking to avoid being abducted Thursday.

According to police, the girl was with her brother and a friend at the playground at Washington Elementary School in Coldwater when a van drove up about 1:35 p.m. Mr. Chester said the driver got out, told the girl he was an undercover police officer, and asked her to get in the van for questioning.

The teen refused, telling the man she wanted proof of his identity.

“The girl had enough presence of mind to ask the guy, `If you're a police officer, let me see your badge,'” Mr. Chester said.

The man told her undercover officers don't carry badges, then threatened to arrest her if she didn't cooperate.

“She still refused to go with the guy,” Mr. Chester said. “She was pretty street smart.”

As the man spoke to the girl, two adults approached the playground. The man got back in his van and drove off.

“He saw them and said to the girl, `I've got to go, but I'll be back,'” Mr. Chester said. “I don't know if they scared him off or what.”

The girl went home and told a relative, who called police. Later that day, Mr. Stoner was arrested at a business just east of Coldwater on U.S. 12.

“He did admit to approaching the girl and trying to get her in his car, but he wouldn't give us a reason,” Mr. Chester said. “But I'm sure it wasn't to take her to Disney World.”

Police searched the van and found a crib mattress.

“His explanation of that was he was taking it to donate it to one of these service agencies that give things to needy families,” Mr. Chester said.

Mr. Stoner was a youth minister at several churches in Indiana and Michigan, including the First Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, police said.

He was asked to leave those jobs “for questionable conduct on his part,” but has no criminal record, Mr. Chester said.

Officials with the Hillsdale church could not be reached yesterday. Steve Artz, who was the church's pastor until recently, declined to comment.

Mr. Chester said the incident shows how children should react if approached by a stranger.

“This girl did right in recognizing there could be some danger ... and not getting in the vehicle with this stranger,” he said. “We advise our children, even if he shows a weapon, it's better to run and scream. Chances are, he's not going to use that weapon. But once you're in that vehicle, you're his.”

Except for rare circumstances, undercover police carry badges and identification cards, he said. Anyone stopped by a person identifying himself as a law enforcement officer should ask to see both, he said.

“By Michigan law, for a police officer's authority to be invoked, you have to be recognizable or identify yourself as a police officer,” Mr. Chester said. “If the ID is not there, a citizen is not required to obey your authority.”



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