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Published: Saturday, 7/16/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

AMBER ALERT IN NORTHWOOD

Mother arrested in Fla. after taking son

15-month-old boy was in custody of grandmother

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Benjamin Jones’ aunt Jessica Rupert, left, and grandmother Lisa Pendergraff are relieved that the
15-month-old boy was found safe in Florida. Arrangements are being made to bring the boy home. Benjamin Jones’ aunt Jessica Rupert, left, and grandmother Lisa Pendergraff are relieved that the 15-month-old boy was found safe in Florida. Arrangements are being made to bring the boy home.
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For a Northwood family, the nightmare of a missing boy didn't last long.

An Amber Alert was issued about 3 p.m. Friday for missing 15- month-old Benjamin Jones, taken by his mother, from the woman's parents' Brentwood Avenue home.

The alert was canceled before 5 p.m. when Tabbetha Rupert, 26, was arrested as she was getting off a plane at the Orlando International Airport. She's charged with interfering with custody. Arresting authorities took Benjamin into their care and put him with a children's protective agency until he could be given back to his family.

Police were able to locate Ms. Rupert by contacting Verizon Wireless to track the woman's cell phone.

Ms. Rupert, who lost custody of her son in April, was supposed to be staying at her mother's house Friday night. When Lisa Pendergraff, Ms. Rupert's mother, woke up about 10 a.m., her daughter and grandson were gone. No note, no good-bye.

The grandmother panicked.

For 20 minutes she tried to call and text her daughter. When she didn't get a response, she called the Northwood Police Department.

"I never thought she'd steal him," said a tearful Mrs. Pendergraff before the arrest, sitting in her garage surrounded by family. Benjamin's toys littered the garage and backyard.

"... Everyone told me not to let her stay here, but you don't want to believe that of your own daughter," Mrs. Pendergraff said.

Mrs. Pendergraff said she knew her daughter would flee to Florida -- she would typically run off there several times a month. She was worried she would "pawn him off."

Northwood police Sgt. Douglas Hubaker said Ms. Rupert had been arrested for prostitution at least three times in Florida. She was also arrested in Illinois, South Carolina, and Michigan on various drug, weapon, and prostitution charges, Sergeant Hubaker said.

Tabbetha Rupert, who had lost custody of Benjamin Jones in April, fled with him early Friday. Tabbetha Rupert, who had lost custody of Benjamin Jones in April, fled with him early Friday.
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Mrs. Pendergraff said she and her husband, Ed Pendergraff, tried to get their daughter help. "We wanted her to stop before we found her dead from this stuff," Mrs. Pendergraff said.

Ms. Rupert arrived at her parents' home about 10 p.m. Thursday. Her parents say she must have had the escape planned because she switched her clothing from her typical suitcase to one she didn't use.

Around 2 p.m. Friday, Ms. Rupert sent her mother a text message saying she was taking Benjamin camping in Port Clinton and would be back Sunday.

The problem, Mrs. Pendergraff said, was that Ms. Rupert lost all custody of her son in April; Mrs. Pendergraff was awarded custody. It is illegal for Ms. Rupert to take her son anywhere.

The Northwood family was terrified of what would happen to the boy -- the youngest of six grandchildren.

"He's my little man," Mrs. Pendergraff said.

The grandmother added that Benjamin has severe asthma and has to take medication every four hours. The machine they use to treat the asthma was left behind, Mrs. Pendergraff said.

Sergeant Hubaker said Northwood police officials had spoken to authorities with the Orange County Sheriff's Office for about 90 minutes before Ms. Rupert was arrested and were told she was in their custody.

Mrs. Pendergraff said she has a "very good friend" in Florida who has offered to take Benjamin until the family can get a flight to the Sunshine State.

Mrs. Pendergraff's daughters were planning to fly out last night or Saturday, as soon as tickets were available.

The missing boy was stressful on the entire family, but for Mrs. Pendergraff, the added stress was dangerous to her health. She said that, in January, she had a pacemaker implanted. She has also been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

She never thought Benjamin would be safe this quickly, but the entire family is relieved, she said.

"I'll be a lot happier when he's home," she said. "I'm going to hug him, and kiss him, and not let him out of my sight."

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com or 419-724-6054.



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