Authorities had been searching more than two years for Paislee Shultis, a 4-year-old reported missing from her legal guardian in Cayuga Heights in upstate New York, without any luck.
But a new piece of information turned the entire investigation around, police said, leading them straight to a place they long suspected as her location but could never prove: the home of Paislee’s biological parents.
“This tip was fresh, it was factual. The information provided was corroborated,” Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra told CNN’s Mark Morales.
Paislee, now 6, was found alive Monday hidden underneath a staircase with her biological mother. The child has been returned to her legal guardian and older sister, police said, and her biological parents and grandfather were arrested.
While authorities had been to the home on numerous occasions, they lacked the evidence needed to conduct a full search of the property.
“We can’t execute a search warrant or act on hearsay, we have to act on factual information. And on this particular day, on February 14, we obtained factual information. And that’s what made it so much different,” Sinagra said.
Police have declined to share what the tip specifically was or from whom it came. But it proved to be the key, allowing authorities to gain legal access to the home and ultimately find Paislee.
Saugerties is roughly 160 miles east of Cayuga Heights and the location where Paislee was ultimately found. Authorities frequently visited the home, working on tips received about her possible whereabouts, Sinagra said, but on most occasions officers were met with irritation.
Tip received was not the first
Kimberly Cooper and Kirk Shultis Jr., Paislee’s noncustodial parents, would accuse police of “harassing” and “badgering” them and “insisting we should be out looking for Paislee,” Sinagra said.
“Very few occasions were we actually permitted into the residence, and when the officers were permitted in, it was limited access. They were never allowed into the basement, they were never allowed into any of the bedroom areas,” Sinagra said.
“And a number of times, we were told, just leave, get off my property. And we have to abide by that. That’s a Fourth Amendment right. We don’t have a right to search or seize on anybody’s property unless we have the legal authority to do so,” the chief said.
It changed Monday when police received information substantial enough for a warrant to be obtained.
Officers arrived outside the house about 4 p.m. to ensure no one left. Police then executed the warrant a little after 8 p.m., the chief said. The homeowner denied knowing the girl’s whereabouts, saying he had not seen her since she was reported missing in 2019.
For the first time, detectives were able to search every room in the house and go to the basement, where the police chief said they found what resembled an apartment.
“There was a kitchen, there were bedrooms, a living room area. One of the bedrooms was devoted to Paislee. It had her name on the wall, there (were) clothing items that were spread about the bedroom, the bed had appeared to have been slept in,” Sinagra said.
The residents told police the girl was not at the home, and said they had set up the room that way in case she ever returned.
The child’s room was also near a staircase, under which police would eventually discover the young child and her mother hiding. A detective made the discovery after noticing something was odd about the stairs, and after a closer look saw a blanket between the cracks, the chief said.
“So they grab some tools, and they start dissembling the staircase. And as they’re removing the steps off the staircase, they see a set of feet, little feet,” the police chief said.
In the hiding spot, police also found blankets, a pillow, and clothing items, the chief said, adding it was apparent the location had been used more than once.
“It is our opinion, based on our investigation, that location was used probably each and every time that we sent an officer to the residence to follow up on a lead,” he said.
Biological family charged
Kimberly Cooper, Paislee’s biological mother, was charged with second-degree custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors, according to police. She is out on bail.
Kirk Shultis Jr. and Kirk Shultis Sr., Paislee’s biological father and grandfather, were each charged with custodial interference in the first degree, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. Both were arraigned and released on their own recognizance, police said.
All three defendants were ordered by the court to stay away from the child.
Lawyers for the men declined to comment, while Carol K. Morgan, an attorney representing Cooper said, “We should all wait until the facts come out. Everyone should be patient before they draw their own conclusions.”
CNN’s Mark Morales, Christina Maxouris, Ray Sanchez, Dakin Andone, Mirna Alsharif, Jessica Prater, Kiely Westhoff, Lauren del Valle and Chris Hippensteel contributed to this report.