It wasn’t a coincidence: A 14-year-year old Riverside girl was reported missing just as the 38-year-old man who previously molested her was released from prison.
She had been missing for days when San Diego County Probation was contacted by a Riverside child protective services worker.
Deputy Probation Officer Matthew Leighton, who led a team of officers in the search for a child molester and his victim, was recently honored with a Salute to Public Safety Award from the San Diego North Chamber of Commerce for his work in this case.
The girl is considered a victim due to her age even though she went willingly with the offender, Raymond Thomas. She was located and returned to her family. Thomas was re-arrested and ultimately convicted of a new felony child molestation offense. He is now serving a new three-year sentence in prison.
Leighton, who is assigned to the Post Release Offender Division at the Vista Courthouse, said he was honored to receive the award — but he also noted the good work of Deputy Probation Officer Tisha McElhiney and his field partner, Senior Probation Officer Garrett Bellis, as well as Oceanside police who assisted.
“These officers put everything else aside and stayed late to accomplish this. It was a long process. They had to do a lot of (investigative) work to find her,” said Supervising Probation Officer Randall Ream. “It really was a true example of the mission of the probation department; to protect community safety, reduce crime and assist victims. That’s why I thought it was important to recognize Leighton and the work of the other two officers.”
Leighton called the case “out of the ordinary” because they were able to track Thomas down in the same evening and find the girl. He said it was especially satisfying to get this offender off the street.
“He didn’t get it the first time. He was still doing the same stuff and didn’t care about anyone else,” Leighton said.
Officer McElhiney got the call initially. The child protective services worker suspected the girl was probably with Thomas, who was now being supervised by the San Diego County Probation Department. He was registered as a transient so McElhiney tracked down a family member and handed the case to Leighton and Bellis.
Leighton said the offender had given misleading information and was not registering his residence as required.
The family member told them he was not staying there but mentioned a motel that he sometimes frequented. The officers went to the motel and a manager confirmed Thomas had stayed there with “his niece” for several days in the last week.
The officers tried to find him at a place that had been listed as a workplace, but found he didn’t work there.
They developed information that Thomas might be at another business and finally found him. Initially, he denied knowing anything about the girl, Leighton said.
During a search, his partner found a text on his phone to the girl that stated otherwise. The offender finally admitted to it and told them she was stashed in a public swimming pool restroom where they had been living for a few days.
Leighton also praised the sheriff’s deputy who took over the new offense case and the district attorney’s office for sending the offender back to prison.