A woman accused of kidnapping her 3-week-old niece from her grandmother’s Spring Valley home last week pleaded not guilty in court Wednesday.
On Friday, deputies conducted an eight-hour search for newborn Anissa Von Goerlitz, who was reported missing by her grandmother and legal guardian, Joyce Matyas.
The sheriff’s department said the baby girl was in the middle of a family dispute and that her aunt, Deborah Ann Fowler (pictured below), 46, had taken baby Anissa from the home Matyas and Fowler share without permission.
The incident started around 11:15 a.m. at the 10600-block of Vine Street. Officials immediately began searching for Fowler, 46, who is also the twin sister of the infant’s mother.
Officials said Fowler lived at home with her mother, Matyas, and the baby, and had been helping to care for the infant.
On Friday morning, Fowler allegedly took Matyas' SUV from their Spring Valley home without permission and took the baby with her, officials said.
San Diego Sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Hampton told NBC 7 the SUV was found abandoned off Vine Street in Lakeside. Since that's where the vehicle was found, deputies focused their search in that part of East County.
Deputies searched surrounding transient camps, brush, ravines and riverbeds for traces of Fowler and the baby for ne Friday afternoon.
Sgt. Hampton told NBC 7 witnesses had seen Fowler in the area over the hours that baby Anissa was missing, but witnesses had not been able to tell deputies if Fowler was with the baby.
Deputies also found a stroller near the scene of the abandoned SUV.
Sgt. Hampton said officials did not believe the aunt ever wanted to harm the newborn, but deputies were determined to bring the baby back home safe and sound.
“We want to make sure the child is safe,” said Sgt. Hampton. “No 3-week-old baby should be in an area like this. We don’t believe [Fowler] is intending to do any harm, but we don’t know her ultimate motives.”
Deputies from Lemon Grove and Santee assisted in the ground search, as well as Border Patrol agents and Search and Rescue volunteers. The Sheriff's Deparment helicopter ASTREA helped with the aerial search.
At 7:50 p.m., sheriff's officials confirmed the baby and Fowler had been found by agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) who were aiding in the search with a K-9 unit.
Officials said the aunt and infant were found inside the perimeter of the search area in Lakeside, west of Highway 67, south of Lakeside Drive near Channel Road.
Deputies said baby Anissa was not injured. Paramedics evaluated her and took her to Rady Children's Hospital for a checkup.
Fowler was questioned and arrested.
She was booked into Las Colinas Detention Facility on charges of vehicle theft, felony child abduction and child abuse. She could also face charges of child endangerment, pending the investigation, deputies said.
It is still unclear why she took baby Anissa in the first place. Deputies have not been able to confirm a motive for this.
On Friday night, after baby Anissa was found safe, Matyas told NBC 7 she was relieved and extremely thankful to the law enforcement officers and agents who aided in the search for her granddaughter.
“I want to thank everyone, Border Patrol, and all the sheriff's [deputies] and everyone who flew the helicopters and went looking for my baby. I'm glad my baby's safe,” Matyas told NBC 7.
Family friend Gary Kuhle told NBC 7 he’s not sure why Fowler took the baby, but he does believe she never planned on hurting the newborn.
“We were always assured the baby would be okay because Debbie is a good mother. She’s raised her own children and she loves this baby and has been helping to take care of her here at the house,” said Kuhle.
During Fowler’s court appearance Wednesday, she pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against her. A judge also revoked Fowler’s probation on two separate cases, one of which is drug-related, NBC 7 has learned.
Fowler’s bail has been set at more than $100,000. She’ll be back in court next week for a readiness hearing.
A prosecutor told NBC 7 that baby Anissa has been taken to a county protective center for children. If Fowler does make bail and leave jail, she is not allowed to visit the infant or the baby’s grandmother due to a protective order.