Parents in National City say they woke up to find their 11-year-old daughter not in her bed. After a city-wide manhunt and rescue, the girl is now safe and police say the 20-year-old accused of taking her is in jail.
"The severity of the call we were working with, to begin with, led us to believe that her safety was in jeopardy,” said National City Police Lt. David Bavencoff. “But ultimately we discovered more information that her life was in jeopardy."
Bavencofff said at one point there were more than 50 officers, including FBI agents, spread across eight different addresses across San Diego working to find the girl, which they accomplished around 4 p.m.– roughly eight hours after her parents discovered her missing.
"There was a huge collective sigh of relief amongst everybody involved in it,” said Bavencoff. “I told several people, you almost want to cry, 'OK, we found her, she's safe now.'"
Police said she was inside an apartment with her captor, Jose D. Melena. The apartment on El Cajon Boulevard belonged to Melena’s friend.
Officers removed the girl from the apartment unharmed. Police said Melena barricaded himself in a bathroom where he reportedly tried to take his own life. Officers performed life-saving measures and transported him to a hospital where he underwent surgery. After several days in the hospital, Melena was booked into the central jail.
The child knew her captor, according to investigators. Bavencoff said the parents knew their daughter had an “extremely inappropriate” relationship with Melena – so they did everything they could to prevent her from seeing or speaking to him, including removing all electronic devices from the girl.
However, Bavencoff said the child managed to find an old device and communicate with Melena through an online gaming platform called Roblox.
On its website, Roblox claims it offers millions of games, connecting millions of players from all over the world.
NBC 7 reached out to the company. They have yet to respond – but on the platform’s parent resources page, Roblox says it automatically deletes conversations it picks up as "inappropriate."
Unfortunately, experts say predators know how to work around gaming and social media protections.
"We saw chatter in the dark web amongst exploiters talking about how this is the best time to groom and lure children,” said Callahan Walsh with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Walsh said online child sex exploitation flared up big time after COVID-19, up 90% in 2020 from 2019.
"It's really disconcerting to see that,” Walsh said.
Kathleen Thomas with North County Life Line said increased screen time for students with distance learning is behind the uptick.
"Many of them are now much more accessible to traffickers and predators,” Thomas said.
The best way to protect your kids, according to Thomas, is to teach them how to recognize red flags so they can self-report.
"It's less about preventing them from accessing things and more about teaching them to create their own boundaries and foundation,” Thomas said.
Melena faces two charges, one count of a lewd and lascivious act with a child under 14, and one count of child stealing. He will be arraigned on Feb. 8.