Missing Long Island teen with autism found in Virginia, 1 arrested

YAPHANK, Long Island (WABC) -- A 15-year-old boy with autism who went missing on Long Island has been found in Virginia, and a 19-year-old man is now charged with kidnapping.

The boy, who also has a history of depression, was reported missing by his family on June 29 at approximately 1:30 p.m. and had been last seen leaving his Sayville residence at approximately 11:30 a.m.

Police say what began with the video game Minecraft on a public server several months ago led to an alleged kidnapping -- and that every parent should take note.

"So at some point, they moved into this private chat room where they could speak in complete privacy," Suffolk County Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said. "And again, this particular application is not monitored."

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They say the teen left his home on his bike, telling his mom he was headed to a nearby Carvel. There, police say he ditched his bicycle.

"He had partially disassembled his computer, to make it more difficult," Cameron said.

Following an investigation, detectives determined the boy had been communicating with a 19-year-old man residing in Tennessee through an instant messaging app and had possibly been taken out of state by the individual.

Police were able to track the pair to a rest stop in Virginia, where multiple law enforcement partners were able to locate them sleeping in a vehicle at the rest stop in Montgomery at approximately 1 a.m.

The suspect, James Howard Thomas, of Cookville, TN, was taken into custody and will be extradited to New York to face kidnapping charges.

The boy was released to the custody of family.

The investigation is ongoing, and anyone with information is asked to contact the Fifth Squad at 631-854-8552.

Police are using the case to urge parents to become more informed about what applications their kids are using, and with whom they interact.

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Neighbors said the boy's parents were very involved with him.

"She was on top of that, so that's what's scary," neighbor Janette Mazanek said. "I mean, she monitored it, made sure he wasn't on for long periods of time."

They also say it's amazing police were able to track down the teen so quickly, with the travel time to Virginia roughly 10 hours.

Earlier this week, federal authorities warned parents about predators who target children through online gaming platforms and launched a new public service campaign called "It's Not a Game."

It includes a PSA meant to encourage parents to engage with their children about what they are doing online and who they're talking to, and it comes at a time when child exploitation cases are up 18% from 2019 and 2020.

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