By the time the FBI were involved with the parental kidnapping of 9-year-old Billy Hanson by his natural father, the two had a six-day advantage over the investigating agents. The end of the kidnapping case finally came to an end last weekend.
Jeff Hanson, 46, took his son aboard the Draco, a 30-foot sailboat in Seattle last year, and the two soon went missing to the open sea. What followed was a spectacular collaboration between local, federal, and international law enforcement agencies on a global kidnapping investigation.
Billy’s mother, Johanna Hanson, had agreed to allow her son to spend part of last summer with his dad. The agreement was that Billy would fly to Washington State from his home in Pennsylvania to stay July through August of 2014. Towards the end of August, the mother began receiving text messages from her ex-husband informing her the boy would not be returning in the fall.
Johanna Hanson notified authorities of the court-approved custody agreement violation resulting in the Port of Seattle Police conducting a welfare check on young Billy. According to the police, all appeared well. Just one week later, in September, the airplane ticket purchased by Billy’s grandfather to return home was not used. When police went to recheck, the Draco was gone.
Billy’s mother “was obviously very concerned,” said FBI Special Agent Carolyn Woodbury, who led the investigation in Seattle. Almost as troubling was the fact that “we were told that Billy didn’t know how to swim.”
“The FBI-led Seattle Safe Streets Task Force, which includes the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, was called for assistance,” a FBI release stated. “Task force members who went to the marina and elsewhere to conduct interviews learned that 46-year-old Jeff Hanson had given away some of his personal belongings, that he had previously sailed the Draco around the world, and—most significantly—that he had a six-day head start on investigators.”
When a federal warrant was issued for the father on Sept. 12, 2014, FBI offices, the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children, the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy were alerted with hourly broadcasts sent out over maritime radio channels.
“Our investigation suggested that Jeff Hanson would likely sail either to Mexico, South America, or the South Pacific,” Woodbury said. The FBI relayed information to the Pacific Transnational Crime Coordination Centre, an organization of police, customs and immigrations, and other agencies whose goal is to gather and share intelligence to stop transnational crime in the South Pacific. On Oct. 29, 2014, word was out that the boat, with father and son, were seen on the remote island of Niue, approximately 1,500 northeast of New Zealand.
When the boy was found, Billy had lost 30 pounds because the dinghy carrying food and water for the trip had been lost at sea. While the father was detained on immigration charges, Billy was reunited with his mother. The 60 days at sea had been a “traumatic experience,” stated Woodbury.
“The irony for Jeff Hanson,” said Woodbury, “was that he was immediately recognized in one of the most remote places in the world. For law enforcement,” she added, “it illustrates that collaboration and asking for the public’s help were the absolute keys to solving this case.”
Jeff Hanson eventually appeared in federal court in Seattle on November 11 and pled guilty to international kidnapping charges in March 2015. He was sentenced in court last week to time served, almost seven months in prison. His boat, the Draco, continues to accumulate dock fees in dry dock on the tiny island of Niue, some 5,500 miles away.