It had been pretty much a routine morning for trooper D’Jae Vela as she patrolled Interstate Highway 35E on July 24, doing what she says she enjoys most about her job - working traffic.
As she headed toward Waxahachie, Vela went underneath an overpass north of the highway’s rest stop at Forreston.
“They ask us to check on motorist assists or people walking down the road,” she said, noting that as part of a trooper’s responsibilities while on duty. “At first I wasn’t exactly sure what I saw as I went by but when I realized it was a man and a girl, it was just odd to me.”
About 9:30 a.m., the morning was already getting hot, Vela said, noting it raised questions in her mind as to why someone would be under the overpass with rest area facilities less than a mile or two away.
“It just struck me that I needed to check it out,” she said, saying she made a turn and went back to find a man in his 50s and a girl who looked to be in her teens.
As the 4-1/2 year Department of Public Safety veteran questioned the two, questions continued to cross her mind based on their answers and behavior - in particular because on key questions the man would answer for the girl.
The two said they were father and daughter and gave Vela a story of having lost their home to a fire in Oklahoma. They said they then had car trouble and had hitchhiked to Louisiana before hitchhiking on to Texas, with the man telling Vela someone had left them at the rest area, telling him he could get a job in Waxahachie.
Asked for an ID, the man produced an Oklahoma identification card for Vela, telling her the girl’s information had burned in the fire.
The story continued to fall apart when the man gave the girl’s last name as the same as his and provided a date of birth for her, saying she was 18.
“I told him that date of birth (year) meant she was 17,” Vela said, saying the girl responded by telling the trooper again that the man was her dad, that she was just exhausted and couldn’t remember her year of birth.
Vela said she continued to question the girl, who continued to insist the man was her father.
“She said her mom had passed away and she was fine,” said Vela, who decided to check the two out through DPS dispatch in Waco.
“Waco came back and said the male was listed as missing and the female was a possible runaway … and 15 years old,” Vela said, saying dispatch told her the two were listed out of Oklahoma on the NCIC database as well as included with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children listings.
Vela also was informed the man was a convicted felon for a child abuse charge - and possibly was in possession of a handgun.
“They said he had violent tendencies and was believed to have the (missing) girl with him,” Vela said, saying trooper Terry Eaton arrived on scene to assist and help question the pair after hearing the radio traffic.
As Vela called Ellis County supervising Sgt. Chris Jones to inform him of the developing situation, Eaton searched the man, recovering a loaded .22 from the man’s waistband and placing him in custody for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
With the man under arrest, both were taken to the DPS offices, with Marlena Pendley, an investigator with the Ellis County and District Attorney’s Office who is assigned to the Gingerbread House children’s advocacy center, called out to speak further with the girl.
Pendley said Vela deserves credit on several counts: checking out the situation to begin with and then going with her gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
“I just think D’Jae did a good job. She made a good call out there,” said Pendley, crediting Vela for her role.
Once the pair was separated and the girl knew he was in custody, Pendley said the teen told them she had left with the man - who was her sister’s husband’s father - from Oklahoma after he asked her if she wanted to go on a trip, saying that when she tried to leave his company later he wouldn’t let her.
“She stated that she was scared of him. She immediately told me that she wanted to go home and that she wasn’t being allowed to do that,” Pendley said, saying the girl told her she felt safe once the man was arrested. “She was relieved it was over.”
Afterward, Vela said she took the girl to Ellis County Juvenile Services’ overnight facility, where she was able to clean up and eat and wait for authorities from Oklahoma who were already en route to pick her up after being notified of her recovery.
Vela then went to Wayne McCollum Detention Center to finish the book-in process on the man, who remains in custody on the third-degree felony weapons charge. His legal troubles are expected to extend to the other states where he had the girl, with Vela and Pendley saying they believe authorities in Oklahoma and Louisiana intend to file additional charges against the man relating to the case.
“It kind of makes you feel like, ‘I did something worth it today,’ ” Vela said. “You don’t know what the day will bring. … I tend to work more on the traffic side, and this is like, ‘Wow, I did something with this.’ ”
Asked if she feels Vela helped prevent a possible tragedy in the making, Pendley said simply, “Yes, I do.”
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