A 6-year-old girl who had been missing since 2019 was found after being hidden under a staircase for at least four hours in a home in upstate New York on Monday after a detective shined a flashlight at the cracks in the stairs as police searched the home, according to the local police chief.
Paislee Shultis and her biological mother, Kimberly Cooper, 33, were found together at the home of Kirk Shultis Sr., 57, the girl’s paternal grandfather, in Saugerties, after police said they executed a search warrant.
Saugerties Police Chief Joseph A. Sinagra told NBC News that police believe Paislee and Cooper were in that dark and cramped space for hours while police were working to get a search warrant. Cooper and Kirk Shultis Jr., 32, had lost custody of Paislee in 2019, and Cooper had a warrant out for her arrest in Ulster County, police said.
"At that point in time the child went into hiding — up to four hours the child was in that crawlspace," Sinagra told NBC News correspondent Jesse Kirsch.
Police were walking up and down the staircase and around it, but Paislee did not make a sound, Sinagra said. Kirk Shultis Sr. was there with his son, Kirk Shultis Jr., who denied knowing where Paislee was even though investigators found a bed that looked recently used and a bedroom with Paislee's name on it, police said.
Sinagra said Detective Erik Thiele was instrumental in finding Paislee and her mother under the stairs leading to the basement when he shined a flashlight through the cracks after seeing something odd.
"The detective that I spoke to is the hero of the day and felt something was wrong, that’s why he looked further into it, and that’s why it led to further discovery of the child and Kimberly being in that location," Sinagra said.
"He described it as a number of blankets that were soaking wet with a teddy bear. It was clear that it has been used over a period of time. Our belief is that each time law enforcement went there looking for the child, the child was put there to hide with Kimberly so that they would not be found."
Police then began ripping the stairs apart and found the little girl and her biological mother.
Sinagra said Paislee is "doing fine" and that there was no indication of sexual abuse or malnourishment. She has been returned to her legal guardian.
"I think it’s important for people to understand right off the start that there was no sexual or physical abuse of the child," he said.
Shultis Jr. and Shultis Sr. have been charged with one count each of felony custodial interference in the first degree and misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child, police said. They were released on their own recognizance, police said.
Cooper has been charged with second-degree custodial interference and misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child. She was remanded into custody for the arrest warrant from Ulster County, police said.
A lawyer for Shultis Jr. said in a statement obtained by TODAY, “My client, Paislee’s father, has plead not guilty. He has been fighting for his children for the past two and a half years in family court without a final resolution of the case. He has never relinquished custody of his children. It is ludicrous to think he would place his children in harm’s way or endanger their welfare in any manner.
“The true facts of the case will be forthcoming, and it will reveal that Mr. Shultis Jr. is a devoted, dedicated and loving father to his children.”
A lawyer representing Cooper declined comment when contacted by TODAY. TODAY has reached out to a lawyer for Shultis Sr. and has not yet received an official comment.
Investigators are working to determine what Paislee knew about her living situation.
"She understands what her parents told her, and what that is, we don’t specifically know," Sinagra said. "They were hidden in the staircase that officers were walking up and down the steps for four hours and the child doesn’t make a peep. It’s really concerning what they may have told the child about the police.
"We tell children, when you get lost, find a policeman, they are your friends. In this case, it’s concerning what information she may believe about the police from the information provided by her parents and grandfather."
Police had visited the home about a dozen times since Paislee was reported missing in 2019 from Spencer, a town about three hours away, after getting tips that a missing child was living there. Every time authorities went there, Sinagra said the biological father and grandfather "lied" about Paislee's whereabouts.
Sinagra was grateful they were able to find the little girl after two years of searching.
"In law enforcement, we don’t always have those magic endings," he said. "It’s important and underscores why we do the jobs that we do."