A missing 7-month-old girl sought by Bismarck police who took her mother into custody was dropped off anonymously and safely at a Bismarck hospital Tuesday afternoon.
An unknown person brought LeahMae Dawn Morsette to the Sanford Health emergency room about 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Police Chief Dave Draovitch said. North Dakota has a Safe Haven Law under which a parent or someone acting on a parent's behalf can leave a child younger than 1 at a hospital without facing prosecution for abandonment.
"The information I have is that she is doing well," Draovitch said, adding that social services would be brought in to help determine the girl's immediate future.
Police earlier in the afternoon had issued an Amber Alert, called in more resources and expanded their search area as they looked for the girl. Authorities use Amber Alerts to rapidly publicize the disappearance of a child. Police on Tuesday morning said they had not issued an alert for LeahMae Dawn Morsette because they couldn't confirm she was abducted. The alert was issued about 1:30 p.m. in an effort to disseminate information to as many people as possible, Lt. Luke Gardiner said. An abduction still had not been confirmed.
The girl's mother, Dawn Morsette, 27, had accompanied police on an unsuccessful three-hour search for the baby Monday and had given them the name of a person who might have the child — Cole Pfaff, 31. Police were not immediately able to find him. They believe he and Morsette to be acquaintances but are unsure of the nature of their relationship. Pfaff is not suspected of a crime, according to police, but Draovitch said authorities verified through video and a witness that he was the last person known to have had the girl.
Pfaff was seen on video leaving an apartment with the baby shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, and a witness saw him with the child at a city intersection a few minutes later. Police still would like to talk to Pfaff, though "there's no indication he's done anything wrong in regards to the care of the baby," Draovitch said.
Morsette was arrested for child neglect after Monday's search, which was initiated by a call for a welfare check, Gardiner said. She made her initial court appearance Tuesday afternoon. Assistant State's Attorney Mindy Anderson said during the hearing that Morsette had a child neglect conviction from 2015, and that the prosecutor had been told by police that Morsette appeared to be under the influence of methamphetamine when police contacted her about the baby Monday and she was unable to give them information about the child's whereabouts. Anderson requested bail be set at $5,000.
Morsette, who did not have an attorney with her in court, asked judge John Grinsteiner if she could be released on a promise to appear so she could help look for her baby, who at the time was still missing. He set Morsette's bail at $2,500.
Draovitch said the fact that the child is now safe isn't likely to change the case against Morsette.
"This is a serious thing that happened here, and she had absolutely no idea where her child was," he said. "And as a parent, that just scares me. I'm sure it scares a lot of people in our community."
Police Tuesday morning canvassed the area near the 300 block of West Arbor Avenue. In the afternoon they requested help from the state Game and Fish Department, state Highway Patrol, which has a plane, and the Burleigh County Sheriff's Office, which has a drone, Gardiner said. Authorities searched around Dakota Zoo and tree-filled areas near the Missouri River for evidence, he said.
It wasn't long after LeahMae was dropped off at Sanford that her grandfather, Jerome Morsette of Bismarck, who had helped in the search, reached for his pocket and pulled out his cellphone while at the courthouse for his daughter's hearing.
"They found her," he said, almost in a whisper. Then, much louder, over his shoulder so several family members could hear him, "they found baby."
It was a sharp contrast from the call he received about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday from his daughter, who had wanted his help in finding LeahMae and had asked him to look by the river. Before he got the call that LeahMae had been found, Jerome Morsette said the family didn't care who had her. All they wanted was a call or to have someone drop her off at a safe place.
"We don't want you," he said, referring to whoever had LeahMae. "We want to make sure she's alive."
Draovitch said the investigation into what happened is continuing, but that "We're very elated, I guess, is the right word. We are very happy for this outcome."
Police asked anyone with outdoor video surveillance in the 300 block of West Arbor Avenue to review it, beginning with video from 1 a.m. Monday. The police department can be reached at 701-223-1212; anonymous tips can be made by texting BISPD with the tip to 847411. Online tips can be made at www.tip411.com.