CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. (USA TODAY) - As soon as Jackie Rosas saw the post, she knew the threat was real. Rosas had followed the blog of this teenage girl for about a year, and the posts were laced with depression.
Rosas, 18, had seen anonymous bullies send the girl hurtful messages on Tumblr, a social networking website where she kept her blog. Then, one afternoon, it happened. On May 6, the 16-year-old girl, who Rosas knew only through the Tumblr site, threatened to commit suicide in an online post.
"She blogged, saying she was going to end her life," said Rosas, a resident of Cathedral City, Calif. "She had been fighting this depression, and when she posted that, my instinct was that she was serious. She wrote something like: 'I'm going to kill myself. There is no other option.'"
Desperate to do something, Rosas called a local suicide hotline to report the post. But she didn't know the teen's last name - or even what part of the country she lived in - so the hotline told her to call police. It was about 5 p.m.
What would unfold over the next eight hours would transform into a race against the clock that would stretch across the entire country. Ultimately, a teenage girl in New Jersey would be rescued through the collective response of two police departments, several local school officials and one very compassionate Tumblr follower.
It started with Rosas' call to police that put her on the line with patrol Officer Kelly Nava, a 14-year veteran of the Cathedral City Police Department. Rosas gave the girl's name and a link to her blog to the officer. The blog added that the girl was in color guard at her school, wherever that was. There were no strong leads. In that moment, Nava felt "helpless."
"It was really nothing to start with," Nava said . "My first thought was to run (the girl's) age and name through our local system ... and it came back with so many matches. She had such a common first name."
On a limb, Nava forwarded a photo to Officer Heather Olsen, a school resource officer from Cathedral City High School. If the teen girl lived in Cathedral City, Olsen might be able to recognize her. But she couldn't. The girl in the picture was a stranger. Just to double-check, Olsen called Cathedral City High Assistant Principal Karen Dimick, who also didn't recognize the girl. Dimick checked with some of the faculty at the school, but nobody knew a girl that fit the description on the blog.
At this point, it seemed likely the girl wasn't a student at Cathedral City High. Suddenly, the search for the troubled teen was much wider, and the clock was still ticking.
"We were kind of at a dead end," Olsen said. "But then, after a little bit, Karen (Dimick) texts me back. She said she found (the girl's) Twitter account, with the same picture on it, and that gave us a last name. And she sent me the link and I just went to town."
Both Olsen and Dimick dove into the Twitter account, searching for the next puzzle piece. Soon they found a simple tweet from November. The girl had written about how much she loved the UHS marching band.
Armed with an acronym, Olsen kept sleuthing online. Who knew how many schools around the country were called UHS? She needed to find a town, or a county, or at least a state. She read every post she could find. She watched YouTube videos posted by the same girl. Somehow, jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, slipping deeper into the depths of the Internet, she came across a newspaper article that contained the next clue. It was a story about a marching band on the other side of the country.
"I was finally able to piece it together from the bottom of a newspaper article - Union Township, New Jersey," Olsen said. "I
Finally, the investigators had a name and a location. Olsen called back to Nava, who Nava forwarded the information to the Union Township Police Department. It was about 1:30 a.m. May 7 when they received the call.
Lt. John Daubner, of the Union Township Police Department, confirmed that officers were sent to a nearby address in response. They found a 16-year-old girl, who was taken to a medical facility as a result. According to Cathedral City Police records, the girl in New Jersey had taken enough pills for authorities to put her on a psychiatric hold. Daubner said he couldn't confirm any more details about the teen or the incident, but he commended Rosas for starting the chain of events that would stretch across the nation.
Nava said the New Jersey police got back to her about the rescue that same night. She immediately got "the chills," she said. News of the rescue reached Olsen, Dimick and Rosas the next day. The officer, the educator and the young woman from Cathedral City said they were each left speechless by the news.
"I kind of cried," Rosas said. "I was happy to know that I saved someone's life. It happened at random and it's an amazing feeling knowing you are able to help someone from thousands of miles away."