ALMONT — After three harrowing days under the control of an online predator, 14-year-old Laura Oliver is safe at home with her parents in Berlin Township.
The Almont Middle School student was reported missing Saturday, April 27 by her grandmother, a resident of Kimball Township in St. Clair County.
Laura’s disappearance triggered a multi-jurisdictional search and investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of a 21-year-old Detroit man on April 30.
On Monday, May 6, a full week after her ordeal ended, Laura returned to Almont Middle School to deliver a hand-written message to her relieved teachers, school staff and classmates.
With her parents, Naomi and Josh Oliver in the audience, Laura explained that she could not discuss certain aspects of the case because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
She did, however, discuss her state of mind and some of the circumstances that resulted in her sneaking off in the night with a young man she knew only through conversations on social media.
The following excerpts were taken directly from Laura’s hand-written message.
“Today I will share the things that I can say,” Laura began.
“I have struggled with depression for a few years now, and for the last few months I was in a really bad place in my mind.
“Depression makes you think and do a lot of bad stuff,” she continued. “Lately I’ve been feeling like I don’t matter or that no one cares about me.
“So I started secretly talking to a guy I met online. He seemed really sweet and caring and made me feel like he understood me and that we had a lot in common.
“The things he said made me feel better about myself, and he told me that he would take care of me. He made me feel special.
“He knew I was depressed and said he would help me through it,” Laura continued. “From what he said and how I was feeling, I felt like he was the only one who really cared about me.”
Laura explained that she had just experienced a “really bad week” and that the Friday she ran off with the adult male had been a “terrible” day.
“This guy I had been talking to online had been asking me to run away and to go to him,” Laura recalled. “I did a really stupid thing. I listened to him and snuck out of my grandma’s house.”
Though the two seemed to get along fine at first, the man soon began to reveal his true nature.
“He was not the sweet and caring guy that he pretended to be,” said Laura. “He was mean, cruel and hurtful.
“He watched everything I did very carefully and made threats about things he would do to me or my family if I gave anyone hints about where I was or who I was with.
“If he was on the phone, he would threaten me to remain silent or else something bad would happen to me,” she continued. “For three days he never left my side and I didn’t have anything to eat or drink. He called me things that no one should have to hear.
“I don’t know what his long-term plans were for me, but I am very happy to say that I never had to find out.”
Fortunately, Laura had an opportunity to escape when the suspect’s sister texted him, saying that the police were probably hot on his trail.
“He panicked,” said Laura. “He gave me his tablet to take with me because he could track my location. He told me to leave and come back later.”
Instead, Laura used the opportunity to run away and seek help.
“I got to a place where the tablet had wi-fi and contacted my mom and a few friends,” said Laura. “My mom told me to go to the nearest store, where I called her and 911, and that is when they were able to pick me up and get me back to my family.
“I regret ever talking with someone that I didn’t know through social media,” she said. “We want to think that we couldn’t have something like this happen to us,” she continued. “That it is something that happens to other people or in the movies.
“But it is very real and very scary,” Laura warned. “I and my family cannot say enough to thank all of the authorities that helped, like the (St. Clair County) Sheriff’s office, police departments, Homeland Security, school staff, all of the teachers and all of the students that helped.
“Every day I regret getting into that car with that guy, and I will for the rest of my life,” Laura said.
Kim VonHiltmayer, Almont Middle School principal, acknowledged Laura for her courage in speaking publically about her ordeal with her classmates.
“Today is Laura’s first day back to school after going through this experience,” said VonHiltmayer. “We are so proud of her for facing her peers and sharing her story.
“It’s an important lesson for other young people to learn so they can avoid a similar situation.
“I’m also proud of all of the students who stepped up to help ensure Laura’s safe return home,” VonHiltmayer added. “And to our outstanding staff who played important roles in bringing Laura back home.”