By Jami Jones
A kidnapped 5-year-old girl is safe and sound, reunited with family members after a truck driver spotted the car of the suspect and tipped off police.
The girl, Stormy Shirk of Topeka, KS, was the subject of a multistate Amber Alert after Topeka police found her mother dead at their home and discovered the child was missing. Topeka officials issued the Amber Alert shortly before noon Sept. 15.
The alert identified the child’s father, Justin Shirk, as the suspect in the abduction and indicated he was wanted for questioning. The alert also gave a full description of the car and its license plate. Police thought the man might have been headed to Oregon.
“I was going across Nebraska earlier in the day, and they have (Amber Alert) sign boards in several places,” trucker Wade Wierenga said. “They had a sign up saying they were looking for a Dodge Intrepid.”
Later on in the day, Wierenga stopped at the Bosselman Travel Center in Grand Island, NE, and saw a flyer about the Amber Alert at the fuel desk. He picked it up and had a few more details to help him keep an eye out for the suspect’s car.
“That’s how I knew they were looking for the guy anyway,” he said.
Later on, as he was driving on Interstate 80 near Laramie, WY, a car passed him.
“I saw a man and girl in the car, but it looked silver, and the alert said they were looking for a gold Dodge Intrepid,” Wierenga said. “But, once they got in front of me, I thought the car might be gold.”
Then he realized that while the car was clean, mud had been smeared on the license plate.
“That just didn’t seem right, especially since the car was clean,” he said.
So Wierenga eased up closer to the car and was able to read the license plate numbers. He couldn’t tell what state, but at 8 p.m., he went ahead and called the Wyoming Highway Patrol.
“They said it was definitely the car they were looking for,” he said.
There wasn’t a trooper in the area when Wierenga called, so he just dropped back about a quarter of a mile and kept an eye on the car while staying on the phone with the Highway Patrol dispatcher.
“I just tried to keep an eye on the guy; he was going a pretty good clip,” Wierenga said. “But I think he knew I was following him, because all of a sudden, he bailed off in between two other trucks and took an exit to a county road.”
Since there weren’t any officers in the area yet, Wierenga decided to follow the car off the ramp.
“It was getting dark, and I didn’t want that guy getting away,” he said.
“But it was hard to do. I didn’t want him to feel cornered and maybe do something to the little girl.”
Shirk pulled off the county road and turned his headlights off.
Wierenga kept going and returned to the on-ramp to I-80.
“I figured I could keep an eye on him from there and make sure he didn’t get back on,” Wierenga said.
Police arrived a few minutes later.
An Albany County, WY, sheriff’s deputy found the car about four miles east of the interstate as it turned off state Highway 12 and pulled down a private lane toward a residence, according to a statement from the Wyoming Highway Patrol.
Once the vehicle stopped, the 5-year-old girl eventually got out the vehicle and ran toward the sheriff’s deputy and his car.
Police found the suspect, Justin Shirk, outside the car with a fatal self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Police took the girl to a Laramie area foster home while she waited for her grandparents and a social worker from the Topeka area to pick her up.
“I really didn’t do anything other than have the (Amber Alert) information,” Wierenga said. “I’ve got three daughters and two little granddaughters, and I thought, man, if one of them were in that kind of situation, I would want people to pay attention and try to help.
“That Amber Alert is a fantastic system,” he said.
An officer with the Wyoming Highway Patrol agreed with that assessment, but added that it’s people like Wierenga who make the alert system work.
“It is comforting to know that people are not afraid to become involved and to take the extra effort to assist law enforcement,” Sgt. Stephen Townsend of the Wyoming Highway Patrol said.
“During an Amber Alert situation, the more people we have watching and looking — for example, looking for a vehicle — the more chance of success we have in reuniting a family.”
The girl is in good health and was with family in the Topeka area the following day.