Missing girl found under stairs: Inside the search for Paislee Shultis

Roughly an hour and a half into the search, one detective took a closer look at the wooden staircase. “He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about the staircase that bothered him,” Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra told CNN.

Detective Erik Thiele pointed his flashlight at the spot where a stair met the riser, Sinagra said. Thiele saw what he believed to be a blanket, and police began to disassemble the staircase.

“And as they’re removing the steps off the staircase, they see a set of feet,” the police chief told CNN. “Little feet.”

They were Paislee’s. She was hidden under the staircase with her noncustodial mother, the chief said, huddled in a nest of pillows, blankets and clothes, in what police described as a “dark and wet enclosure.”

Today, the girl is safe, having been returned to her legal guardian and reunited with her older sister. But many questions remain unanswered as investigators try to piece together what she’s been through over the last two and a half years.

The girl was unable to go to school and it was unclear if she’d seen a doctor since she disappeared, the chief said. And it’s unknown what impact living in these conditions has had on her.

The mother, Kimberly Cooper, was arrested, along with Paislee’s noncustodial father and grandfather, who both denied having knowledge of Paislee’s whereabouts when police executed their search warrant this week.

Cooper was charged with second-degree custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors, according to police.

Kirk Shultis Jr. and Kirk Shultis Sr. were each charged with custodial interference in the first degree, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. Both were arraigned and released on their own recognizance, police said. All three defendants were ordered by the court to stay away from the child.

Lawyers for the men declined to comment, while Carol K. Morgan, an attorney representing Cooper said, “We should all wait until the facts come out. Everyone should be patient before they draw their own conclusions.”

The enclosure where Paislee Shultis and her mother were hidden is seen in this photo from police, taken at their home in Saugerties, New York, on Monday, February 14, 2021.

‘They lied to us for two years’

Paislee Joann Shultis was reported missing on July 13, 2019, from Cayuga Heights, a village on the outskirts of Ithaca, about 160 miles west of Saugerties. Sinagra told CNN that Cooper and Shultis Jr. had lost custody of Paislee and her sister and a legal guardian had been granted custody.

Sinagra told CNN that police had received several tips about the home, and they had been there about a dozen times over the last two years. But each time, residents denied knowing where the girl was and were instead “adversarial” with police, Sinagra said. Police made it inside several times but were not allowed in the bedrooms areas or in the basement.

“They lied to us for two years — including the father stating that he had no idea where his daughter was,” the chief said.

Authorities are piecing together what happened to Paislee Shultis, who was found alive under a staircase. Here's what we know

It wasn’t until Monday that police were able to obtain factual information — not hearsay — that helped them secure a search warrant, he told CNN. Uniformed officers were stationed outside the home that afternoon around 4 to ensure no one left or entered before police executed their warrant soon after 8 p.m.

In the basement, they found an apartment that included a bedroom with Paislee’s name on a wall, Sinagra said. A bed appeared to have been slept in.

“Is she here?” officers asked, according to the chief. But residents denied anyone was living in the room, he said. “They said they had set the room up like that in the event that Paislee should ever return.”

Paislee was hidden under the stairs just 3 or 4 feet away.

Investigators believe the space beneath the stairs was used more than once, Sinagra said — maybe each time an officer visited the residence. He pointed to how the staircase was constructed along with how comfortable residents appeared Monday as they insisted they didn’t know where Paislee was, an indication to the chief they had done this before.

Sinagra believes they had been hiding from the time officers arrived outside the home, meaning they could have been in the “wet” and “cold” space for five hours before they were found.

Neither the girl nor Cooper made a sound as police took apart the stairs that hid them, Sinagra said. A detective had described the silence as “eerie,” the chief said.

While Sinagra is happy that Paislee was found safe, he also said the case was tragic: Whatever the reason Paislee’s parents lost custody of her and her sister, he said, that could have “been rectified by now.”

“But this is going to be a major setback for them,” he said.

CNN’s Mirna Alsharif, Christina Maxouris and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.

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