Christopher Hoyle

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From The Independent Press, North Jersey Newspapers, May 14, 1997



CHATHAM TOWNSHIP - "Where's our baby?"

This was the question haunting the minds of Alexandra and Uri Sokol of 379 Shunpike Road for seven hours on Tuesday, April 29, as their three-year-old son Simon and his nanny, Ju Ju, were being searched for by New Jersey police, their whereabouts unknown.

The Chatham Township Police Department played a central role in the resolution of the drama, which began that morning when Ms. Sokol called Joujouna (Ju Ju) Nakashidze and asked her to pick up Simon early from his Country Day School because he was recovering from a bout with strep throat and did not feel well. When Ms. Sokol called home between 1:00 and 1:30 to find that son and nanny were not there, she notified the Township police department, which set the search in motion, without immediate success.

Country Day School in Morris Plains confirmed that Ms. Nakashidze had indeed picked Simon up at around 11:30 a.m. as per his mother's request. The Township precinct sent out a Missing Persons press release describing Simon - sandy brown hair, wearing a dark blue polo sweat shirt with a USA design in white letters on the front, Calvin Klein sweat pants and red, white & blue flag socks. Ms. Nakashidze was described as a white female about 32 years of age, five foot two inches in height, long blonde hair, driving a dark burgundy 1986 Chrysler LeBaron, with front end damage and New Jersey plates.

The police then advised law enforcement units across New Jersey, including state police and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and issued a media alert which drew investigative news teams from Channels 2, 4 and 7 to Shunpike Road. Chief of Police Thomas Ramsey was able to publicize the situation on local network television. Print media received a photo of Simon along with the press release in the effort to expedite the recovery.

As the afternoon wore on the scope of the search widened as Morris County Parks officers scoured parks and parking lots for the missing duo. The Missing Persons Unit of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office stepped in and a command post was set up at the Township police station on Southern Boulevard, with officers posted at points all along Shunpike Road. Newark Police ascertained Ms. Nakashidze's address on Mount Vernon Place in Newark and accompanied members of Chatham Township's force to that locale and found no signs of the absentees, nor any clues or anything suspicious.

By 6:00 the Sokols' home was surrounded by police cars and media vans, and Monsignor James Mahoney escorted the couple to the refuge of Corpus Christi Church, where they awaited news, accompanied by a Township police officer.

Then, at around 8:00 p.m. Officer Robert Curtis spotted a burgundy LeBaron near the Hickory Tree area, with persons inside the vehicle answering the descriptions. It was indeed Ms. Nakashidze and Simon, on their way back from a tortuous, failed attempt to visit friends of the nanny in New York City. Patrolman Curtis and other Township officers guided the pair to the station.

Ju Ju Nakashidze apparently took I-287 North to get to the city, missed turning East, got lost and found herself on the New York State Thruway in Orange County. In Wallkill, New York, she met up with a policeman, who was not yet aware of the missing persons alert. There is some difference of opinion regarding the nature of this interchange, as Ms. Nakashidze asserted that she sought out the officer and the patrolman reports that he stopped her. Not having much experience on New York metro area roads, she thought she was still in New Jersey, and the Orange County officer reiterated that she had crossed state lines.

The upshot of this encounter was that the nanny received a seatbelt violation, a primary offense in New York, because Simon, though belted in, was not secured in a special child safety seat. After issuing the summons, the Orange County official led the driver back to Chatham.

Ms. Nakashidze's story checked out perfectly with the accumulated evidence. For example, she stopped for fuel in Boonton, paid for the gas with a check - a development later corroborated by the service station attendants. She explained that she had run out of money after buying snacks, and that she did not know how to call collect. Ju Ju Nakashidze had been in the Sokols' employ for four months, and in the United States for less than two years. She originally hails from Georgia, the former Soviet republic, South of Russia on the Black Sea, as do Mr. and Mrs. Sokol.

Simon seemed to be doing fine in the wake of the misadventure, and the family was reunited at the Southern Boulevard police headquarters. "The boy only wanted pizza," recalled Sergeant James Ford, "so we got nine pies and Coca-ColaŽ, and he was happy." Dr. Alex Horowitz of Madison checked the youngster the following day, and he apparently survived the ordeal in good health.

Sergeant Ford indicated that his department wanted to cover all possible contingencies. "We treated this as a missing persons case because they were so long overdue. There could have been an accident," he explained, and added that "when you don't know the parties involved, you don't rule anything out."

On Wednesday the parents expressed their gratitude to the Chatham Township Police Department, descending on the police station with "lots of food, and a big basket of flowers." The officers on hand were also thankful that this missing persons alarm could be resolved with a happy ending.

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