By Greg Klein STAFF WRITER
---- — A three-house missing-person search for a young boy in Cooperstown turned out to be a case of mistaken identity when the boy was found Monday afternoon in Utica.
According to police, 7-year-old Mutume Waddimba was found “safe and sound” at the Utica Cerebral Palsy Center after a bus driver thought she was picking up his 5-year-old brother, Titus. Mutume apparently got on the bus while his mother was telling the driver that Titus wasn’t going to the center’s summer program.
“We got a tip at 12:53 p.m. that maybe the boys got mixed up and he got on the bus by mistake. We followed up and it was confirmed at 1:17 p.m.,” said Cooperstown Police Chief Mike Covert. “The family has only lived there a week. The bus driver knew she was supposed to stop at their house. She knew she was supposed to pick up a small boy, but she didn’t know she was picking up the wrong boy.”
Both Mutume and Titus were described as non-verbal, special-needs children, which may have added to the confusion. In addition, at various points during the day, Mutume was described as a 5-year-old; even his mother, Prisca, apparently gave the police his wrong date of birth, telling them that Mutume was born 11-17-2008 and Titus was born 11-24-2008. Mutume was apparently born in 2005, Covert said.
After it was confirmed that Mutume was in Utica, the search was called off and state police took Prisca and the boys’ father, Dr. Anthony Waddimba, to get their child.
Dr. Waddimba works at Bassett Medical Center.
The ordeal began just after 10 a.m. when Prisca went to check on Mutume, who she thought was playing in the basement of the family’s home on Glen Avenue. She reported him missing at 10:18 a.m. just three minutes after he got on the bus.
By 10:40 a.m., police and firefighters were on the scene beginning a search and rescue that ended up lasting three hours. In addition to the Cooperstown police and fire departments, New York State Police and the Otsego County Sheriff’s Department responded. By 11 a.m., they had made an initial search of side streets and along a fast-flowing creek that takes rain run-off to the Susquehanna River.
The creek is the northern boundary of the Waddimba house, causing the search party to fear a tragic conclusion as they looked along the creek bed and in the tunnels underneath streets and some neighboring properties.
“In a situation like this, you can’t eliminate any possibility,” Covert said.
Not long after that, a county K-9 unit arrived and was given a small backpack that belonged to the boy to give the dogs his scent.
A small stretch of Glen Avenue, also known as state Highway 28, was shut down with traffic rerouted to Main Street. Media reports were issued and officials set up a center of operations at the Clara Welch Thanksgiving Home on nearby Grove Street.
By noon, police had a picture of Mutume and were stopping cars on Chestnut Street, showing it to all drivers and asking if anyone had seen the boy.
According to Covert, the police lines were jammed as people called, either with tips or to inquire how to help.
Forty-five minutes later, as the combined police groups were preparing a methodical grid search of the area, a call came from someone who had seen a small boy board a Birnie Bus. The search turned from apprehension to joy when it was confirmed that Mutume ended up in Utica.
“It works,” Covert said of coordinated efforts of the various police and rescue units and the media alerts. “The entire community reached out to help and we really appreciate it.”