International Parental Kidnapping Case

Partnerships, Publicity Key to 9-Year-Old’s Rescue

When 9-year-old Billy Hanson didn’t return to Pennsylvania after spending the summer with his father in Seattle, the boy’s mother called her local police department, setting in motion an international kidnapping investigation that led FBI agents halfway around the world to a tiny island in the South Pacific.

What would eventually bring the case to a successful conclusion was the extraordinary collaboration between local, federal, and international law enforcement and other agencies. But on that September day in 2014 when Billy was not on the flight he was supposed to be on, his mother “was obviously very concerned,” said Special Agent Carolyn Woodbury, who led the investigation from the FBI’s Seattle Division.

Johanna Hanson had agreed to let her son spend that July and August living with his father, Jeff Hanson, aboard a 30-foot sailboat named the Draco. But after Billy arrived in Washington, she began receiving text messages from her estranged husband suggesting that Billy would not be returning in the fall—a clear violation of their court-approved custody agreement.

Johanna called the Hazelton Pennsylvania Police Department, who, in turn, contacted the Port of Seattle Police Department. In August, a welfare check was conducted, which showed that Billy and his father were on the boat in Seattle, and all seemed to be well. A week later, however, the airplane ticket Billy’s grandfather had purchased for his return to the East Coast was never used—and the Draco was nowhere to be found.

The FBI-led Seattle Safe Streets Task Force, which includes the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, was called for assistance. Task force members who went to the marina and elsewhere to conduct interviews learned that 46-year-old Jeff Hanson had given away some of his personal belongings, that he had previously sailed the Draco around the world, and—most significantly—that he had a six-day head start on investigators. In other words, he was likely on the open sea and could be headed anywhere. Investigators also learned another troubling fact, Woodbury said: “We were told that Billy didn’t know how to swim.”

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