PHOENIX – On Tuesday afternoon, January 16, an old man walked into the administrative office of a small charter school on the high desert plains north of Prescott. He was skinny, with floppy jowls that made him look like the Bitter Beer Face man of the old Keystone ads. But other than his goofy face and laughable name, the staff at Mingus Springs Charter School thought little of him.
The old man introduced himself as Lonnie Eugene Stiffler. He asked if the school had any slots open for a seventh-grader. Stiffler said he had home-schooled his grandson, but believed it was time the boy was educated in a classroom setting with kids his own age.
Yes, the school did have one opening. Stiffler filled out the necessary paperwork. He was told his grandson, Casey Edwards Price, age 12, could begin school the next day.
The next morning, as Casey entered his first classes, administrator Julie Bradshaw began reviewing the paperwork Stiffler had submitted.
She apparently was the first person at the four schools Casey attended in Arizona (YCFA Achieve Academy in Prescott Valley, Image Middle School in Surprise, Shelby School in Payson, plus Mingus) to actually do her job.
Bradshaw noticed that Stiffler had provided two different birthdates for his grandson — Dec. 22, 1993, and Sept. 22, 1994. Casey had either just celebrated his 13th birthday or he was still 12.
Stiffler had provided an unusually spare birth certificate that indicated Casey was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on September 22, 1994. The certificate stated that Casey's birth weight was seven pounds and that he was 50 centimeters tall.
Odd, Bradshaw thought, that German nurses would weigh in pounds rather than kilograms and then measure Casey's height in metric centimeters.
She also noticed that the court documents from California had Casey's name spelled "Casy."
In those documents, the old man's attorney was listed as W.A. Drew Edmonson, Oklahoma's attorney general.
Either Stiffler had serious connections, or he was a dumb guy pulling attorney names off the Internet.
Bradshaw called the Oklahoma AG's Office. The AG's name is spelled Edmondson, not Edmonson, she was told. And staff there found no record of Edmondson ever representing Stiffler or Casey Price.
Bradshaw's concern heightened when other school staffers started talking about the new kid. They agreed he looked to be 16 or 17, not 12 or 13. She became concerned that, like the Missouri teen recently found living with the man who had kidnapped him several years before, Casey might be a child forced to live a false life by his abductor.
She called the sheriff's office.
Yavapai County deputy Mark Boan came to the school. He agreed that something was amiss.
Interesting, too, that when Stiffler signed the school's publicity permission slip, a legal paper authorizing the child's image or work to be used in school publications or other media, he would not allow Casey's photo or work to be published anywhere, under any circumstances.
It's a red flag for cops. Abductors don't want pictures of their victims floating around the Internet.
Boan turned over the school paperwork to Detective Ross Diskin, who checked Stiffler's home address with Arizona Public Service. Stiffler and a man named Robert Snow had obtained electricity at a trailer on Del Rio Drive in Chino Valley.
Diskin then ran the name Robert Snow through law-enforcement databases and discovered he was a convicted sex offender who had not registered as such in the community.
Diskin then called Riverside County Superior Court, where Stiffler claimed he had received custody of Casey. The court confirmed the paperwork was fictitious.
Officers found out that Casey Price also had been enrolled in a school in El Mirage, Arizona.
At 7:20 p.m., a judge granted their request for a search warrant. Diskin and Chino Valley Police Department officers headed for the trailer on Del Rio Drive.
And so began what each of them agreed was one of the strangest and most disturbing weeks of their careers.