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PARADISE — Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers located a 5-year-old boy who was abducted Wednesday night, helping to arrest the suspected kidnappers as they tried to flee with the youth across the ice of Whitefish Bay to Canada.
The incident began about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, when the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a domestic dispute at a residence that involved a stabbing.
Investigators went to the home and began to piece together the details of what had happened.
George Stephen Cunningham, 53 – who is the boy’s biological father and a registered sex offender on a tether – and 68-year-old Jon Scott Stygler had gone to the house armed with knives, chemical spray and blunt objects.
The residence is located on Whitefish Road in Paradise, in the northeast corner of the Upper Peninsula. The boy was reported to be at the home with his aunt, a man and three other children.
Police said Cunningham and Stygler bound and gagged a woman outside the home, and then placed her in a parked vehicle. The two men then went inside, spraying the occupants with chemical spray, taping their mouths shut with duct tape and binding them using zip ties.
While the suspects searched the house for the boy, one of the victims was able to get free and stab at least one of the suspects. The men then left the house, taking the child.
They were reported heading north in a camouflage pickup truck. The vehicle was found parked in a driveway at a home on Blueberry Lane, situated about 5 miles north of the house.
At about 10 p.m., sheriff’s deputies contacted Michigan Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Corporal Kevin Postma, asking for help because of a concern the suspects may resort to traveling with the child via snowmobile.
Postma contacted Conservation Officer Calvin Smith for assistance.
Smith hauled patrol snowmobiles to Postma’s location. While getting ready to begin their 60-mile drive to Paradise, the conservation officers were told to meet up with officers from several other agencies at the house on Blueberry Lane.
Police established a perimeter around the house and contacted the homeowner, who had no connection to the suspects or the child. After learning that the child and suspects were not at the house, Postma and Smith began looking for their tracks in the snow.
“There is only one road,” Smith said. “There is no other way to get away unless you have a sled.”
Postma, Smith and sheriff’s Deputy Doug Mitchell located the suspects’ tracks and began following them. The footprints led to Whitefish Bay.
“The ice was turning to slush – if we got off our sleds, the slush was up to our knees,” Smith said.
Following the zig-zagging path about 3 to 4 miles across the slushy ice, the three officers caught up with the suspects.
Cunningham and Stygler were traveling on foot, pulling the child on a sled. The boy was in a sleeping bag, with instant meals the suspects had packed.
Cunningham had cut his tether off.
At about 1:10 a.m. Thursday, the officers stopped Cunningham and Stygler, who were arrested without incident. The officers confiscated the weapons and belongings the two men had with them.
Postma and Smith transported the child, Deputy Mitchell and the suspects on the DNR patrol sleds back to the house on Blueberry Lane, where deputies, Michigan State Police troopers and Whitefish Township EMS personnel were waiting.
“There was no way they were going to make it all the way to Canada,” Smith said. “They would have eventually fallen through the ice, which had recently been broken for ships by an ice breaker. They were not dressed for the conditions, especially with the wind. One of the suspects was even beginning to show signs of hypothermia.”
The suspects did not require medical treatment and were released to the custody of the sheriff. The young boy was cold, but in good condition.
“In addition to being prepared with equipment to navigate difficult terrain, conservation officers have received specialized tactical TRACKING training,” said Gary Hagler, chief of the DNR Law Enforcement Division. “This is the second situation this week that our officers have worked with local law enforcement agencies, utilizing their search and rescue skills. I’m thankful to hear that our officers and Deputy Mitchell were able to rescue the child, and that he is doing well – given the situation.”
Cunningham and Stygler were arraigned Thursday on multiple charges in Chippewa County District Court in Sault Ste. Marie. Cunningham was jailed without bond; Stygler is being held on a $1 million bond, with a tether required should he post bail.
Deputies said the child has since been returned to his legal guardians and is doing well.
Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned state peace officers who provide natural resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect citizens by providing general law enforcement duties and lifesaving operations in the communities they serve.
For more information about conservation officers, visit Michigan.gov/ConservationOfficers.