FBI, police search for 11-year-old; mom, stepdad accused of not reporting disappearance

CORNELIUS, N.C. — The FBI is helping the Cornelius Police Department with its search for an 11-year-old girl who was last seen on Nov. 23 at her home, according to police. Her mom and stepfather have been arrested in connection to her disappearance.

In court Monday, Channel 9′s Dan Matics learned school resource officers had reached out on Dec. 12 to figure out where Madalina Cojocari was, according to prosecutors. Then, her mom reported her missing -- three days later on Dec. 15, prosecutors said. That was 22 days after police said she was last seen.

On Saturday, Cornelius police announced they arrested Christopher Palmiter, her stepfather. He was charged with failure to report the disappearance of a child to law enforcement. Cojocari’s mother, 37-year-old Diana Cojocari, was arrested for failure to report the disappearance of a child to law enforcement, police said.

Palmiter was given a $100,000 bond which was increased to $200,000 during his court appearance Monday.

Cojocari was given a $250,000 bond in court Tuesday.

On Monday, the FBI in Charlotte tweeted they were expanding their search “as part of the normal investigative process” while they and the Cornelius Police Department get leads. They brought boats to Lake Norman for the search.

“There’s nothing we won’t do to #FindMadalina,” the FBI tweeted.

Both Cojocari and Palmiter are being held at the Mecklenburg County Detention Center, according to police.

>> The community is holding a candlelight vigil at Cornelius’s Smithville Park for Madalina Cojocari on Tuesday at 7 p.m. For details, click here.

Officers said Cojocari was reported missing to a school resource officer at Bailey Middle School on Dec. 15. Officers said they began investigating that day.

Police said Madalina Cojocari was last seen wearing jeans, pink, purple and white Adidas shoes, a white t-shirt and a jacket.

She is described as 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs approximately 90 pounds, according to police. She has brown hair and brown eyes, authorities said.

Anyone with information about Cojocari’s whereabouts is asked to call the Cornelius Police Department at 704-892-7773.

‘She matters’

“It matters,” said state Sen. Natasha Marcus. “She matters. We’re worried and I’m speaking not necessarily as a state senator but as a mom. That this is very worrisome situation.”

Marcus represents north Mecklenburg County.

“She’s 11-years-old and she’s been missing for more than three weeks,” Marcus said. “I can’t imagine where she might be, what she might have been going through. And I hope we find her.”

Marcus used her social media platform to spread the word of a public vigil planned for Tuesday night. It is organized by two of Madalina’s neighbors.

“We need to find a way to come together and be with each other,” Marcus said. “And just for a moment in this busy Christmas season, show that she matters.”

Former FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker isn’t involved with the investigation but has years of experience with missing child cases.

He said the lag between her disappearance and when her mother reported her missing definitely impacts matters.

“It makes it a cold case right out of the shoots, but it goes back to why did the parents not report their 11-year-old child missing for 22 days,” he said. “That just speaks of foul play.”

Questions surround timeline of disappearance

Many students and parents at Bailey Middle School Monday were desperate to know what happened to their fellow student.

Amanda Slater, a parent, said she wants her son’s classmate home safe and sound.

“I’m really trying to think positively, especially at this time of the year,” Slater said. “She’s a beautiful little girl.”

But there are still a lot of questions about the time police say it took to report Madalina missing and when they said her parents reported it.

“Why did they report it to the SRO and not the police department?” Slater asked.

Under North Carolina state law, if a student has more than 10 unexcused absences, the principal is required to meet with the parents and even get social workers involved if the student still doesn’t show up.

Slater said she experienced that just last week when her son missed five days of school because he got sick.

“We were getting phone calls and emails every day,” she said.

Since Madalina’s mom and stepdad reported her disappearance to Bailey Middle School, Channel 9 asked Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools if the school itself followed all the appropriate protocols. The district said in a statement while it does not comment on criminal investigations, it is cooperating fully with the authorities.

“It all seems a little fishy and I just hope the best for her,” Slater said.

The FBI is relying on tips from the community and is pushing out the hashtag #FindMadalina. Neighbors have also created several Facebook groups to help with the search since she was last seen at her house.

Neighbor Jennifer Vetter said she’s glued to the updates and hoping for the best.

“I hope that the outcome is good and we can actually find her,” she said. “But if we don’t, hopefully, we can give her some justice.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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