Search for missing autistic child hits 5th day

  • BENJAMIN "BENNY" RAPOZA
  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald The county’s Chopper 1 helicopter takes off from the staging area at Wai’olena Beach Park Monday to search the shoreline area for Benny Rapoza, a 6-year-old autistic boy missing since Friday.

HILO — First responders and civilians, including family and friends, searched for a missing 6-year-old boy in the Keaukaha area of Hilo for a fourth day Monday.

Benjamin “Benny” Rapoza, a nonverbal autistic child clad only in a diaper when last seen, hadn’t been found as of late Monday.

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“He has walked away before,” said Lt. Sandor Finkey of the Hawaii Police Department’s Juvenile Aid Section. “He is attracted to electronics, mechanical items and water. He likes SpongeBob SquarePants, so we’ve had family members playing the theme song while they were out looking for him in order to attract his attention.”

Finkey said it’s believed Rapoza left the family home between 2-3 p.m. Friday.

Asked if there’s any evidence the boy might have been abducted, Finkey answered, “Not at this point. At this point, this is a missing child case.”

The weather, while overcast on Monday, was better than over the weekend, and the surf along the Keaukaha shoreline, while choppy, was not as high as over the weekend. Fire rescuers, police and National Park Service rangers were staging rescue operations from Waiolena Beach Park.

“This is, by far, the best day we’ve had to insert divers into the water,” said Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief Garrett Kim, who oversaw the air and water components of the search. More than likely this will be the last day. That’s why we wanted to do a concentrated, concerted effort to get divers into the water.”

Asked if the focus of the search has turned from rescue to recovery, Kim replied, “This is the fourth day. The chances are getting less and less by the day, but we always hold out hope. And we want to bring closure to the family, one way or the other.”

Kim said a county helicopter was searching along the coastline and coastal waters, as well as inserting and extricating five Fire Department divers from the water.

“Based on their exertion levels, they’re in there for about 45 minutes at a time before they’re extricated with the helicopter,” he said.

In addition, near-shore support was provided by an Ocean Safety Division watercraft.

Among the civilians searching for the boy Monday were several employees of Cyanotech, a micro-algae producing company headquartered on leased land at the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii in Kona.

“Our executive made the decision to allow people to come over rather than reporting to work today,” said Matt Custer, vice president and general manager of the company.

Custer said for him, the search is personal.

“I’ve got a nephew that’s autistic, as well,” he said. “We were talking about it when we started this morning. They’re fearless; they don’t fear the water, don’t fear cars.”

Erin Stamper, lab tech for the Kona firm, said she was familiar with the Keaukaha coast, having dived there as a student in the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s marine science program.

“This water is very unforgiving, especially this whole coastline,” Stamper said.

Finkey said detectives and police dogs will continue searching at least through today.

“We’re continuously following up on any tips that come in,” he said.

“Even though we did several neighborhood canvasses, we want everybody in the Keaukaha area to double-check their yards, double-check their garages, double-check their vehicles — and even double-check inside their residences,” Finkey said. “This child can open and close doors, so it’s possible that if a door was unlocked, the child could’ve entered into a residence and be inside a residence. A child can climb into an unlocked vehicle or an open trunk. And if they have pools and catchments, we want them to check those, as well.

“We want to leave no stone unturned, because a child this size can hide, or sleep or fit in very small spaces.”

Rapoza is described as local, standing about 3-feet tall, weighing about 50 pounds, with a slim build, short brown hair, brown eyes and a fair complexion.

Police continue to ask anyone with information on Rapoza’s whereabouts to call Detective BJ Sagon at 961-8883 or email bobbie-jo.sagon@hawaiicounty.gov. Those with information can also call the department’s nonemergency line at 935-3311.

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Tipsters who prefer to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 961-8300 and could be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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