A humble horticulturist is a secret superhero

James Gagliardi, a self-described “plant geek,” used his knowledge to narrow an international search that resulted in the rescue of an abused and exploited child.

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The story seems like the plot of a crime drama. A little girl, just a toddler, was in danger. Her location was unknown, her identity a mystery. All investigators had to go on were digital images. Law enforcement agencies around the country, around the world even, were trying to find her. Years passed, and still, no one could locate or even identify this child. Who would be the person to crack the case wide open? A Smithsonian Horticulturist. You read that right. One of our very own is the hero in this very real story.

In the summer of 2015, Homeland Security Investigations Utah sent digital-media they had previously seized to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – a non-profit dedicated to the prevention and recovery from child victimization. The files, containing disturbing images of a young girl, were compared to Interpol’s International Sexual Exploitation Database where investigators learned this same child had been part of other international investigations. Still, even with so many organizations working the case, they were unable to find the child.

The additional imagery on the ICSE database did hold some important clues though. From the bikes, to the toys, to even the clothes the girl was wearing in the pictures, investigators knew that the child they were calling KatyK was somewhere in North America.

Meanwhile, NCMEC had contacted Smithsonian Gardens for help on a separate matter. They needed to work with someone that could identify plants in hopes of gaining valuable information that could be used to help another victim. Barbara Faust, Director of Smithsonian Gardens, asked James Gagliardi to give his assistance. Through that first contact, Gagliardi, a self-described “plant geek,” built a working relationship with NCMEC and has helped them approximately five additional times on various cases.

Gagliardi in red shirt and cap in holding award in front of step-and-repeat screen

Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist James Gagliardi with his well-deserved Hero Award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (Photo courtesy James Gagliardi)

The process is always the same. NCMEC sends Gagliardi a cropped image that only features what he needs to see – he isn’t given any information on the possible victim or details about the case. Gagliardi simply identifies the plant life and reports his findings back to NCMEC.

Two years had passed since NCMEC had first become aware of KatyK. All they knew was that she was somewhere in North America. So in May of 2017, NCMEC reached out again to Gagliardi with another image and asked for his help: Could he identify the plants and let them know if they were specific to any particular region?

He quickly noticed a pine tree, palm tree, and reddish soil indicative of the U.S. South. Within a day, Gagliardi had identified the type of palm, a Sabal, confirmed the identification with the Haupt Garden Horticulturalist responsible for the tropical container collection, and used the USDA plant database to supply NCMEC with a specific geographic range. From North Carolina through Texas, KatyK was likely somewhere in the coastal regions of just 10 states.

Armed with the new possible-location information, NCMEC contacted HSI’s Victim Identification Team at the Cyber Crimes Center in D.C. The analyst there zeroed in on the playground equipment in the image background and worked closely with certified park inspectors from the possible states to identify the maker and location of the equipment. In just two weeks from the time Gagliardi was contacted, investigators discovered that Kingwood, Texas was the only town in the United States where that specific playground equipment was in use and Sabal Palms grew.

Sabal palm tree

Gagliardi’s identification of a Texas Sabal Palm (Sabal mexicano) helped investigators narrow their search for the missing child. (Image via Garden Style San Antonio)

The Cyber Crimes Center notified HSI Houston that the child they were looking for could be, or at least once was, in Kingwood. HSI SA William Russell took on the case on June 13, 2017. He and his team searched tirelessly in areas someone KatyK’s age would likely be. From parks to dance studios, and preschools to gyms, investigators searched for possible lead – a lead they found on the second day.

In the early morning hours of June 16, 2017, KatyK was found and rescued. Her father was soon arrested and sent to Houston to face trial.

Gagliardi’s efforts narrowed the search parameters enough to enable the 5-year old’s rescue. But because Gagliardi is a horticulturist and not an investigator, he remained unaware of what was happening in Texas and what his information was helping to unravel. It wasn’t until a Federal District Attorney in Houston called Gagliardi In March of 2018 that he learned anything about what his work helped do.

The DA on that call asked Gagliardi to hold a week for possible travel, explaining that he might be needed as an expert witness in the State’s case. But that wasn’t necessary. Stephen P. Lynch pled guilty on June 6, 2018 and was sentenced to 35 years in federal prison in September.

“I didn’t understand the depth of what I did.” Gagliardi explained. He began to grasp the scope of his involvement when he and the other investigators from HSI, Montgomery County Texas Constable’s Office, the Harris County Texas Sheriff’s Office, the Conroe Police Department, and the Assistant United States Attorney Southern District of Texas were nominated and later awarded one of four 2018 Heroes’ Awards on September 20th at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

Gagliardi family pose in front of NCMEC screen

James Gagliardi with his parents, David and Joan Gagliardi.

Given by NCMEC, each year the Heroes’ Awards celebrate the work and dedication of law enforcement that has been instrumental in recovering a missing or exploited child. This year was no different, except that for the first time, a Smithsonian horticulturist was in the mix.

Through the award process, details of the case were released. In addition, because the ceremony offered a chance for the investigation team to be together, Gagliardi was finally able to learn about the case and talk to the investigation team about how his involvement helped to turn the tide so KatyK could be found.

“I certainly wanted to make sure the attention stayed on the real heroes in law enforcement,” said Gagliardi, always humble, of the award presentation. He tried to stay hidden near the back of the stage as the team was being recognized for their heroic efforts, but being the only non-law enforcement awardee that evening, it was difficult to stay hidden for long.

Recipients in front of step and repeat screen

James Gagliardi (far left) with host John Walsh (third from right) and other awardees at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Heroes’ Awards reception, Sept. 20, 2018.

As Emily Vacher, Facebook’s Director of Trust & Safety, Current NCMEC Board Member, and former FBI agent, was presenting the award, she called Gagliardi to the front of the stage where she gave him a high-five for all to see. That shout-out led made it impossible to stay anonymous. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame was at the ceremony and when he saw Gagliardi later during the reception, excitedly proclaimed, “The horticulturist!”

Cranston wasn’t the only recognizable face in the crowd. John Walsh, TV host, victims’ rights advocate, co-founder and member of the NCMEC board of directors, was also in attendance. As if being recognized in front of heroes from across the country, TV stars, and champions of children’s safety wasn’t enough, all of the awardees were recognized again, this time on the field before the Nationals took on the New York Mets before a crowd of over 28,000.

Recipients gathered on ballfield

The 2018 Heroes’Award recipients receive a hero-sized thanks on the filed at Nationals Park on Sept. 20, 2018.

“The whole experience, from being recognized on the field of Nationals Park before a game, to meeting all the other winners, to having family and friends join me, was amazing,” Gagliardi explained.

In closing, Gagliardi simply remarked, “I’m honored, humbled, and grateful to play a small but significant part with this group of heroes.” Sentiments shared by all of us here at the Smithsonian too.

Andrea Martin is a Communications Specialist in Smithsonian Facilities’ Office of Business and Technical Services. This post was originally published by the Smithsonian Facilities magazine, Access.

Posted: 10 December 2018
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