A Ukrainian teen who ran away from Gillette in mid-June was recovered in New Jersey last week after leaving the state with a 21-year-old man she met on the internet.
No charges have been brought yet against the unnamed man, but an investigation is currently underway, according to the Lyndhurst, New Jersey, police department.
Valeriia “Lera” Nudha, 15, was retrieved by her adopted mother, Bethany Wight, in New Jersey on June 28. The teen has lived in Gillette with Wight and her husband Nik, an associate pastor at Calvary Community Church, for the past seven months and speaks limited English.
Wight described her daughter as “healthy but angry” and said the teen is not talking to them about anything that happened.
The girl met the older man on the messaging app Telegram, Bethany said, and had been communicating with him for an undisclosed amount of time before he drove to Wyoming to pick her up and take her to New Jersey. She’d left a note for her parents, saying she ran away and would contact them when she was ready.
The Wights believe the teen may have been groomed online and might be a victim of trafficking.
“She has no idea of the danger she put herself in,” Bethany told Cowboy State Daily on Monday. “She told him all her sorrows, and he just came to save the day basically. She is angry at us and not him.”
The Wights worry that Valeriia had been groomed long before she came to live with the family in the U.S. and doesn’t understand what might be happening.
The police were able to track her down in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, after the teen opened a new account on Instagram and started communicating with the Wights and others.
The Lyndhurst Police Department is currently investigating the incident to determine whether a crime has been committed, according to Lt. Vincent Auteri, who told Cowboy State Daily he could not comment on any details of an ongoing investigation.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Auteri said, “and we’re not making a commitment to how or where charges might be brought.”
The Gillette Police Department is also investigating the case and has yet to bring charges, according to Lt. Brent Wasson.
The Wights said they had no idea that their daughter was communicating with an older man on social media and said they want to share this story with other parents whose children might also be in danger.
“I just really hope more parents will watch what their kids are doing online,” Bethany said.
More information about human trafficking and additional resources is available at Uprising Wyoming, a Sheridan-based nonprofit that offers educational support and trainings about trafficking.