By Ray Sanchez, CNN Photographs by Cindy Schultz for CNN
Ariel Dedolph was at work at the Saugerties Public Library when a name on an unsettling social media post caught her eye.
It was about 6-year-old Paislee Shultis, who was reported missing more than two years ago and found alive Monday night hidden underneath a staircase with her mother.
Paislee’s surname “definitely was a name I knew,” said Dedolph, who runs the local history room in this Hudson River town 100 miles north of New York City. “I knew it wasn’t just someone from out of town that had showed up or moved up last year. It was a real local presence.”
Paislee’s biological mother, Kimberly Cooper, along with Kirk Shultis Jr. and Kirk Shultis Sr. — her biological father and grandfather — were arrested on custodial interference and child endangerment charges in a case that put a national spotlight on this quaint and bucolic town nestled between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson.
Town historian and genealogist Audrey Klinkenberg also recognized the Shultis name. According to her research this week, the family’s presence dates to the 1700s in the area. The Shultises also are linked to one of the founding families of nearby Woodstock, she said.
The discovery by police of the young girl hidden in a cold and damp space under the stairs of her grandfather’s home has been the talk of the town — with locals eager to point out that regardless of the surname the suspects were not well known or active in the close-knit community.
“I don’t know any of the Shultises in Saugerties really,” said Paul Shultis Jr., a former Woodstock planning board member whose family goes back two centuries in the Ulster County town about 10 miles from Saugerties.
“I don’t even know the persons they arrested. Never heard of them. Even though we’re next door to each other, the towns that I grew up around I didn’t know any other Shultises that I was related to in Saugerties.”
‘Fresh’ tip leads police to Paislee
Authorities had been searching more than two years for Paislee, who was reported missing from her legal guardian in upstate Cayuga Heights in July 2019. A break in the case came on Valentine’s Day when police received a tip leading them to a place they long suspected as her location: her grandfather’s two-story Cape Cod style home about five miles north of downtown Saugerties’ Main Street.
“This tip was fresh. It was factual. The information provided was corroborated,” Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra told CNN, adding that the evidence helped authorities secure a search warrant.
Police had been to the home a dozen times but they had lacked the evidence needed to conduct a full search of the property until Monday, according to Sinagra.
Saugerties is about 160 miles east of Cayuga Heights. The previous times police visited the house after receiving tips about her possible whereabouts, officers were denied access to the basement and bedroom areas. The noncustodial parents would accuse police of “harassing” and “badgering” them and “insisting we should be out looking for Paislee,” said Sinagra, adding that officers were told to get off the property.
Monday night, armed with a search warrant, officers searched every room in the house and checked the basement, where the police chief said they found what resembled an apartment.
The homeowner denied knowing the girl’s whereabouts, insisting he had not seen her since she was reported missing in 2019.
In the basement a detective noticed something was odd about the stairs and, after a closer look, saw a blanket through the cracks, the chief said. After taking apart a section of the stairs, Sinagra said, officers spotted “a set of feet, little feet.” It was Paislee, hiding with her mother in the secret space, with blankets and a pillow.
“We should all wait until the facts come out,” said Carol K. Morgan, an attorney representing Cooper. “Everyone should be patient before they draw their own conclusions.”
Cooper was charged with second-degree custodial interference and endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors, according to police. She is out on bail.
Kirk Shultis Jr. and Kirk Shultis Sr. — who ran a paving business out of his home — were each charged with custodial interference in the first degree, a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. Both were released on their own recognizance, police said. Lawyers for the men declined comment.
The three defendants were ordered by the court to stay away from the child, who has been returned to her legal guardian and older sister.
The Shultis rural home on Fawn Road sits on a sprawling lot with a sandbox and a miniature metal bench, a jungle gym and a swing set. Several of the family’s closest neighbors declined comment.
Family has been around for centuries
In the history room of the Saugerties Public Library, Klinkenberg sorted through a pile of papers with information from genealogy sites, Census records and obituaries. She said the documents show that Kirk Shultis Sr. is descended from the Shultises who settled in the hamlet of Lake Hill near Woodstock in the early 1700s.
“They were farmers, laborers, just working people,” she said.
Dedolph said Paislee’s plight has touched the community with strong working-class, immigrant roots that was once home to an ironworks and a paper mill and is now known for its vibrant arts scene, restaurants and site of the Woodstock silver anniversary music festival in 1994. The 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair drew more than 400,000 people to a farm in upstate Bethel — not Woodstock — for a historic and cultural celebration featuring legendary bands and performers.
“It definitely shows how complex families can be and the challenges that families deal with in difficult times. It’s obviously very difficult and complicated for everyone. I don’t see it as villains and victims,” Dedolph said.
“It’s more like sympathy and understanding that it’s a terrible situation for everybody — for child and parents,” she said of the reaction of locals. “That’s where my heart went to — the child’s experience.”
Fred Costello Jr., Saugerties town supervisor, said the past week had been unsettling for some residents.
“I know a number of Shultises in Woodstock and I don’t think this should change anybody’s individual perspective,” he said.
“They’re overwhelmingly nice folks. This situation stands on its own as far as I’m concerned and the parties that are involved will have to answer for whatever transgressions they may have committed.”
Marjorie Block, the Saugerties village historian and president of its historical society, said locals were shocked at what happened to Paislee in their town but the Shultises were not well known nor influential.
“I’m really glad, though, that little girl is OK,” said Block, who also oversees tourism for the town and runs the annual food-truck festival to raise money to rebuild playgrounds.
“I can’t even imagine what this poor child has gone through. She’s never going to forget hiding and being fearful. That will never leave her.”
Block said the tip to police that led to them finding Paislee must have originated in the community.
“Saugerties is a nice place for families,” she said. “We’re very proud. What makes me feel good is that somebody tipped off the police. Somebody in the community saw something and did the right thing.”
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CNN’s Mark Morales, Travis Caldwell and Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.