The disappearance of 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger this week was related to illegal drug activities involving the boy’s family, Las Vegas police said Thursday.
The case involves "significant amounts of money and drugs" and "a number of drug deals that have taken place," Capt. Vincent Cannito said.
He declined to elaborate on the drug deals or who was involved in the scheme, citing the ongoing investigation.
Sources said it’s believed that a member of Cole’s family owes a Mexican drug cartel between $8 million and $20 million.
Sources described the family member as an alleged money launderer for the cartel. The family member is in hiding.
Authorities have received between 15 to 20 contacts per hour about the boy’s disappearance, although some of those have come from people wanting more information about the suspects, said David Hatch, a consultant with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who is now working with Las Vegas police on the case.
Police have devoted more than 100 detectives to the case, Cannito said, and the department now has several persons of interest. They also have some "very significant leads," he said.
The boy’s disappearance, which has sparked a national search involving federal and local authorities, continues to be a race against time, Cannito said.
"The longer we go, the more dangerous this situation becomes," Cannito said.
The Amber Alert for Cole’s disappearance has spread to five states. Alerts are displayed on road signs, at truck stops, gas stations, hotels and other high-traffic areas around the country, according to authorities.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol agents have been notified to be on the lookout for the suspects, Cannito said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also investigating the case.
Dozens of family and friends of the boy gathered with complete strangers at a Target shopping center at Charleston and Nellis boulevards at nightfall Thursday to pick up fliers and fan out around the valley to pass them out.
Cole’s father, Robert Puffinburger, didn’t want to talk about the case but asked for his son to be returned safe.
"He’s a good kid," the 28-year-old civil engineer said with a smile. "I’m sure he’s giving them hell right now."
He had been passing out fliers since Wednesday evening.
Isa Castra and her husband, Teo, said they decided to volunteer to pass out fliers because they’re bilingual and thought that they could be helpful in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
She said they didn’t know Cole or his family.
"If this were to happen with one of our kids, we would want the community to come together for us," Isa Castra said.
Robert Puffinburger seemed to be in a daze as people hugged him and said they were praying for his son.
"It’s amazing how a community comes together in times like this," he said.
One of the key pieces of information in the case — a vehicle description — has yet to materialize. Police also only have the description of one of the three suspects in the case.
One of the suspects is described as having black, shoulder-length, slicked-back hair. He is in his early 30s, 5 feet 7 inches tall and about 150 pounds. He was last seen wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans.
Police said two, possibly three, men claimed to be police officers before they entered Cole’s home on Cherry Grove Avenue, near Hollywood and Lake Mead boulevards, about 7:15 a.m.
The men demanded money, and the boy’s mother and her fiance told them they didn’t have any, police said. The men used zip ties to restrain the two, gagged them and searched the house, police said.
When they didn’t find money, they took Cole and fled in a vehicle, police said.
"This is about as bad as it gets," Cannito said.
According to America’s Most Wanted’s Web site, which cited "investigators," the men who burst into Cole’s east valley home Wednesday morning were looking for the boy’s grandfather, who hasn’t lived at the home since last year.
Cannito declined to confirm that report.
Hatch, who has worked for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children since retiring as a homicide detective with Las Vegas police, said police canvassed the neighborhood Thursday morning.
They stopped cars, went door-to-door and interviewed dozens of people, he said. People of particular interest for information were those who drive regular routes through the neighborhood, such as delivery workers, he said.
He said the viciousness of the attack concerned him.
"These are trusting people," Hatch said of the family. "They said ‘police,’ so they opened the door to see what was going on."
Cannito continued to urge the public for information on Cole’s whereabouts.
Cole is 3 feet 11 inches tall, 48 pounds and has distinctly stained front teeth. He has blond hair and blue eyes.
The boy was last seen wearing a black John Cena WWE wrestling shirt, dark jeans, a belt, black Vans shoes, white socks and a black, zip-up hooded sweat shirt with white, black and blue stars over it.
Review-Journal writer Antonio Planas contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at email@example.com or 702-383-0440.