Missing Missouri girl reunited with father in Murphy
Murphy – It all came down to a receipt.
A Missouri man received the best Father’s Day present one could ask for when he was reunited with his young daughter, who had been missing for more than five years.
“I was completely prepared to go to my grave looking for my daughter,” William Tyler Bozeman told the Cherokee Scout after local law enforcement located his child. “It still seems surreal, and she’s right here with me now. She’s so beautiful and a ball of joy.”
Deputies from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office located the 5-year-old girl and her mother, Jillanne Pagano, on June 12 in Bear Paw after receiving a tip regarding their whereabouts from police working the case in Missouri. Officers say the pair was exiting the rear of a property as they pulled into the driveway.
“Deputies followed them into the woods,” Sheriff Derrick Palmer said. “When they interviewed them, the woman admitted that was the missing child from Missouri.”
Officials from the Department of Social Services called Bozeman later that night and told him the good news.
“I just dropped to my knees,” 28-year-old Bozeman said, adding that his daughter didn’t know she had a father until they met at the DSS office. “She was told that I had passed away. It’s heartbreaking. She didn’t even know I was on this planet.”
The young girl also used a name different than the one on her birth certificate.
“I’ll legally change her name to Nadya, if she prefers that over her birth name Lillianna,” Bozeman said. “Nadya means hope. So, it seems everything fell into place. I’m respecting the name she used until she decides otherwise.”
Bozeman’s world dramatically changed a short time after his daughter’s birth. He was in the delivery room on that glorious day in July 2013, but inadvertently triggered a family divide that may never be repaired.
“Jillanne’s mother was going through a divorce, and I called [the grandfather] when they put me out of the delivery room for the epidural,” Bozeman said. “When I told them he was on the way, her mother flipped out and told Jillanne they were not going to put my name on the birth certificate. I was standing a few feet from them when she said it.”
The day after Nadya’s birth, Bozeman was asked to leave the hospital entirely, but he returned a couple times during the following week while Pagano battled pregnancy complications. After her release, Bozeman said, Pagano seemed to agree with her mother in not including his name on Nadya’s birth certificate. So, he called off their engagement.
“Everything was pretty good between us until I made that call to Nadya’s grandfather,” he said. “We were going to be married, but everything quickly went south.”
Before their reunification last week, Bozeman only saw his daughter once following her release from the hospital. In hindsight, he sensed the Paganos “were trying to boot out half of the family simply because they were angry.” But he never thought Jillanne would skip town and remain on the run for as long as she did.
“Jillanne one day sent me a text message saying she was leaving the city because everything had become too stressful for her,” Bozeman said. “I asked to be informed of where they were going. But from that point on, I hadn’t heard anything from her.”
That was about three months after Nadya’s birth. Following that, Bozeman sought assistance from “just about every agency I thought might be of any help.” He went to court nearly 10 times before a judge granted him interlocutory judgement of paternity because “Jillanne never showed up,” he said.
Even after he gained custody, agencies refused to get involved because it was a family matter. Bozeman’s desperation eventually reached a point where he wrote a letter to former governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, who then contacted one of the agencies that previously declined to help.
“After sending the letter, I don’t think I waited a week before I got a call from an investigator with the Highway Patrol,” Bozeman said.
In April 2018, the Missouri State Highway Patrol charged Jillanne Pagano, 25, with felony child abduction. Her daughter was then listed as “missing” in national databases.
“I dealt with a complete lack of support from the childcare system,” Bozeman said. “I understand they didn’t want to get involved because of lawsuits, and they didn’t want to back the wrong person, but that [type of thinking] led this to happen, where a little girl has been missing for almost six years and doesn’t even know her father is alive.”
Although police had interviewed family and friends regarding her whereabouts, Pagano managed to slip detectives for more than a year until they recently found a clue at her mother’s Rocheport, Mo., home. It’s unclear why police decided to return to the house, where they found a receipt showing someone rented a cabin in Cherokee County.
“If the investigator had visited the house a day later, the receipt may have been in the trash and she’d still be in Murphy,” Bozeman said. “They didn’t keep any pictures of Nadya at the home at all. One receipt led us here.”
Jillanne’s mother, 59-year-old Valerie Pagano, and her sister, 23-year-old Julliana Pagano, were arrested in Rocheport on Friday night by the Missouri Highway Patrol. They are each charged with felony hindering prosecution.
Bozeman said police informed him charges soon may be filed against another of Pagano’s relatives who allegedly obstructed the missing persons investigation. “They’re looking at possible jail time,” he said.
Adjusting to new home
When Nadya met him last week, Bozeman said, she was shocked and upset because she didn’t want to leave her mother. She soon traded the tears for a smile after spending time with her father in the playground behind the DSS building on U.S. 64 West.
“As we were putting her in the seat to drive away, she said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll give you a chance at living together,’” Bozeman said. “She’s such a smart girl. She’s coming around, and I’ve arranged counselors to help make the transition a little smoother.”
On the morning of Father’s Day, she climbed into his bed at 4 a.m. and slept on his shoulder for about five hours.
“I could have laid there forever,” Bozeman said. “It was the greatest gift I could ask for. She’s really adjusting well.”
Later that day, Nadya met her maternal grandfather, who was previously barred from seeing her due to the divorce from Valerie.
“She played guitar with him,” Bozeman said. “He controlled the top hand and let her strum the bottom. She was impressed. It was nothing but smiles all day.”
Nadya still doesn’t understand all of the circumstances surrounding the ordeal. Bozeman said he’s working with counselors to someday tell her the whole story.
“I don’t want to talk down on her mother, so I’ve had to choose my words carefully,” he said when asked how Nadya is dealing with her mom’s arrest. “But at the same time, I can’t lie to my daughter about what’s going on.
“I told her that every little girl deserves to have a mommy and a daddy, and that Jillanne decided only mommy had the right to see her. She doesn’t know her mom was sent to jail; she just knows mommy did a bad thing, so she can’t see her right now.”
Bozeman shared his story with the Scout because he wants to help other parents in similar situations.
“I knew nothing,” Bozeman said while crediting his attorney’s legal aide with helping him navigate the courts. “I never had a dad, and I was willing to march to my grave looking for my daughter. It’s a magical moment.”