An Arizona father reunited in July with a 10-year-old son abducted seven years ago by the boy's mother urged parents of missing children to hold on to hope at all costs.
"Don't give up, don't give up," Gary Wood, a 57-year-old truck driver and single father, told ABCNews.com. "Be proactive. Don't count on the police to do everything for you -- you've got to keep on it."
Wood said he has been haunted since Aug. 30, 2001, when Kathleen Mary Rock, then 38, abducted their 3-year-old son, Matthew, during a supervised visit at a Phoenix amusement center. Wood had "primary residential custody" at the time, according to Reuben Gonzales, a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department.
"I turned my back for about two minutes. I looked around and didn't see Matthew or Kathleen anywhere," said Wood, who made the original 911 call to report his son missing. "You wouldn't believe the amount that I've beaten myself up over the last seven years."
On July 15, investigators from the U.S. Marshals Service called Gary Wood and asked him how long it would take him to get to Houston. Kathleen Rock had been arrested in Veracruz, Mexico, on attempted robbery charges, according to Steve Blando, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service. Authorities had Matthew, now 10, safely in their custody.
After Rock faces charges in Mexico, she will be transported to Phoenix to answer a federal kidnapping charge, Blando said.
Wood, who described himself as in disbelief, waited until Matthew was safely in the air until boarding a flight for Houston with plane tickets that required the single father to max out his credit card. When he received the word, he and his 17-year-old daughter, Holly, the boy's half-sister, were on the first flight they could catch.
Investigators from the U.S. Marshals Service and FBI met Wood and his daughter in Houston and briefed them before the emotional reunion. "Matthew doesn't remember you at all," an agent told him. "As much as you both want to hold him, don't do it."
Wood said there was no way to hold back the tears when he entered the room and saw his boy. "I said, 'I'm your dad, and this is your sister. I understand you don't recognize us and that's fine.'"
Wood said they have tried to ease Matthew into acclimating, but the whirlwind introduction to a father, family and country he never really knew began immediately.
The American-born boy, whose mother took him to Mexico to start a new life, spoke some English, but his Spanish was better.
Matthew apparently was used to working odd jobs for extra money. As they attempted to leave the Phoenix airport for home, Matthew stopped to talk to a woman working at the shoeshine stand, Wood said. Holly, his half-sister, asked Matthew why he was talking to the woman. "He was asking her how much money she made because he used to shine shoes in Mexico," Wood said.
Matthew's highlights have included Buffalo wings and hot fudge sundaes, an allowance and a ride in the front cart of a rollercoaster. Matthew is also looking forward to a first day of school on Aug. 11 -- as much as a 10-year-old boy looks forward to going back to school.
Matthew spent a day on the job with his father, a former long-haul trucker who now makes deliveries in the Phoenix area. Wood said he knew his son was getting the hang of things quickly when they arrived at their house this week and a local news crew was waiting to request an interview. Before the interview began, Matthew changed into a clean shirt and wetted his hair to look good when cameras started rolling.
Gary Wood said that he does not want to seem unappreciative of law enforcement, especially with the boy found safe, but the seven years were not without frustration. At times, he said he felt that authorities were not as interested in catching Rock because it was the mother who did the kidnapping rather than the father. In this case, he said, it was Rock who had a criminal history, not him.
The boy was kidnapped less than two weeks before Sept. 11, and Wood said that after the terrorist attacks in New York City, the investigation understandably took a backseat to other security concerns. Amber Alerts were not introduced in Arizona until November 2001, though it's unclear whether Matthew's abduction would have triggered the state's threshold.
"She timed it right," Wood said.
Despite his frustrations, Wood said that he found a few individuals, including a Phoenix Police Department detective, who were willing to help. He would repeatedly call FBI investigators and not always hear back. Oftentimes when he did, they would tell him they were on the case, but provided little additional information.
Wood tried to work with law enforcement, but also did what he could on his own and urged other parents of missing children to do the same. Pass out fliers, keep hope alive and talk to anyone who will listen, he said.
"I've probably told the story of Matthew's 20,000 times in the last seven years," Wood said.
It's a story he will continue to tell, but now it has a happy ending.