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July 17, 2012 | 02:27 PM
GENOA CITY — A 16-year-old missing since March 4 reportedly eluded authorities by hiding out with friends who lived in several different apartments near 25 First St., Darien.

But the search for Autumn Serrano ended Friday at about 2:30 p.m. With help from Darien police, Genoa City Police Chief Joe Balog said she was recovered safely and "seemed to be in good health."

Balog said Serrano, who was living with foster parents in Genoa City, is at a shelter in Waukesha now, one which is "more secure than a foster home."

She was expected to appear before a juvenile intake judge Tuesday at a hearing to determine her future placement.

"It was a huge relief to be able to close this case," Balog said. "I knew that if this wasn't resolved by (last) weekend, I would have been dwelling on it until we got her."

In fact, he said he was prepared to organize a full-on search for Serrano had she still not been found, even dropping the phrase "task force."

"If we wouldn't have gotten her last Friday, my goal would have been to, every day, every shift, have every officer working on this case — following up on leads, finding out what she did," Balog said. "We were going to forensically dissect everything she did up until the moment she left."

But it appears Balog received help from an unlikely place, a tip that would lead him to uncover that several people allegedly helped Serrano avoid police contact for more than four months.

A network of friends

He said thanks to Sgt. Tracy Reiff, it was discovered a Walworth County Jail inmate had information which was "very beneficial to the case."

Balog would not identify the inmate. However, he said this person confirmed where Serrano was staying.

According to Balog, there are three houses along First Street in Darien which had been converted into apartment units. Each house contains "two or three" apartments, he said.

"It seems like (Serrano) was friends with everybody in these apartments," Balog said.

Darien police had searched these apartments in the past, according to Balog. However, it is believed if Serrano was in that apartment, she could hide in a different one before that resident would allow the search.

Balog said he received information that Serrano was friends with all of the residents in this area, and they were willing to hide her from police. However, Balog said no one has received any citations at this time.

He also said with Darien being a village with a small population, he suspected it likely would have been one officer conducting these searches.

But on Friday around 2:30 p.m., Balog and two Darien police officers surrounded these houses near First Street.

"We had received information that (Serrano) was at this 20-year-old guy's house," Balog said. "She was actually located two houses away from him."

Reportedly, Darien police officer Gerardo Baca had talked to a woman who lives at 25 First St. Balog said once Baca explained the seriousness of the situation, this woman turned Serrano over.

"(The woman said) I'll take you right to her," Balog said. "She was 110-percent cooperative. This time."

In an interview last week, Balog said Serrano was suspected of hiding out in "a network of friends." At that time, he mentioned a "romantic interest" who lives in either Pell Lake or Powers Alek, but he also said Serrano may have ties to the Darien area.

A resourceful girl

On Monday, Balog said he couldn't comment in detail on Serrano's past record.

"I don't think this is the first time she has been reported as a runaway," he said. "But we had a good conversation and she told me she would straighten up."

Balog said Serrano told him she will contact him when she graduates high school and would consult him if she needs any help.

"I told her I'd do what I could," he said.

Last week, Balog said he had never dealt with a runaway who could avoid attracting police attention so long.

On Monday, he said he told Serrano she should apply her resourcefulness toward a positive outcome in her life. Balog said he encouraged her to get her life back on track.

He also thanked people who reported information to authorities, those who recognized Serrano from her picture on the posters displayed at local businesses or in last week's Regional News.

"It's stuff like that which helps solve cases like this," Balog said.

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