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Toronto's police chief Mark Saunders speaks during a press conference in Toronto on March 6, 2020.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

He left for high school on Wednesday morning and didn’t return for almost 40 hours.

During his absence, the wiry North York teen became a bargaining chip in a high-stakes drug deal gone bad, the focus of a massive Toronto police search and the object of an outpouring of pleas for his safe return on social media.

His abduction ended in dramatic fashion on Thursday night, when police discovered him in an abandoned barn 45 kilometres from home – just four hours after issuing a surprise televised warning to the boy’s captors. During a Friday morning news conference, Chief Mark Saunders described the teen’s condition as “dishevelled” but otherwise healthy.

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"This investigation is not done yet. I want these people who were involved,” Chief Saunders said, adding that he is “very confident” those responsible will be found.

The teen, whom The Globe and Mail is not naming now that he has been located, was walking to Newtonbrook Secondary School around 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday when witnesses saw two or three men shoving him into a black Jeep Wrangler near his northwestern Toronto home. He was crying for help.

Police arrived soon after to canvass the neighbourhood and get surveillance footage. But lacking the boy’s name, they were unable to push the investigation forward. At 5:27 p.m., the teen’s father called police to report him missing.

About half an hour later, the family received an automated call from Newtonbrook notifying them the boy had not shown up for school. That delay in reporting his school absence has since become the subject of an internal Toronto District School Board investigation, and four staff have been placed on “home assignment.”

Chief Saunders said the father’s call moved the investigation to a more “aggressive” phase. That night, around 10 o’clock, another police force found the burned-out hulk of the Jeep on a rural road in the town of Caledon, Ont. An Amber Alert was issued about an hour and a half later.

Throughout Thursday, police remained tight-lipped. Behind the scenes, they were compiling detailed information on the captors and communicating with the teen’s step-brother, whom they began to realize was a target in the scheme.

During a media appearance that coincided with supper-hour newscasts, Superintendent Steve Watts, commander of the Organized Crime Enforcement Unit, released information carefully selected to let the captors know police were onto them.

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Supt. Watts told reporters that the boy has been abducted as “retribution for an unpaid drug debt.”

The debt apparently is that of the boy’s older stepbrother, who Supt. Watts said owes money in relation to the theft of 100 kilograms of cocaine last summer. The cocaine has a street value of $4-million.

Supt. Watts stressed that the boy had no involvement in the theft.

“This is a 14-year-old, innocent child,” he said. “He is not part of that business. He is not a part of that lifestyle.”

Four hours later, officers arrived at the barn. Chief Saunders would not say how they learned where the boy was. “Tips were coming in,“ he said. “We had various leads we were looking at.

“He’s now safe with his mom and dad,” he added. “We have yet to interview him, obviously, because we want his well-being to be the priority.”

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Chief Saunders stressed that the goal now is to track down the abductors and find out why they did it. He added that police have had no direct contact with the abductors, and only limited contact with the stepbrother.

“I think it’s obvious [the people behind the abduction] couldn’t locate the older brother – neither can we at this point in time – and so the younger brother would have been the target they chose, which is very unfortunate.”

Asked whether the stepbrother could face charges in relation to the drug theft, Chief Saunders suggested it’s unlikely.

“Well, until a drug dealer comes in and complains that they had $4-million of cocaine ripped off them, I won’t be laying that charge. But listen, right now the role he would play is a witness. He would have a strong idea of who is involved and what the involvement was. And then we’d have a starting point to move this investigation further.”

He said police will “certainly entertain” any information he might have to offer.

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