In one of the most disturbing cases of unlawful child imprisonment America has ever witnessed within its borders, police found a 13-year-old boy behind a false wall this weekend, four years after he officially went missing.

The boy had been 9 years old when he went to Jonesboro, Georgia to visit his father in 2010. It was reported that his father refused to return his son to the mother. The mother reported her son missing to child welfare authorities but never alerted the police, which is something police are trying to get to the bottom of currently.

“I think there may be a cultural issue. She thought she was doing the right thing by calling child support recovery to locate him,” said Clayton County Police Sergeant Joanna Southerland.

Neighbours of the father’s house say they often saw a young boy working long hours in the yard on weekdays, when he should have been at school. It was only when they saw him sweeping up on the roof while his parents were standing around on the ground not supervising that one of the neighbours was concerned enough to record some footage on her phone and submitted it to Channel 2 Action News.

Police were alerted and officers arrived at the house around 11pm on Friday to conduct a welfare check on the boy.

“Upon initial arrival, responding officers made contact with several occupants at the location who denied having knowledge of any information concerning the victim,” said Clayton County Police Sergeant Kevin Hughes. “After a brief search of the premises, the officers left without locating the victim.”

It was only after a second “anonymous” call was made that police returned to the house three hours later and found the boy concealed behind the back panel of a linen closet in the garage.

“He just kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you,” Daniel Day with the Clayton County Police Department recalled. “He was just overjoyed that we had found him.”

The officers immediately arrested all five people present on the property, including the boy’s father and stepmother, and charged them with false imprisonment, cruelty to children and obstruction of justice.

The other three people arrested were juveniles, and a judge denied bail for the father and stepmother on Sunday. The stepmother is also being accused of hitting the boy on his legs and backside with a stick.

Police watched the boy be reunited with his mother at 11am the same morning, as she pulled his hat back and wiped away her son’s tears.