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Suspect questioned in Amber Alert case

MANATEE — Authorities on Sunday began questioning a man they say is connected to the disappearance of a girl who went missing Saturday and turned up a day later.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office issued a Missing Child Alert on Saturday and an Amber Alert was put out for the 12-year-old northwest Bradenton girl on Sunday. The girl’s grandfather said she walked into the family’s home in the 5500 block of 2nd Avenue West around 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

“After interviewing (her) and following up on several leads, detectives have identified and located the person who was with (her).” said sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow. “He is being questioned regarding this incident with charges against him pending.”

Bristow said the suspect, in his 40s, picked the girl up in a red sport utility vehicle resembling a Jeep Cherokee around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday at the intersection of 75th Avenue West and Manatee Avenue.

“He was there when she was walking and she got into his SUV,” Bristow said. “She was with the person overnight and she was dropped off earlier today near her home.”

Bristow said investigators think she did not know the suspect until Saturday.

The child’s grandfather said that before the girl walked through the front door, someone dropped her off at a Wendy’s on Manatee Avenue. He said she walked home from the fast food restaurant.

The girl’s grandfather said she did not say who she was with while she was gone.

Additional information was not available Sunday.

For now, the girl’s grandfather said he and the rest of her family are glad she is safe.

Florida Division of Law Enforcement officials issued an Amber Alert at about noon on Sunday.

Bristow said the girl left her home around 10 p.m. on Saturday and was spotted at a nearby McDonald’s at 10:15 p.m.

Shortly afterward, she was seen getting into the SUV.

Her 32-year-old mother said her daughter suffers from a mental health condition.

“She’s been more and more volatile in the past few days,” said the mother, who appeared exhausted as she sat at the kitchen table of the family’s home.

She said that before her daughter left the house Saturday evening she was extremely agitated, so she allowed her to take a walk outside to calm down.

“We let her take half-hour walks around the block to cool off,” she said. “We thought she was doing a cooling off thing.”

But when an hour-and-a-half passed, the girl’s mother got worried.

Her family began scouring the area looking for her.

The mother’s other daughter, who is 10, even took her to a few of her sister’s favorite hiding spots outside.

“She even grabbed a flashlight to help find her,” the girl’s mother said.

But they did not find her.

The mother notified authorities, who in turn issued a missing persons notification, calling local residents through an automated phone messaging system.

Bristow said an Amber Alert was not issued at that time, because there was strong suspicion the girl had run away. Evidence of danger to the child or an abduction has to be present before an Amber Alert is issued, Bristow said.

After authorities learned the girl had gotten into a vehicle, FDLE determined enough evidence was present to issue the Amber Alert on Sunday, Bristow said.

The girl’s mother described her child as playful, trusting and kind.

The girl, she said, is home-schooled and has never run away.

When asked if she had any idea who her child was with, the girl’s mother shook her head and responded, “Not a clue. She has no friends here.”

The family, which includes the victim, her 10-year-old sister and a 6-year-old brother, relocated to Bradenton in November from Minnesota and moved in with the grandparents. The victim’s father is still in Minnesota for work and hasn’t been able to move down yet, her mother said.

Bristow said that the girl had been visiting Internet chat rooms where adults congregate, but he would not be more specific.

“We think there’s a decent chance she could have been meeting up with somebody that she met online,” Bristow said. “But, the only thing that kind of leads us to believe she may not have been, she wasn’t really dressed like she was going to meet up with anybody. She didn’t have any shoes on. She had like a sports bra on and blue jeans. So she could have been just getting out and getting some air, started walking, and then met up with somebody down there — sort of a chance meeting.”

He also said that the sheriff’s department did a search of sexual offenders in a three-mile radius around the area, but did not turn up any promising leads.

“We didn’t really come up with anything that jumped out at us,” Bristow said. “There are 19 sexual offenders and predators in this general area. None of them met the specific criteria that we were looking at. Someone who likes young girls, that’s what we were looking at.”