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Abduction of girl, 10,
stirs fear in county

The kidnapping is one of the most severe crimes to occur in this quiet, rural Florida community.

Missing girl is found okay
By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


BLUE SPRINGS -- Jeanette Thomas was just getting to the point where she would allow her kids to go in the store alone to buy paper towels.

But after the abduction Monday of a 10-year-old girl a mile from the Thomas home, her mind has changed. No more bike rides or walking to grandma's alone. It brings tears to her eyes.

The community that straddles the Gilchrist-Alachua county line a bit more than an hour's drive northwest of Gainesville was a place of fun and frolic for Thomas, 34. As a young girl, she ran through the woods and rolling fields oblivious to danger.

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[Times art]
On Wednesday, Thomas was standing with her husband and four children in the parking lot of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in High Springs, the nearest big town, where about 35 people assembled to search for Jessica Ashlyn Rodriguez.

"This is probably one of the most severe crimes we've had occur," said Gilchrist County Sheriff David P. Turner. Populated by nearly 13,400 people, the county rarely sees anything more serious than property crimes.

Jessica was abducted by a man around 3:35 p.m. Monday after getting off the school bus on County Road 340.

Jennifer Graham, Jessica's mother, usually meets her three oldest children at the bus, but she overslept that day, according to Graham's sister-in-law, Gayle Nobles.

Investigators say a man in a dark gray or green Jeep Cherokee started talking to Jessica and her two younger sisters. He then grabbed Jessica near the edge of the unpaved driveway, which stretches about 80 feet toward the trailer that is home.

One of Jessica's sisters ran for help. Graham's fiance, Thomas Keeley, tried to pursue the Jeep but couldn't catch it.

Keeley took a polygraph test at the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday morning, but by afternoon had joined the search near the county line, where a man matching the suspect's description was seen earlier in the day.

Sheriff Turner said the polygraph was given to clear Keeley as a suspect. "He's been cooperative," Turner said.

On Monday, Jeanette Thomas and her children saw the school bus go by after it had dropped off Jessica. They were standing in the front yard because one of the goats was giving birth.

"Then when we heard that night it was ... ," she started and choked up. "You can't even check the mail (alone) anymore."

In rural Gilchrist County, mailboxes sit along the curb dozens of feet away from the houses. The streets are not lit. Horses roam in front yards. Satellite dishes squat besides the houses. Bonfires are commonplace. Only the major roads are paved.

"People pull together when things happen," said Rhonda Boyette, 24, a cousin of Jessica's mother.

Something like this hasn't happened since 1926, said Sheriff Turner.

The FBI and more than a dozen Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents aided Gilchrist County sheriff's deputies in the hunt for the missing Bell Elementary School fourth-grader.

Of the more than 49,000 juveniles reported missing in Florida last year, according to the FDLE, fewer than 1,300 were considered "endangered," or missing under circumstances in which the child's safety is threatened or victim of predatory abduction or kidnapping.

Two of Jessica's aunts -- Pam Nobles of New Port Richey and Cindy Nobles of Land O'Lakes -- organized the search. They snaked through the state two days ago, dropping off fliers at truck stops and restaurants.

"We just want to do something, anything," Pam Nobles said. "I never thought something like this would happen."

Jessica's family lives on 320 acres of land with hogs, roosters, chickens and dogs. It is land that belonged to her grandfather and where she could bounce on her aunt's trampoline, take a dip in the pool and play kickball with her three siblings, other family members and friends.

On Wednesday, the family's narrow sandy driveway was loaded with TV news trucks and an FDLE crime scene investigation truck.

"We had peace and quiet until now," said Tony Clark, 66, whose farm is near Jessica's home.

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