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Girl missing for three days shows up safe at Wal-Mart

Police say Jessica Rodriguez, 10, was apparently dropped off by the man who abducted her Monday from her driveway.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- The harrowing ordeal of 10-year-old Jessica Rodriguez, whose abduction from her rural driveway attracted nationwide attention, ended Thursday as dramatically and curiously as it began.

Minutes before noon, she walked into a Gainesville Wal-Mart, 25 miles from her home, and told employees who she was.

Police said she apparently was dropped off by the man who abducted her Monday after she got off a school bus with her two sisters. The kidnapper remained at large Thursday night.

Jessica was taken to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, where she underwent a medical examination and was reunited with her mother, Jennifer Graham. She returned about 8 p.m. to her Gilchrist County home, where she was greeted with cheers by about 60 relatives and friends.

"We all told her we loved her and missed her. What else is there to say? There was a lot of laughing," the girl's aunt, Vivian Elliott, said Thursday evening after the family had reunited.

Officials would not release information about Jessica's medical condition, other than to say she was talking and happy to see her family.

Nor could they say what happened to Jessica during the three days since her abduction. A stranger grabbed her and drove off Monday as her younger sisters watched outside their home northwest of Gainesville.

Gilchrist County Sheriff David Turner said investigators had not yet interviewed the girl Thursday.

"Since this experience was as traumatic as it was, we wanted to give the mother and daughter time together," Turner said.

Ken Tucker, regional director for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said investigators now had the answer to their most pressing question: Was Jessica safe?

"She is one tough, strong little girl," Tucker said.

Another of Jessica's aunts, Becky Guarino of Pasco County, said that she had started to lose hope that the girl would be found but that Jessica's mother never lost faith.

"They tell you if you don't find a child within a few minutes to expect the worst," Guarino said. "My hopes were dwindling, but not Jennifer. She told me last night, "I know Jessica is alive, and we're going to find her, and she's coming home.' "

As of late Thursday, the search was still on for Jessica's apparently unidentified kidnapper.

Jessica described him as a 6-foot-tall white man with brown eyes and brown hair with a balding spot. He was last seen driving a newer-model dark green sport utility vehicle with tan seats, possibly a Jeep Cherokee.

Detectives also checked out a tip that the abductor was traveling in a 1999 Chevrolet Lumina with a specific tag number. But they later said the Lumina hadn't been involved.

When the news came that Jessica was alive, her mother was undergoing a routine polygraph test at the Gilchrist County Sheriff's Office to eliminate her as a suspect, the FDLE said.

Guarino, Jessica's aunt, described the moment the family got the phone call saying Jessica was safe:

"We ran out the door, we were hollering so much and crying. For people who for days had so much stress from wondering, it came out in sobs of relief."

The other aunt, Elliott, was asked why she thought the kidnapper had let Jessica go.

"It was God all over that child," Elliott responded.

Elliott said Jessica looked physically great, but family members knew she may have been hurt emotionally. "You know that she had to be. That's a horrible thing to have to go through."

Jessica's extended family has lived in the isolated woods northwest of Gainesville for five generations, considering it a safe place to raise children.

Her sisters, ages 4 and 8, told authorities they saw a stranger grab her from their long dirt driveway Monday afternoon when they all got off the school bus. The bus driver said he never saw the man or his car.

Jessica's disappearance sparked a fervent search. Her mother and aunts made tearful public pleas for her return, while her uncles combed through woods and briars looking for her.

Before her daughter was released Thursday, Graham pleaded for her return on NBC's Today show.

"I love my daughter and we are all human. And we are praying for both of you," she said. "And please bring my baby back home to us."

Relatives thanked the community and the media for their help. They thought extensive media coverage of the case may have persuaded the abductor to let Jessica go.

"I think he panicked. The coverage was incredible," said Pastor David Brown of Spring Ridge First Church of God, which some of the relatives attend.

Church member Janet Johnson said the abduction had reminded everyone in their small community to constantly watch their children. Many had feared the worst before Jessica turned up alive.

"Thank God. We all prayed for this miracle, and that's what we got," Johnson said. "It's not very often that you can report a child being returned instead of a sad ending."

A reward of up to $15,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest of Jessica's kidnapper. Calls can be directed to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at 1-800-226-6481.

- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used.

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