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    Flier ends years on run for mother

    Someone saw Nina Panella at a Largo restaurant and remembered her picture at a Wal-Mart.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

    LARGO -- An anonymous tip from someone who had visited an area Wal-Mart led authorities to a mother accused of kidnapping her daughter five years ago.

    The tip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children came after the organization stepped up its search for the child, who turned 13 on Saturday. In August, it began issuing fliers to Wal-Marts across the United States with pictures of the girl and her mother.

    Authorities had a hunch Nina Panella was in the South because she had relatives in Southern states, said Jerry Nance, a caseworker at the center. The hunch proved correct.

    Earlier this month, someone saw Panella at a Largo restaurant. That person remembered her picture from a flier posted in a St. Petersburg-area Wal-Mart and called the center for missing children.

    "It's very lucky for us the way things happened," Nance said.

    Panella had been home-schooling her daughter, which kept her out of public, and there were no siblings to use as models for an age progression photo of the girl, Nance said.

    The case also was mired by complications. Virtually nothing happened the first year because the center was trying to find out who had legal custody of the child. More time slipped away because it couldn't get a photo of the mother. Two leads that found girls with the same name in Canada and South Carolina turned out to be false.

    At a hearing Tuesday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Raymond Gross ruled that the girl, whose name is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times, should be sent to child welfare authorities in Maryland. She was later flown to Maryland and placed in a shelter there, said Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita. Her mother is being held without bail at Pinellas County Jail and is awaiting extradition.

    In 1995, Panella, who lived in Frederick, Md., was supposed to put her daughter on a plane to Iowa, where she would spend time with her father, Ed Gomes.

    Panella and Gomes had divorced in 1991 and were involved in a custody dispute. Although the mother had the child, the girl was legally the custody of the Frederick County Department of Social Services, said Lt. Thomas Chase, commander of the criminal investigation division for the Frederick Police Department.

    The girl never made the flight, and for five years her family and her ex-husband never heard a word from her or her mother.

    Those who knew Panella said she used an assumed name, rented a house in Largo with her fiance and was a doting mother.

    "She would do anything to protect her daughter from him -- any good mother would," said her father, Nick Panella of Cape Coral.

    The girl's father, reached at his home in Fairfield, Iowa, was relieved his daughter was found and was looking forward to seeing her.

    "There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't think of them or of her," Gomes said.

    About 95 percent of children who are abducted by their parents are recovered, Nance said. One in every six missing child cases is solved when someone notices a picture of a child or a parent in a flier, he said.

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