Wednesday, October 3, 2007

'Watch your children,' warns father of found Florida girl

Associated Press

5:51 PM EDT, October 3, 2007

The father of a just-found 15-year-old runaway looked stern, exhilarated and furious, as his wife wept on his shoulder Wednesday. He had a message for parents across America.

"Watch your children, folks, OK? My baby was in front of me on her computer. I mean in front of me. Not in her room," he said.

He could see his 15-year-old daughter on it from everywhere in the house, but had no idea she was communicating with a high-risk sex offender. Neither did she, until she crept out before dawn Monday to met him and spurred a statewide manhunt that ended Tuesday with her safe return.

"She didn't do it behind locked doors. She talked on the telephone with her bedroom door open," the father said, choking up at times. "How it happened? I don't know how it happened but it did."

The Associated Press is not naming the parents or girl because she is a suspected sexual abuse victim. It did so earlier in the best interest of the child.

The girl told friends she was running away for love, to be with a boy she met online. She believed him to be in his young 20s, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.

Instead, authorities say she met 46-year-old William Joe Mitchell, a high-risk sex offender with 14 prior arrests ranging from burglary and bomb threats to lewd and lascivious conduct. Mitchell's last known address was Jacksonville, and authorities believe he was "grooming" the girl online to meet in person.

The father said he knew she had a boyfriend, but he thought it was a boy -- not someone near his age.

"I knew the Web sites she was on," he said. "Do I know how to go find them in the computer? No. I'm computer ignorant. I won't be for long, though. I'm going to know this thing inside and out. I'm going to be able to build one when I'm done with it."

Mitchell is still on the loose, and believed to be traveling in a black Chevrolet Lumina. Police say he dropped the girl off at a Wal-Mart in the Florida Panhandle, 400 miles from her central Florida home. The girl told authorities Mitchell had a handgun and said he'd kill her if she drew attention to herself in the store. He allegedly went to another area, told her to find him in 5 minutes and disappeared.

Police believe heavy publicity in the hours after the girl disappeared pressured him into dropping her off.

The girl's father said he was uneasy Mitchell hadn't been caught, and astounded it could have happened in his secluded neighborhood, a few miles outside town and past orange groves.

"This isn't a metropolitan area. This is a little tiny community where we watch the kids walk to the bus stop. We watch the kids walk off the bus stop," he said.

He said his daughter was opening up, but hadn't yet said what happened in the more than 30 hours she was gone. That will come, but now he just feels lucky to have her back.

"What did it feel like? Go ask that guy who won the Megaball lottery up North somewhere, all right? I feel ten times better than that."

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