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Missing girls returned safe after four-day search; three men arrested

March 26, 1997

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) _ Two young sisters abducted last week after stepping off a school bus were rescued Tuesday in Florida and returned to Michigan to the cheers of people from their tiny hometown.

Clutching large stuffed bears, Jessica Hainer, 6, and Teresa Hainer, 9, of Galesburg, arrived by private plane hours after they were spotted walking with three young men along Daytona Beach.

``You didn’t get a tan. What happened?″ grandmother Olivia Hainer said as she hugged the girls at the airport.

The sisters didn’t say anything and struggled to keep their souvenir law-enforcement hats on as relatives embraced them. Dozens of people from Galesburg cheered, clapped and yelled, ``Welcome home.″

``Without you, this wouldn’t have happened,″ grandfather Robert Hainer told reporters in a reference to the news reports that prompted sightings of the girls in Florida.

After a four-day nationwide search, officers tracked the girls to a gift shop Tuesday, and the three men accused of taking them from their school bus were arrested without a struggle.

Jessica Hainer, 6, and Teresa Hainer, 9, appeared unharmed at the end of a 900-mile journey.

Medical tests were planned for the girls, but, ``we’re told by agents at the scene they’re none the worse for wear,″ said Joe Martinolich, head of the FBI in Michigan. ``It’s a special Easter for all of us.″

The girls _ the older one in a T-shirt and jeans, the youngest in a T-shirt and a red skirt _ each clutched huge teddy bears as agents escorted them away for their flight home.

``It’s the happiest news we ever had,″ their grandmother said at a news conference in Kalamazoo earlier Tuesday.

Authorities filed federal kidnapping charges against Ricky Geer, 19, and two men who know the girls’ family _ Lee Stafford, who turns 18 next week, and Ronald Stafford, 21, a sometime baby-sitter for the girls who had spent three years in an adolescent sex-offender program.

Geer told reporters he didn’t know the girls had been abducted when the brothers invited him along to Florida. ``I was picked up downtown and asked if I wanted to go to Florida. That’s all that I know,″ he said. ``I jumped in the car, grabbed my stuff and came.″

The girls were abducted Friday after stepping off a school bus in Galesburg, a small town east of Kalamazoo.

As for a motive, ``that is still in the realm of speculation,″ Martinolich said. ``The girls may shed some light on that.″

But an FBI document filed in Michigan provides some details:

Ronald Stafford was the girls’ former babysitter. On Friday, he provided a note to the school transportation director asking that they be dropped off at a local apartment building.

When driver Juniata Earl arrived at the apartment, the Hainer sisters refused to get off the bus. She planned to take them back to the garage at the conclusion of her run but instead dropped them off at a mobile-home park where Ronald Stafford and an accomplice were waiting.

``The girls were crying because they did not want to go with the two men waiting for them,″ the FBI affidavit said. ``Earl recognized one of the white males as the girls’ babysitter to whom she has dropped the children off in the past.″

At the news conference with the FBI, the girls’ father, Jesse Hainer, seemed ready to answer questions about the bus, but he was quickly silenced and left the room.

The FBI said it had only a few details about the group’s last few days of travel. The men were running out of money and ``committed petty crimes to feed themselves,″ Martinolich said.

The girls had been spotted in Florida as early as Sunday. And agents had felt since Monday that they were ``closing the ring″ around the group.

They got their break when college students on a spring vacation sponsored by a Christian group ran into the men and the girls Monday night and invited them to dinner. Later, while watching the Academy Awards on television, they saw pictures of the girls flash on the screen, and called police.

``It shocked all of us,″ said 21-year-old Harvard student Loh-Sze Leung. ``The reaction was immediate when we’d heard they’d been kidnapped. It all seemed to fit together. The names matched, the car matched, the description matched, we saw the mug shots on the TV, everything matched.″

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