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

March 26, 1997

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ A four-day nationwide search for two Michigan girls ended Tuesday after they were spotted walking along a beachfront highway with three young men accused of taking them from their school bus.

Officers moved in when the group stopped at a gift shop, and the men were arrested without a struggle. Jessica Hainer, 6, and Teresa Hainer, 9, appeared unharmed at the end of a 900-mile journey.

``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 they were escorted away by agents for their flight home.

``It’s the happiest news we ever had,″ the girls’ grandmother, Olivia Hainer, told a news conference in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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, who spent three years in an adolescent sex-offender program.

The girls were abducted Friday after stepping off a school bus in Galesburg, Mich., 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.″

The girls’ family, meanwhile, was preparing for their return Tuesday night.

``The voices will be more securing than anything,″ the girl’s grandmother said. ``My girls like lots of sweets. I’ll go home and bake a bunch of pies.″

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