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Missing Fla. Girl Found in Store

March 9, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ A 10-year-old girl turned up in good condition at a department store today, three days after her mother reported that she had been abducted when she got off her school bus.

Jessica Rodriguez had been missing since Monday when she was snatched by a stranger as she got off the bus with her younger sisters, authorities said. After she was found, she was taken to a doctor for examination, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Amy Rush in Gainesville.

``She’s fine, she’s talking to mom. She’s in good condition,″ said Gilchrist County Sheriff David Turner.

Word that Jessica had been found alive came as her mother, Jennifer Graham, was undergoing a polygraph test, said Sharon Grogerty, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A polygraph of relatives is a customary part of missing child investigations.

``Mom went out screaming,″ Grogerty said.

Turner and Jessica’s mother immediately left for Gainesville, about 25 miles southeast of the family’s home outside Trenton, Grogerty said.

Authorities were searching for the man police believe grabbed Jessica from her driveway and placed her in a green Jeep Cherokee. Rush said police believe the suspect now may be driving a 1999 blue Chevrolet with Florida license plates.

Police also have a more detailed description of the suspect, who they say is about 6 feet, with brown hair and brown eyes and balding, Rush said.

It was unclear how Jessica got to the Gainsville store.

``She is alive. She came inside the Wal-Mart store alone,″ said Mohammed Ashram, an assistant at the department store.

This morning on NBC’s ``Today″ show, Graham made a tearful appeal to the kidnapper: ``I love my daughter and we are all human. And we are praying for both of you. And please bring my baby back home to us.″

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

But in broad daylight and just a few hundred feet from the family’s cluster of trailer homes, the man grabbed the girl from the long dirt driveway leading to her home.

``Here in rural Gilchrist County, we don’t have crimes of this nature occurring,″ Sheriff Turner said. ``This is completely out of the norm.″

Jessica’s extended family joined the search for the child. Her uncles combed through the woods Wednesday, emerging dusty and bloodied from briar scratches, while her mother and aunts pleaded for her return.

Calls flooded in from people who thought they saw the young, narrow-faced man police believe took the girl.

Jessica had just gotten off the school bus with her sisters, ages 4 and 8. The bus driver never saw the man, nor the green Jeep police said he was driving.

Graham said she normally met her daughters at the bus stop as a safety precaution. But on Monday, she had fallen asleep on the couch after working a night shift and then caring for her youngest, a 6-month-old boy.

Her fiance, Thomas Kelley, was working in the yard and heard the girls’ scream. He ran toward them just in time to see the man back out of the driveway and speed away, police said.

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