A missing South Carolina child abducted after her mother was brutally beaten in Charleston Tuesday was found in Alabama late Wednesday afternoon.
Heidi Renae Todd, 4, was recovered in Riverside. The girl – missing for more than 24 hours – was found about 4 p.m. in a wooded area off Highway 78 near Depot Street.
Riverside Police Chief Rick Oliver said he and the fire chief, f Tim Kurzejeski, were notified by railroad workers of a suspicious vehicle.
They found the vehicle – a blue Chevrolet Impala – with a white male asleep behind the wheel. A little girl – later determined to be Heidi – was awake in the passenger’s seat. Oliver said he knocked on the window to wake up the man. He told him to get out of the car and escorted him away from the vehicle, he said. The man, he said, was very nervous.
Heidi was then taken from the car. She was wearing an adult hoodie and adult pajamas, which raised Oliver’s curiosity and concern.”That just piqued my interest,” he said.
The chief still didn’t know, however, that it was the missing South Carolina girl and the suspect.
Oliver ran the man – whose name he did not release – through a national crime database after obtaining his name and social security number. He then told him he was going to take him in. The suspect, he said, asked him to hold Heidi. He said he smelled alcohol on the man’s breath.
“I knew he was going run,” Oliver said. “I just had that feeling.”
The driver jumped back into the vehicle fled on Highway 78 toward Pell City. Pell City police got on Interstate 20 and Highway 78 but couldn’t not find the fleeing suspect, said Pell City Police Chief Paul Irwin. He was driving the blue sedan with an Illinois tag.
Oliver said ALEA, as well as FBI agents from Birmingham and Gadsden ,quickly responded to the scene. “We obtained information on the vehicle and tracked it to the Mississippi line,” he said.
The suspect was then captured in Lauderdale County, Mississippi by Lauderdale and Kemper county deputies.
Heidi was taken by Kurzejeski back to the fire station. The fire chief said she watched the Disney channel and requested cookies and chocolate milk. “I told my wife I got a little head start on what it’s like to be a grandparent because that little girl was going to get whatever she wanted,” he said with a laugh. “She was just a super trooper.”
Heidi was later turned over to DHR officials and was checked out at an undisclosed hospital. Law enforcement officials and her father are reportedly en route from South Carolina Alabama to pick up her.
Heidi is believed to have been taken sometime Tuesday. She was discovered missing when her mother failed to pick up the other children at school. A friend reportedly went by the house and found the mother badly injured. Heidi was officially reported missing at 5:50 p.m. Tuesday and a massive search has been underway since then.
South Carolina police and the FBI described the suspect as an “unwanted visitor.” They released a sketch of of a man Wednesday, but later said the person in that sketch was not a suspect.
Later Wednesday evening, they identified the suspect as Thomas Lawton Evans, 37. He is expected to face kidnapping and other charges. Riverside authorities did not say whether Evans was the man stopped by them and later taken into custody in Mississippi.
“We are so thankful that she is safe,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said Wednesday night, according to the Post-Courier. “What could have been a day of great tragedy has turned out to be a day of great joy.”
A mother of five, Heidi’s mother was in “reasonably fair condition under the circumstances” and was expected to undergo surgery, the mayor said, according to that report.
The woman’s husband, a former firefighter, is in the Coast Guard, officials said; he was out of town for training when his daughter went missing.
Oliver said he hopes he can meet Heidi’s father. He said he is “tickled” at Wednesday’s outcome. “The good Lord just put me (and the fire chief) in the place we need to be to get her,” he said.
Updated at 9:12 p.m. to include comments from Riverside Police Chief Rick Oliver and Fire Chief Tim Kurzejeski.