Kidnapped Charleston girl found alive after over 24-hr search

Search near kidnapping victim's home (WCIV)

JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. (WCIV) - A missing 4-year-old girl from Johns Island in Charleston County, S.C., has been found alive outside Birmingham, Alabama, officials say.

Police officers in Riverside, Alabama confirmed to ABC News 4 affiliate WBMA Wednesday night, Feb. 14, that the girl had been found safe, but the suspect got away.

Authorities identified the suspect as Thomas Lawton Evans, 37. Evans was arrested later Wednesday night by authorities in Mississippi after a lengthy police chase.

Evans has since been charged with kidnapping by the FBI in a federal case against him. The state prosecutor for Charleston County has charged Evans with several additional crimes in state court, including attempted murder, first degree criminal sexual conduct, two counts of kidnapping, first degree burglary, armed robbery and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Police Chief Rick Oliver, of Riverside, Alabama, rescued the girl the afternoon of Feb. 14 after a tip from local railroad workers led him to a suspicious vehicle parked in a wooded area along some railroad tracks.

The girl was taken into the custody of the Alabama Dept. of Human Resources Wednesday, and reunited with her family Thursday, officials say.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg announced to friends, loved ones and well-wishers at a vigil Wednesday night that the girl had been found alive and safe.

Police say the girl had been missing since sometime Tuesday afternoon, after an unidentified person brutally beat her mother as she was walking into her home on Johns Island.

Police say they are unsure when the attack took place. She was discovered shortly before 6 p.m. inside the home. The FBI says the woman suffered multiple facial fractures and a brain bleed, and that it appeared she had been tied up.

Charleston Police originally said they were looking for a "person of interest" in the case, described as a skinny Hispanic male, 25-40 years old, with short hair and dressed in all gray, who had flame and lightning tattoos on his face.

Police went so far as to release a sketch of the "person of interest" based off statements by the mother, and a description a neighbor provided for a person seen in the Johns Island neighborhood where the victims live, according to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg.

Charleston Police said Thursday after Evans' arrest and the girl's safe recovery that the Hispanic man was no longer a person of interest, and they no longer wished to speak to him.

The woman has been taken to a local hospital for treatment of her injuries. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said Wednesday she is in fair condition.

The woman is the mother of four other children, two of whom were in the home at the time, according to Tecklenburg. The other children were unhurt, police say.

A school attended by two of the children contacted police when the woman didn't show up to pick them up from classes, according to Taylor.

Tecklenburg says the child's father was away from home for Coast Guard training at the time the incident occurred Tuesday. The father is now back in South Carolina.

The FBI says it does not believe Evans is related or connected to the family.

Scarlett Wilson, state prosecutor for the 9th Circuit Court in Charleston County, said on her Facebook page Friday, Feb. 16, that there is absolutely "no connection" between Evans and the family, and that the victims were randomly targeted.

SLED had issued a statewide BOLO for the missing girl prior to her being found, and the FBI offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the girl's recovery. A private citizen offered another $10,000 reward, according to police.

Police set up a 24-hour tip line for citizens to report any information in the case. That number is 843-619-6123.

An Amber Alert was not issued for the girl; not enough information is available to meet criteria necessary to send one, according to Tecklenburg.

For SLED to activate an AMBER Alert, police --- among other things --- must first:

  • Believe the child has been abducted;
  • Believe the child is in immediate danger;
  • Exclude all other possibilities for the victim's disappearance; and
  • Have sufficient information available to disseminate to the public that could assist in locating the victim, suspect, or vehicle used in the abduction.

Police first were dispatched to the victims' home on Johns Island at 5:50 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13.

A neighbor says Charleston Police came around at the time telling them to look out for a 4-year-old girl.

Public safety personnel resumed a full-scale search for the child at daybreak Wednesday, after scaling down their efforts in the early morning hours.

Divers focused their search primarily on a lake within the community, but said Wednesday afternoon they do not believe the child to be in the water. Police have set up a command post in one of the model homes in the neighborhood.

The St. Johns Fire Department, Charleston County Sheriff's Office, SLED and FBI are assisting the Charleston Police Department with the search.

Sources shared with WCIV videos of helicopters searching a lake in the Johns Island neighborhood Tuesday night.

Neighbors were seen late Tuesday using flashlights to help police and firefighters search the neighborhood.\

(Editor’s note: In light of additional details revealed regarding criminal aspects of this case, ABC News 4 has removed references to the victims’ names in order to protect their identities in the future.)

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