| A file picture of US marine Lance Corporal Toby Studabaker. (Reuters)
London, July 15 (Reuters): Police launched an international hunt today for a 12-year-old British girl who they believe has run away to France with a former US marine she met on the Internet.
Schoolgirl Shevaun Pennington left home on Saturday to meet Toby Studabaker, 31, who had flown to Britain from the US. Police say the pair met online and had been in contact for some time via e-mail and letters.
British police said the couple flew to Paris at the weekend.
“It’s now known she took a flight to Paris with a former US marine who she met over the internet,” they said in a statement.
In France, television stations flashed pictures of the pair in an effort to find witnesses who might have spotted them, but French police cast doubt on whether the pair had ever actually arrived in Paris.
“At this time, we can’t say they are on French soil. They were not on board the flight they were supposed to have taken,” said a French police spokeswoman.
“All flights arriving from Britain between July 12 and 14 were checked. They were not on board.”
British police said they were also working closely with US authorities and the cross-border police agency, Interpol, as well as their colleagues in France.
Studabaker was discharged from the US military on June 30 after serving for more than three years. He was a lance corporal based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
He left Detroit late on Friday and flew to Manchester, northern England, near the girl’s home.
COUPLE DISCUSSED MARRIAGE
Studabaker's brother, Leo, told Britain's Good Morning Television the ex-marine had no idea Shevaun was so young. He said they had discussed marriage and having children.
”They had talked of possibly marriage and kids and that's part of the reason why he went to Europe, to meet her and find out exactly what she wanted to do,” he said.
”If he had known she wasn't the age she said she was, he wouldn't have agreed to meet her.”
Shevaun's parents, Stephen and Joanna, begged their daughter to come home.“We are not angry with you Ä we love you very much and just want you to come home,” they said in a statement.
Studabaker's sister-in-law insisted the ex-marine would not hurt the child.“He would never hurt her. If she is actually 12 he would never hurt her. He would back away and tell her 'no',” Sherry Studabaker told BBC Television from her home in Michigan.
The case comes as British lawmakers debated proposed laws aimed at curbing so-called“grooming” by adults who prey on children via the Internet. The sexual offences bill is expected to become law later this year and will mark the biggest overhaul of Britain's sex laws in more than 50 years.