London, July 17: Stephen and Joanna Pennington had dared to hope that their daughter would be coming home when she rang from Germany yesterday morning.
Their hopes were realised a few hours later, when two police officers met 12-year-old Shevaun as she disembarked at Manchester airport from an aircraft that had flown in from Stuttgart via Amsterdam. The search for Shevaun and her alleged kidnapper, Toby Studabaker, 31, a former US marine, had begun at 10.30 pm on Saturday. By then the child had already flown with Studabaker to Paris and would not be rescued for another four days.
Detectives on both sides of the Atlantic used mobile phone records, credit card trails and computer interrogation techniques to track the runaway couple and to try to second-guess the workings of Studabaker’s mind.
They knew he had bought the airline tickets that had brought him to Europe and then taken both him and Shevaun to Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris.
But there the trail went cold. It was only yesterday that he was traced to Germany and detectives moved in to arrest him.
The already desperate hunt for Studabaker and the girl increased in urgency as FBI agents found on the hard disk of his computer in Michigan hundreds of images of sickening child pornography. The revelation confirmed their “worst fears”.
Those tracking Studabaker devised an elaborate game plan to try to persuade the former marine to give up his alleged quarry. A major strand to this approach was for the media to co-operate by damping down the general tenor of their reports and reducing the attention they had been paying to Studabaker’s sexual past.
The tactics were recommended by FBI and British psychologists anxious that police should not unduly alarm Studabaker or alienate Shevaun. Police believe the runaways had been planning their escape to Europe for “some considerable time”.
“Shevaun is infatuated with this individual and the relationship between them from her part is intense,” said a source close to the investigation. “She can’t see anything wrong with Studabaker. We believe that they have developed a very strong relationship, that they love each other and have strong feelings for each other.” Police suspected the runaways had seen reports of their flight to Europe, and were concerned that Shevaun would align herself even more strongly to Studabaker if he was portrayed in too negative a light.
The situation could even have ended in tragedy had the ex-marine found himself cornered.
Sources said detectives feared that if details were disclosed of Studabaker’s involvement in child pornography “she would think they were trying to discredit the man she loves and she would choose to go with him whatever happens”.
Shevaun and Studabaker are thought to have met on Saturday morning at a hotel three miles from the child’s home. Later in the day they flew to Heathrow and thereafter to Paris.