ST. LOUIS -- A registered sex offender who shot himself as officers approached him for questioning about the disappearance of 4-year-old northeast Missouri girl was almost certainly the man who took her, police said Thursday.
Authorities on Thursday said 38-year-old Paul S. Smith of Hawk Point, Mo., was the suspect in the Monday abduction of Alisa Meier, who was found alive and unharmed the following evening.
Smith died late Wednesday at a St. Charles hospital.
"It's over," St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said at a news conference. "There's no reason to believe at this point that anyone else was involved."
Smith was convicted in 1995 of sodomy in a case involving a 10-year-old boy, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol's registry of sex offenders. He served about 11 years in prison.
Alisa, a little girl with big brown eyes, was snatched from the front yard of her Louisiana, Mo., home about 8 p.m. Monday while her mother was inside cooking dinner. Her 6-year-old brother, Blake, told police a young man in a dark-colored car pulled up and ordered Alisa to get in.
A little more than 24 hours later, a dark-colored car was seen at a car wash in St. Louis County, some 70 miles to the south. About the same time, a child was seen wandering around the car wash. It turned out to be Alisa.
Police followed up on more than 100 leads in the search for her abductor. It wasn't a tip, though, that led to Smith.
Once Alisa was found safe, police noticed she was wearing new clothes. Tags on the clothes indicated they came from Wal-Mart, and police traced them to a store in Troy, about halfway between Louisiana and St. Louis County.
Surveillance video from the store showed a man matching Smith's description. Smith also bought cigarettes at the store, requiring him to give a date of birth, which aided in the investigation. Fitch said the video surveillance did not indicate that Alisa was in the store with Smith when he bought the clothes.
About 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, officers approached a tiny home in Hawk Point, Mo., a small community not far from Troy. Smith was spray painting his dark-colored car silver when officers approached, Fitch said.
Without warning, Smith pulled out a handgun and shot himself. He died about six hours later.
Authorities credited an Amber Alert, media and public attention for Alisa's safe return. Relatives have said the girl was unharmed and that she told them she was treated well during her captivity, except for a haircut apparently administered by the suspect, perhaps to conceal her identity.
Louisiana Police Chief Rich Hughes said the town of 3,800 residents had rallied around Alisa and her family.
"A small community, you can imagine how this impacts them," Hughes said at a news conference in St. Louis County. "To see Alisa come back home is great."
Her great-aunt, Angela Reddick, said a welcome-home party was planned for Saturday.
"We're just so happy," Reddick said. "We can't wait to see her and give her a big hug."
Celebratory messages graced church billboards and an electronic bank sign as Louisiana rejoiced in Alisa's safe return. Visitors to the family's small frame home left balloons and teddy bears on the porch and in the yard.
"I turned on the news and my wife and I both started crying and fell down to our knees and thanked the Lord," Terry Cook, a pastor who helped organize a prayer vigil for the child Tuesday night. The vigil drew 400 people, more than the town's Fourth of July festival.
Fitch said law officers continue to investigate Smith's background and whether he may have been involved in other unsolved missing child cases. Among them is the case of Bianca Piper, a 13-year-old girl who went missing from her home near Foley, Mo., in 2005. Foley and Louisiana are both situated along Missouri Route 79, and are about 25 miles apart.
"You can't ignore the similarities," Fitch said.