JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. – A 4-year-old girl who disappeared from her South Carolina home where her mother was found badly beaten was found safe in Alabama on Wednesday and the man suspected of kidnapping her was arrested hours later, authorities said.
Thomas Evans, 37, was arrested after a police chase that ended in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, said Riverside, Alabama, Police Chief Rick Oliver.
Oliver said a railroad crew called him after finding a vehicle parked well into the woods Wednesday afternoon near a railroad track in the city on Interstate 20 about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Birmingham, Alabama.
He said Evans and the girl were asleep in the car when he approached, and that once awake, Evan was nervous. Evans handed him the girl after Oliver said they needed to go to the station and talk, and then sped away, the chief said.
Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson said Evans has been charged with kidnapping and that she expected to file more charges. Oliver didn't say whether Evans had a lawyer.
Heidi Todd appeared to be unharmed and was waiting at a hospital to be reunited with her father, who was being flown from Charleston, Oliver said.
"She was coloring and eating snacks and drinking chocolate milk. We're just tickled to death she is OK," Oliver said. "Once we got her here and watching some cartoons, she was good."
The girl was discovered missing around 6 p.m. Tuesday when officers went to her home on Johns Island after two of her siblings had not been picked up at school, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said.
The mother was found "brutally beaten" but officers did not find Heidi, Tecklenburg said. Two other children were found in the home unharmed, the mayor said.
The woman said she was attacked as she returned home, but investigators don't know exactly when that was or where she had gone, Tecklenburg said.
Investigators have not found any connection between Evans and the girl's family and they haven't figured out a motive for the kidnapping, the mayor said.
The girl's mother remains in the hospital and underwent surgery Wednesday, the mayor said.
Authorities spent the past 24 hours looking for the girl, searching nearby ponds and flying over Charleston in helicopters. Neighbors came to hear the mayor's news conference Wednesday night and cheered and clapped when he said Heidi was safe.
"What could have been a day of great tragedy has really been a day of joy," Tecklenburg said.
Oliver said this was one of the most awesome days he has had in two decades in law enforcement.
"This is a blessing," Oliver said "It is nothing to do with luck. The good Lord put me in that place."