Sue Loughlin and Brian Boyce
TERRE HAUTE —
The community sighed a breath of relief Thursday after locating a missing girl, but the investigation is just beginning as two men remain in custody facing allegations of child molesting.
Authorities found the girl “safe and alive” at a residence on Terre Haute’s northside around 12:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Brandon L. Bennett, 18, remained in the Vigo County Jail that night, arrested at 2:30 p.m. on two allegations of child molesting, a class-B felony.
Later that evening, Timmy J. Sanders, 24, of Indianapolis, was arrested at a residence in the 1000 block of First Avenue and likewise faces an allegation of child molesting, a class-B felony. Both men are scheduled to appear in Vigo County Superior Court Division One this morning.
According to a statement issued by the sheriff’s department Thursday evening, Sanders is Bennett’s uncle.
“Sheriff’s officials have probable cause to believe that both Bennett, 18, and Sanders, 24, sexually molested the 12-year-old” at the address on Fenwood Avenue, the release states.
The release also states that investigators believe the girl voluntarily accompanied Bennett to the address Sunday, but the investigation is ongoing to determine whether she was held against her will once there.
The Tribune-Star is not using the girl’s name because of a newspaper policy in which it does not identify the victim of an alleged crime.
“This is definitely a priority for us to determine what happened,” said Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt earlier in the day. “We’ve got a number of resources looking into this now. We plan on dealing with it appropriately as soon as the investigation is complete.”
According to Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing, the girl was located after a homeowner called police to report her presence. The homeowner was Bennett’s father.
The girl, a middle school student, reportedly gave the homeowner a false name and age while staying there with Bennett, Cottom said. After the homeowner heard about the missing person’s case on Wabash Valley media, he reportedly found a picture and description of the 12-year-old online. He printed a picture, went home and showed his wife and they contacted police.
Investigators “want to find out exactly what happened and why she left home,” Ewing told media while outside the home where the girl was found.
The 12-year-old spent much of Thursday with Child Protective Services and later went to an Indianapolis hospital for medical testing. “As soon as we get her medically cleared, I’ll release her to her parents,” said Det. Sgt. Frank Shahadey of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department.
When Shahadey learned the girl had been found, he went to the parents’ home to tell them. “They were ecstatic,” he said. By early evening, she was with her dad as they went to the hospital.
Shahadey did not believe the girl would face any juvenile proceedings. He did anticipate additional interviews with her to find out what happened while she was missing.
The father, interviewed while he and his daughter were en route to the hospital, said he felt a “sense of relief” to be re-united with her. “She’s alive … she’s here,” he said.
He praised the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, Shahadey and Ewing for their thorough investigation as well as other law enforcement that assisted. “I was just awestruck,” he said.
The girl’s father also thanked Ed Ping and Merv Javins for their assistance.
The sheriff’s department issued a countywide alert late Tuesday about the missing girl, who was last seen about 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at her family’s home. The alert using the Code Red system contacted all landline telephones in Vigo County with information concerning the 12-year-old.
On Wednesday, a multi-agency team was involved in both a ground and air search in the north-central Vigo County residential neighborhood where the girl’s family lives.
Those involved included the sheriff’s department, FBI, Indiana State Police, Terre Haute Police Department and Vigo County Emergency Management search team. Indiana State University police also provided some assistance.
The Sheriff’s Department said the decision was made to issue an Indiana Missing Teen report late Tuesday at the urging of the child’s parents. The girl initially was reported as a runaway, but after she did not turn up with friends or at school, her status was changed.
By reclassifying the case, “We were able to bring in other agencies,” Cottom said.
Law enforcement followed several leads, he said. “We had good information given to us, and we also had bad information given to us,” he said. Authorities subpoenaed cell phone records and Facebook records.
“There’s been hours and hours of team effort,” Cottom said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.