Girl Safe, Suspect Held in Kidnaping : Crime: The abduction of a Lodi 12-year-old is reminiscent of Polly Klaas case. Police and volunteers quickly mobilize, and she is found within a day.
In a case that began with terrifying similarities to the Polly Klaas kidnap-murder, a young girl was abducted from her home at knifepoint in the Central Valley city of Lodi on Saturday--but was found alive Sunday in a field in the Sierra foothills.
Twelve-year-old Kathleen (Katie) Romanek stood up in the field and walked to her rescuers shortly after they arrested her suspected kidnaper, identified as Steve Reece Cochran, a 25-year-old transient.
Katie, who was wearing only socks and streaked with mud when she was found, was reported in good condition at a local hospital.
The brown-haired, brown-eyed girl was taken from her home at knifepoint Saturday by a man who asked about a for-sale sign on the house. He later returned, tied up the girl’s sister and a friend, and drove off with the child.
But Katie was rescued less than 24 hours after 100 law enforcement officers--police and San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies backed by the FBI--joined many volunteers organized by the Polly Klaas Foundation to mount a massive search by helicopter, police cars and on foot.
“She has not been seriously hurt,” said Lodi Police Chief Larry Hansen. “She is in good spirits.” Cochran was arrested on suspicion of kidnaping, Hansen said.
As police searched for Katie, she could hear a police helicopter flying over the field where she spent the night with her abductor.
“He forced her to hide under the grass in the area and he pulled up a bunch of the grass and pushed her down,” Hansen said.
Both victim and suspect were found near the town of Bellota, which is about 12 miles southeast of Lodi. Searchers were led to the area Saturday night after authorities found the car belonging to Katie’s 16-year-old sister, which the suspect had used to carry off the younger girl, authorities said.
The Polly Klaas Foundation, founded last year to find the 12-year-old Petaluma girl who had been taken from her home and killed, was asked by Lodi authorities to help in the search. It quickly started distributing 20,000 flyers throughout Northern California and helped organize Lodi volunteers.
“You should have heard the reaction here when we learned that Katie was found,” foundation spokesman Phil Grosse said. “This is just fantastic.
“The community in Lodi turned out in force right away,” Grosse said. “They had a wonderful volunteer setup. They were mobilizing. They had people who opened a hot line. They distributed 20,000 flyers with a picture of the little girl and a composite drawing of the suspect. And, thank God, in their case, it took less than a day to find her.”
Unlike the Klaas kidnaping, in which a man burst into a slumber party as Polly’s mother slept in the next room, Katie’s parents, Bob and Elsie, were vacationing out of state. The man who came to the Romaneks’ front door Saturday told Katie’s sister, who was baby-sitting, that he was interested in buying the house, which had a “for sale” sign in front.
He left after she referred him to a real estate agent, Lodi Police Capt. James Schick said. But after the 16-year-old went out for a pizza, the man returned about 4 p.m.
The bare-chested intruder, who called himself Steve, somehow entered the house, tied up Katie and her 12-year-old friend upstairs and was waiting when the older girl returned, police said.
The man “had a knife and held it to her throat, and threatened her with bodily harm,” Schick said. After tying up the teen-ager and leaving her upstairs with the other 12-year-old, the man left the house, driving off with Katie in her sister’s car. The little girl may already have been unclothed; she was heard pleading for a blanket as she was taken away, investigators said.
Katie’s sister and friend were not harmed.
Later Saturday, the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department received a call about a brush fire, and found the stolen vehicle about 25 miles east of Lodi, Schick said.
The small car apparently sparked the fire, which was noticed by a farmer who told investigators that he saw one or two people fleeing from the vehicle.
Searchers concentrated on that area, figuring the suspect had no other transportation and had to make his way on foot. They were armed with a composite drawing from a description by the girls left behind, as well as a description of several tattoos on the man’s chest, arms and back.
On Sunday afternoon, authorities spotted Cochran about 100 yards off California 26.
“He stated spontaneously, ‘What’s the matter? What’s the matter? I don’t remember anything,’ ” Hansen said. Police have yet to determine a motive.
Polly’s father, Marc Klaas, expressed relief.
“Everybody moved fast,” he said. “I think we all realized that the longer the time period goes, the less your chances of recovering the child are. Everybody did what had to be done and she’s home.”
Polly’s body was found weeks after she disappeared. Richard Allen Davis, who led investigators to her body, was charged with murder and could face the death penalty. He had a long record as a habitual criminal and sex offender.
The Klaas murder provided the impetus for California’s so-called “three strikes” measure, enacted in March. Under the law, after two convictions for serious or violent felonies, conviction on any third felony requires a minimum term of 25 years to life in prison.
Times wire services contributed to this report.
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