BROOKSVILLE — Nine years ago, James Eugene Watkins was convicted of attempting to sexually attack two children younger than 12.
One case stemmed from Columbia County, and the other came from Suwannee County. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to concurrent 10-year prison sentences.
Watkins was freed in August 2010. Soon after, the 33-year-old moved to Hernando County, where he registered as a sexual predator and moved near his girlfriend on Buffalo Lane.
On Wednesday, authorities say, they learned of a new, horrifying accusation against Watkins — over the last month, he had raped a 5-year-old girl.
Just 48 hours after Hernando sheriff's deputies began the manhunt, Louisiana State Police stopped Watkins Friday afternoon on a highway about 60 miles north of New Orleans and arrested him without incident. He will soon be extradited to Florida and likely will face counts of sexual battery and violation of probation.
"We take anybody who is given the title of sexual predator to be a very serious threat," said Hernando Detective Tommy Breedlove. "Not every predator is as serious as Mr. Watkins; he's done some pretty bad things."
Breedlove, who led the investigation, had just walked into his home when he got a call that his suspect had been caught.
"It was elation," he said of that moment. "I was almost in tears."
The search, he said, had not paused in the two days after deputies learned of the alleged rape. The Sheriff's Office deployed K-9 units and helicopters. Deputies frequented his home. Authorities issued a statewide alert and asked U.S. Marshals to help.
"Mine," Breedlove said, "were not the only sleepless nights."
Soon, investigators discovered that Watkins had family in Georgia or Mississippi and that he might have been trying to escape into Mexico.
Police caught him in a 2001 Kia Sephia driving west on Interstate 12 near Hammond, La., about 700 miles from the Mexican border.
"It was a great relief to learn that he was in custody," Breedlove said. "It was a big burden off of everybody's shoulders."
Information from Associated Press files contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.