Police confirmed that two kidnapped Michigan girls and the three men who abducted them were seen in Florida Sunday and said Monday that officers were close to finding them.
An off-duty Gainesville police officer said he saw Theresa Mae Hainer, 9, and her sister, Jessica Lynn Hainer, 6, with the men, one of them a convicted sex offender, at a car wash near the University of Florida, officials said. When he learned later from the news that the girls had been abducted, he immediately notified the FBI.
It was the first confirmed sign that the missing children had been taken far from their small town of Galesburg, Mich. But it was followed Monday by several other sightings and indications that law enforcement officials were closing in on the girls and their captors.
"We're getting this close," Kalamazoo County Sheriff Thomas Edmonds said, holding his thumb and forefinger together.
The FBI's chief Michigan agent, Joe Martinolich, said, "We're optimistic _ very optimistic _ we're going to secure (the sisters) safely. . . . They're on the move. We're hot on their trail."
The girls disappeared about noon Friday after a school bus driver dropped them off at a Galesburg mobile home park, about 3 miles from their home.
The girls were seen getting into a 1988 Pontiac station wagon with three men inside. Officials have identified the men as Ronald Stafford, 21, his brother Lee Stafford, 17 and Rick James Geer, 19.
The Staffords know the sisters and their father, Jesse Hainer, but authorities have declined to discuss a motive.
Ronald Stafford probably has a citizens band radio and uses the moniker "Cookie Monster," FBI agent John Bell said.
The FBI said the trio should be considered armed and dangerous. Authorities are concerned about Ronald Stafford's background as a convicted sex offender.
In 1990, at age 14, he was accused of sexually assaulting two boys under 13, according to Juvenile Court records.
He pleaded guilty in one case in exchange for having the other dropped. Ronald Stafford then spent the next three years in an adolescent sex offender program, records show.
"The girls didn't want to go," school bus driver Juniata Earl told The Detroit News. "They did go in on their own, but they weren't happy about it."
Authorities think the three men were riding in a cream 1988 Pontiac 6000 station wagon with wood panels and Michigan license plate: 1AX J93. The license plate is white with blue lettering decorated with a sunset and bridge.
A national alert for the men said they should be considered armed and dangerous. Warrants have been issued for their arrests, Kensel said.
Ronald Stafford and Geer live in the Galesburg-Augusta area, east of Kalamazoo, and both have prior shoplifting convictions.
Ronald Stafford is 5-feet-10, 135 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. Geer is 5-feet-10, 160 pounds with brown hair and green eyes.
Jessica and Teresa have blond hair and blue eyes.
Jessica was last seen wearing an Esmeralda T-shirt with a pink background, a red and black checkered skirt, black stockings and a black and purple coat.
Teresa was last seen wearing a blue shirt, purple pants and a green coat.
A command post has been established at the Kalamazoo County Sheriff's Office in Michigan.
Anyone with information can call the FBI toll-free at (888) 324-4969.
Meanwhile, pink ribbons are tied to posts all over Galesburg, a tiny town east of Kalamazoo.
"When you see a pink ribbon, say a prayer," said Lisa Belland, who runs a day-care service. "In a time like this, everybody needs to come together."
_ Times staff writer Susan Clary and the Associated Press contributed to this report.