Girl, 11, returned home to Md.; trucker held in Tenn.

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

A Texas man has been charged with abducting an 11-year-old Seat Pleasant girl and driving her to Tennessee before he was pulled over and taken into custody by a state trooper, authorities said.

Elmer Joaquin Zelaya, 41, of Dallas was being held in Tennessee while awaiting extradition to Prince George's County, authorities said. Police in Prince George's obtained an arrest warrant charging him with abduction of a child younger than 12, and federal charges were being explored, authorities said.

The girl, who apparently was unharmed in the incident, returned to her family's Seat Pleasant home Sunday, according to neighbors and police. Zelaya is an acquaintance of the girl and her family, authorities said.

The incident came to police attention about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when relatives in the 400 block of 69th Place called to report that a girl from their home was missing, said Cpl. Larry Johnson, a Prince George's police spokesman.

Police issued an Amber alert about the incident, breaking into regular television and radio broadcasts and posting a message on state highway signs with a description of the missing girl. They also alerted other law enforcement agencies, telling them to be on the lookout for 11-year-old Karina Manzano-Garcia and a tractor-trailer she might have been riding in, authorities said.

Just after 10 p.m., the alerts paid off. A trooper with the Tennessee Highway Patrol spotted a truck matching the description provided by Maryland authorities at Exit 87 on Interstate 40 in Madison County, said Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety. The trooper stopped the truck and took Zelaya into custody, Browning and Prince George's police said.

Police declined to say how or why Zelaya drove off with Karina.

Nelson Garcia, Karina's father, declined to comment when he answered the door at the family's home Sunday. Earlier, he had told WRC-TV (Channel 4) that he had last seen his daughter Friday night and that when another relative went to wake her Saturday morning, she was gone. He said he had known Zelaya a long time.

Neighbors said they would frequently see Zelaya's tractor-trailer parked outside the family's home.

"I just see him pull up with that truck sometimes," said Butch Waddy, 56, a neighbor and friend of Karina's father. "When you hear some junk like that, that hurts."

The incident left residents in the Seat Pleasant neighborhood shaken and eager for Karina's return. Two girls talked to a reporter from behind a closed window, saying their mother told them not to open the door for anyone. A group of children frolicked in the snow, asking a television reporter, "Karina back?"

Neighbors said Karina is a sixth-grader at Seat Pleasant Elementary School and is known by how nice she is.

"It's bad, man. We know the kids," said Larry Summers, 50, a neighbor. "When something like that goes on, that kind of bothers the whole neighborhood."

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