But the girl punched, kicked and squirmed until the man tripped and released his grasp. She sprinted home.
The disturbing incident set off a full-force, hours-long manhunt by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office to identify and locate the man responsible.
On Tuesday evening, deputies arrested Jared Paul Stanga, 30, and charged him with attempted kidnapping of a child under 13 and aggravated assault and battery. Stanga’s extensive criminal history, including past sexual crimes against children, suggested his intention to commit a heinous crime, police said.
“I cannot help to think that this could have ended very differently,” Sheriff Chip Simmons said at a news conference Tuesday evening. “Had this 11-year-old victim not thought to fight and to fight and to just never give up, than this could have ended terribly.”
The Tuesday incident wasn’t the girl’s first run-in with Stanga, according to police. About two weeks before her valiant escape, Stanga allegedly approached her at the same bus stop and began speaking to her in Spanish.
Feeling uneasy, she walked away and reported the incident to her mother, teachers and school principal, Simmons said. For two weeks, the girl’s mother accompanied her to the bus stop.
Tuesday was the first day since that incident when her mother wasn’t there.
“We believe that this person has either been watching her specifically or was walking around, looking for an opportunity. Either way, it’s bad,” Simmons said at a news conference Tuesday morning.
Surveillance video shows the girl sitting on a grassy median around 7 a.m. on Tuesday. Police said she was waiting at the bus stop and playing with blue slime — the thick and gooey glob often made from borax, glue and water.
As she played, a white Dodge Journey circled the area several times until stopping. The man opened the door and started running toward the girl.
Police said the attacker, who had a knife in one hand, grabbed the girl by her neck and upper torso.
“Luckily, she fights,” Simmons said. “She struggles and then she went limp. And she’s kicking and she’s pushing and she’s punching and she’s able to get free.”
The video shows the two falling to the ground. The girl quickly stood up, scooped up her backpack and took off toward her home. Her would-be abductor then ran back to his car, hopped in and drove off.
“His intent [was] to get her into his car and from that point on, we have no idea what horrors would have awaited this poor little girl,” Simmons said.
After the family reported the incident to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, 50 officers knocked on doors, surveilled possible suspects and stopped any white SUV that passed by, Simmons said.
Police said they eventually identified Stanga as the owner of the car caught on video, though it appeared he had recently painted the vehicle. Other videos also helped identify Stanga, police said, including security footage from a grocery store after the attempted kidnapping that showed his arms covered in the blue slime that the girl was playing with.
Officers arrested him at his home in Pensacola around 5 p.m. without incident, according to Simmons.
Stanga was booked in Escambia County Jail. Bond has not been set. It is unclear when he is due in court and jail records do not identify a lawyer.
Stanga has an extensive criminal history, which includes sexual offenses with a child, Simmons said. It is unclear how many times he has been charged and if he was convicted or awaiting adjudication for the previous alleged crimes.
The sheriff’s office reached out to other local law enforcement to see if they’ve had similar cases recently. “Our concern is this wasn’t his first try,” Simmons said.
Simmons, who called Stanga an “animal” and described his actions as “evil,” said the 11-year-old had a few scratches and was working through the “mental trauma” of the event. But he also praised her bravery and tenacity.
“She fought like a trouper and one of these days I’m going to give her an award for fighting and fighting and fighting,” he said.