It was nearly rush hour on a cold winter day when private investigator Jane Holmes spotted something on the side of a busy Georgia highway.

A little girl, small and scared, trekking down the shoulder with a backpack.

“Is she crying?” Holmes’s passenger asked.

“Yeah, she’s crying,” Holmes said, then turned her vehicle around.

Holmes takes a lot of missing-child cases, she told The Washington Post. On her way to the Forsyth County courthouse on Dec. 16, she stumbled right into one.

Julianna Pimentel’s school bus driver always dropped her off at a day-care center after kindergarten, her father told The Post. But that day, a substitute driver asked the 6-year-old where her house was and left her there with no one home.

The driver — Shelley McKinley — was fired this week after an investigation, according to a spokeswoman for Forsyth County Schools.

That December afternoon, Julianna had already walked more than a quarter-mile along Canton Highway before Holmes pulled up beside her, the private investigator said.

The girl was trying to make it to her day-care facility, another mile down the road.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Holmes asked from her window.

“I lost my family!” Julianna cried from the side of the road.

The impromptu interview was captured on the dash cam in Holmes’s car. But it was hard to make out Julianna’s words through her sobbing and the rush of traffic.

“I thought she ran away from home,” Holmes said.

She didn’t know whether home was safe. So when Julianna pointed out her house — as she had to the bus driver earlier that afternoon — Holmes drove her to the sheriff’s office instead.

It was even colder by the time they got there. Julianna didn’t have a coat on, Holmes said, so she wrapped the girl in her own and carried her.

About the same time, Gilberto Pimentel and his wife were trying to find their daughter.

“The day-care texted me that the bus driver had just passed by” without stopping, he said. “I called the school, but no one answered.”

When a sheriff’s deputy called Pimentel, the father said, his heart froze.

Holmes knows that terror. Her missing-child cases often end in tragedy, she said: “We don’t come in until they’ve disappeared or are found dead.”

In this case, Julianna’s father arrived at the sheriff’s office to find his daughter safe and her tears already dried.

Holmes stopped by the family’s house to check on Julianna the next day. The girl rushed out and hugged her leg.

The private investigator did a follow-up on Christmas Eve — to give her new friend a doll.

“She became part of our lives,” Pimentel said of Holmes.

Not every case needs a fee. Some get a happy ending.

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