LAKELAND, Fla. – A truck driver who feels “very comfortable on highways” led authorities on a five-state manhunt after allegedly abducting 4-year-old Rebecca Lewis from her Lakeland, Florida, home over the weekend.
Police have been looking for the man, who legally changed his name to West Wild Hogs, since Saturday morning. His family has told investigators that he suffers from depression and bipolar disorder, said Donna Wood, spokeswoman for the Polk County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office.
Hogs was last seen in Nashville, Tennessee, around 2:30 a.m. Monday, said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. He was driving a silver Nissan Versa with an Alabama handicapped tag, 4JL26.
“Don’t you hurt that baby. You keep that baby safe and take her to a police department,” Judd said. “We’ll worry about catching you later, but we want that child back right now.”
Hogs has no criminal history and does not seem violent. It would be “totally appropriate to talk to him” in an effort to stall him after calling 911, the sheriff said.
That seemed to contradict a piece of background Judd provided to reporters: that Hogs had previously lived with the Lewis family, when Rebecca was an infant, but he pulled a gun on the family “so the mama ran him off.”
Sheriff blames Tennessee
It was far from the only bizarre piece of information provided at the Monday news conference. Judd suggested Hogs might already be in custody if Tennessee authorities had issued an Amber Alert earlier.
Late Sunday night, a ranger encountered Hogs and the girl at Cove Lake State Park in Caryville, Tennessee, about 20 miles south of the Kentucky border, Judd said.
Hogs told the ranger he was waiting on Rebecca’s mother, the ranger told him the park was closed and Hogs left, the sheriff said. Only later did the ranger see a bulletin and realize that he’d spoken to Hogs, Judd said.
Tennessee declined to issue an Amber Alert, Judd said, because there was no evidence the girl was in Tennessee.
“Here’s a news flash, Tennessee: He was there,” the sheriff said.
Feds: Use best judgment
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation did not have an immediate response to Judd’s claims.
TBI spokesman Josh DeVine told CNN the bureau would respond, but there were “some potential developments in the case that’ve taken precedence for the time being.”
According to the Justice Department’s federal guidelines, Amber Alerts should be issued when authorities have a “reasonable belief” a child younger than 18 has been abducted and is in danger of bodily harm or death.
To issue activations without “significant information” indicating an abduction has occurred would be problematic, the Justice Department says, but “at the same time, each case must be appraised on its own merits and a judgment call made quickly. Law enforcement must understand that a ‘best judgment’ approach, based on the evidence, is appropriate and necessary.”
The ordeal began last week, a few days before the kidnapping, Judd said. Hogs was at his home in Seale, Alabama, on October 3 when he told his wife he had a surprise for her. They got in the car and headed north to Interstate 75, which they drove all the way to Kentucky, Judd said.
From there, they went to West Virginia, then Virginia, then Maryland, where they rested at a welcome center. They then took Interstate 95 South to Charlotte, North Carolina, and drove west to Tennessee, where they took Interstate 75 into South Georgia. It was Thursday by then, and his wife decided to abandon the trip, Judd said. She got out of the car and called relatives to take her back to Seale.
On Friday, Hogs showed up at the Polk City, Florida, home of his grandmother, who he hasn’t seen in a year. He spent the night, and when his grandmother was getting ready to go to work in Clermont, he asked about Rebecca’s family, as well as for the addresses of Walmart stores in the area, Judd said.
Around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Rebecca’s 16-year-old sister went to check on her and couldn’t find her. Judd said he didn’t know exactly how Hogs abducted Rebecca — namely, whether he took her from the yard or home — but he apparently kidnapped her before 9:30 a.m. and took her to a McDonald’s where they spent about 30 minutes eating breakfast.
Pink dress, leggings
Hogs and Rebecca weren’t seen again until 6:30 p.m. Saturday when they turned up at a BP gas station off Interstate 75 in Forsyth, Georgia, where Hogs bought drinks, the sheriff said. Rebecca was wearing a pink dress and leggings at the time, and Hogs wore blue jeans and a light T-shirt, he said. They were then seen in Caryville, Tennessee, late Sunday and in Nashville a few hours later.
As of early Monday, five states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee — had issued Amber Alerts, according to the sheriff’s office.
Judd repeatedly spoke directly to Hogs in Monday’s news conference, urging him to drop Rebecca off with police, a church or any responsible adult. The park ranger in Tennessee did not get the sense that Hogs was endangering the girl, he said.
“He only offered to lie and keep possession of that baby,” he said. “We don’t know what his proclivities are or what they might turn into.”