After responding to reports of a possible abduction, the six-hour search for a transient man and a young girl was called off early Friday evening once authorities found the subjects in question -- and learned that the female involved was a small-framed, grown woman.
An eyewitness said she saw a 6- to 7-year-old girl, reportedly named Sarah, sitting along the bank of Flat Branch Creek talking with the man who was later seen pulling her hair and dragging her down the creek. The incident occurred near Providence Road and Locust Street.
About a dozen law enforcement agencies responded to the 11:09 a.m. call and quickly blocked access to the creek and surrounding areas. An Amber Alert was issued at 11:19 a.m., and while no missing persons report was filed, police treated the incident as a possible abduction.
The man and woman were found separately downtown late in the afternoon, and the witness was able to positively identify each as the people she saw that morning by the creek.
Capt. Zim Schwartze said that while the reported incident did occur, the distance and quickness of the incident were the cause of the discrepancy in the initial identification of the female involved.
"A male suspect did pull an adult female into the wooded area," Schwartze said. "The witness did a good thing, the details were just a little messed up. Obviously she didn't get as good a look at the female as the male."
Schwartze said a police composite sketch of the man in question was uncanny in its accuracy.
Police said they were investigating the nature of the relationship between the man and woman and whether any domestic assault might have occurred. Schwartze reported the woman was found with no apparent injuries.
Johnny Winingear, a landscaper with Oasis Landscaping and Irrigation, was on site at the nearby Hardee's to mow the lawn. He said eyewitness Anna Miller, also an employee of the company, came and told him about the incident. Concerned about the situation, Miller went into the restaurant and had an employee call police, Winingear said.
By the time Winingear and two colleagues went down to the creek, the people were gone. "We all went down that way, but they were gone in 10 or 15 seconds," Winingear said.
Hardee's employees Dallas Williams and Jeremy Lewis also searched the area for about 15 minutes, running about a half mile down the creek in search of the pair.
"Me and Jeremy was runnin' down the creek, but we didn't see anybody," Williams said. "It was puzzling to me that there was no water rippling like people were running through there."
The creek, which runs south then west between Elm Street and Stewart Road, is hidden by thick brush and steep inclines. The search initially focused on the creek area but expanded to include areas around Stadium Boulevard and the MKT Nature/Fitness Trail as time went on. Officers also patrolled Interstate 70 looking for hitchhikers.
Throughout the afternoon, officials repeatedly said the case was unusual because no child had been reported missing and no family members had been located. Schwartze said that with the last day of summer school in session and all of the local day-cares having been contacted, they began to question the likelihood of whether the incident was actually a child abduction.
Furthering the confusion surrounding the claims, Hardee's employees said they often encountered homeless people who frequented the business but had never seen a child with any of them.
In addition, authorities contacted various members of the homeless community through homeless shelters, the Salvation Army and the Missing and Exploited Children's Network, but had no leads regarding a missing child to follow.
The search force, made up of 70 to 100 officers and volunteers, searched some areas multiple times to no avail. Three dog teams combed the area while two helicopters -- one from University Hospital, the other from the Missouri Highway Patrol -- circled Columbia.
Capt. Mike Martin had said offices would "continue to search until it is no longer prudent;" authorities called off the Amber Alert around 5:15 p.m.
Officials found the two subjects downtown but neither seemed to realize they were the subjects of the search. Schwartze said the "two people found are known to us" but would not release their names.
Schwartze said the homeless community was very helpful in providing officials with possible names and locations of those in question. A visibly upset transient woman found near the scene spoke with officials, Martin said. Police would not discuss her connection to the case.
Police collected numerous items of clothing and a pink-and-white bicycle from the creek area. While the bike was initially believed to have belonged to the girl, Williams said he had seen the woman who spoke with officials riding the bike in the previous week.
Schwartze said the day's activities were "a good test run" and was glad that so many agencies responded quickly.
"This all worked very smoothly," Schwartze said. "I would rather err this way than find a child hurt."