People all over the country were looking for them and for the two young sisters they allegedly kidnapped, but The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight seemed oblivious.
They were so hapless, they brought the girls to a charity dinner attended by dozens - as their pictures flashed on television. So spacey, they strolled down the busiest street of a crowded city. So … not smart, they took the kids swimming. At Daytona Beach. During spring break.
Teresa Hainer, 9, and Jessica Hainer, 6, both sandy-haired, both wide-eyed with relief when rescued by police, were en route late Tuesday to a reunion with their family in Galesburg, Mich.
Neither was harmed, police said. “It’s the happiest news we ever had,” said Olivia Hainer, the girls’ grandmother.
Authorities filed federal kidnapping charges against Ricky Geer, 19, and brothers Ron Stafford, 21, and Lee Stafford, 17.
Not exactly cagey desperadoes, the three Michigan residents were arrested in a Daytona Beach gift shop as they bought a 99-cent bag of Chester’s Butter Popcorn. They offered no resistance.
The cops said: Put your hands up. The trio said: OK.
“It was a bag of popcorn that saved those girls,” said shop owner Gilbert Myara. How were the girls? “Happy. Really glad.”
The elder Stafford spent three years in a sex-offender program, but police said the girls were not assaulted.
“I’m relieved that they were all taken alive and the girls are safe,” said Geer’s mother, Christine. “I really want to talk to my son. I want to know why he did this.”
Police said the Stafford brothers knew the girls’ father, but no one shared any hint of a motive.
“The girls may shed some light on that,” FBI agent Joe Martinolich said.
Loh Szen Leung, a student who encountered the group in Daytona Beach, said the men claimed that Ron Stafford was the girls’ father.
“They said they were sick and tired of living in a little town in Michigan,” Leung said. “They were getting away to find some adventure.”
That, they found. But what they were thinking when they allegedly took the girls - or if the men at any point demanded ransom - remained a mystery.
Leung, the student, had another impression of the trio: “They told us everything about themselves. Showed us their car. It seemed dumb.”
The affair began Friday in Galesburg, a quiet town about 120 miles west of Detroit, when the sisters stepped off their school bus 3 miles from their home. The driver saw them get into a car with three men.
During a news conference in Michigan, FBI agents declined to respond when asked why the men were at the bus stop. The girls’ father, Jesse Hainer, said, “I can answer that.” He was silenced and left the room.
After the girls disappeared, the FBI issued a nationwide alert, broadcasting pictures of the men and the children and a description of 1980 Pontiac station wagon that carried them.
An off-duty University of Florida officer spotted the group in Gainesville on Sunday, but he only later learned of the kidnapping.
Late Monday, college evangelists trying to recruit spring breakers in Daytona Beach told police that they met the five on the beach. The students noticed something odd.
“They were all swimming with their clothes on,” Leung said.
The students invited the five to a free evangelical dinner. The group showed up late, but ate heartily: hamburgers, spaghetti, cookies. Martinolich later said the men, depleted of funds, recently “committed petty crimes to feed themselves.”
Monday, while watching the Academy Awards, the students saw a news brief about the girls. They called police.
Officers spotted the five Tuesday morning on Atlantic Boulevard, the city’s pulsating main artery. Police trailed the group into Daytona 2000, a gift store specializing in racing souvenirs.
While the five were buying popcorn, officers slipped into the store and spirited away employees and other customers. One officer made the arrest. Another scooped up the girls.
“It was smooth,” Myara said. “It was over in 15, 30 seconds.”