CLINTON – A teen-age girl who ran away from home three months ago was found Friday living with her boyfriend near an Army base in Georgia, authorities said.
Using bank and telephone records, police tracked Stephanie Johnson to an apartment complex in Columbus, Ga., that is just outside Fort Benning. The 15-year-old girl had been missing from her Clinton home since mid-September.
Columbus police charged George Hughes, 25, of Norridgewock with interstate interference with custody, a felony.
In addition, Maine State Police issued a warrant for his arrest on a charge of criminal restraint. Although the girl is believed to have left Maine willingly with Hughes, she is younger than the age of consent, which is 16.
Hughes is being held in the Muscogee County Jail until authorities decide where to prosecute him, said Columbus police Lt. Randy Hart. The girl was taken to a juvenile detention center, where she will remain until her mother arrives there later today.
Hart said the couple gave up without a struggle when a police detective arrived at the apartment complex, noticed their car and began asking questions shortly after noon Friday.
“She appeared to be fine,” Hart said late Friday afternoon.
Stephanie’s parents, Steve and Aurora Johnson, say they have not seen their daughter since Sept. 17, when she left in the middle of the night. Her makeup, clothes, compact discs and electric guitar were missing, along with a road atlas.
From the start, the Johnsons suspected Stephanie had left with Hughes, whom she had met three months earlier through the Internet. Hughes, they said, had once been stationed at Fort Benning.
Two days before her disappearance, Stephanie, her mother and Hughes were guests on a talk show about teen-agers who date older partners. Their appearance on the Maury Povich show, Aurora Johnson said, was a last-ditch attempt to convince Hughes to stop seeing Stephanie.
“When I was on the show, it hurt so bad for Mom to tell the whole world I’m crazy,” Stephanie, then 14, wrote in a note left behind. “I could kill myself, but that would prove I’m crazy. So, I’m gonna run.”
The girl’s parents have heard from her only twice since she left, in a pair of brief telephone calls made weeks apart.
“The time in between the two phone calls, we didn’t know if she was dead or alive … how she was eating … how she was surviving,” Aurora Johnson, 35, said Friday.
“It was basically mental torture,” she said.
Maine State Police began investigating shortly after Stephanie disappeared.
Investigators learned that the girl had pawned an electric guitar in Columbus for $125 two days after she left home. Aurora Johnson said her daughter also had pawned compact discs and an amplifier in Alabama. Columbus lies on Georgia’s border with Alabama.
Bank records also placed the couple in Georgia. Cianbro Corp., Hughes’ former employer, had deposited at least one of his checks into a Georgia account, Aurora Johnson said. The records revealed that Hughes later withdrew a total of $400 from a cash machine near the apartment complex where the couple were found.
The final piece fell into place when Stephanie phoned home earlier this week to say Hughes had been mistreating her. Johnson, who has caller ID, gave the phone number to Adam Kelley, the Maine State Police trooper investigating the case.
The number was traced to a phone booth outside the Columbus apartment complex. On Friday, a Columbus police detective went there and eventually found the couple.
Aurora Johnson said she will leave for Georgia on a 7:35 a.m. flight out of Portland today. She expects to return to Maine, with her daughter, on Sunday.
“I’m not going to let her go for awhile,” the mother said, adding that she hopes Hughes eventually is convicted and sent to prison.
“I hope they throw the book at him,” she said.