It was a gut feeling Tracie Dean couldn't shake. At a rural Alabama convenience store 11 days ago, Dean had a chance encounter with a seemingly troubled little girl.
“I bet you that no one has ever spoken that kindly to that little girl, because she just ate it up,” Dean says. “And I think she just really decided I'm going home with her.”
Dean says the girl tried to follow her out of the store, but then an older man stepped up. Dean felt uneasy enough to scribble down the license plate as the two pulled away.
“My suspicion was that she didn't belong with that man,” Dean says.
So, Dean called 911. Police told her everything checked out — it was the girl's grandfather. So she returned home to Atlanta, but for some reason, she couldn't let it go.
“Every morning I woke up and thought about it. Every night I went to bed and thought about it,” she recalls. “And I just told my sister, ‘When my heart says to let this go, I'll let it go.’”
For a week she checked missing-kids Web sites, called several law enforcement agencies and even contacted the television show “America's Most Wanted.” She says no one took her seriously.
Obsessed, she drove for hours back to that convenience store to look at surveillance tape — and there they were, the man and the child, on another trip to the same store. Just then, an officer came in the store, took the tape and used it to find the man.
It turns out there was a reason for suspicion.
“Mr. Wiley initially and still is wanted in California for arson,” says Tracy Hawsey, the sheriff of Conecuh County, Ala.
John Wiley and his 40-year-old wife, Glenna Faye Cavender, were arrested and charged with multiple sex crimes against the 3-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy found in a trailer.
“A 3-year-old girl to have this done to her is unthinkable, and we're not going to tolerate it,” says Tommy Chapman, the district attorney for Conecuh County.
Tracie Dean's not a mother, but says she has the instincts of one.
“I just followed my heart,” she says. “That's the bottom line.”
And her hunch saved two children.