Four-year-old Alisa Maier clutched a teddy bear and smiled broadly at the crowd gathered Thursday in the yard where she was abducted three days earlier, then held captive before being abandoned alone in a faraway town.
Police said they are confident Paul S. Smith, a 38-year-old convicted sex offender who fatally shot himself Wednesday as officers approached him, was the man who took the girl from in front of her home.
"It's over," St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said. "There's no reason to believe at this point that anyone else was involved."
Relatives hugged Alisa and each other as she returned to the family's small frame home in Louisiana, Mo. Well-wishers came up and shook their hands. Louisiana Police Chief Rich Hughes noted the town of 3,800 had rallied around the girl and her family.
"A small community, you can imagine how this impacts them," Hughes said. "To see Alisa come back home is great."
Alisa's ordeal began Monday night as she and her 6-year-old brother, Blake, played in the front yard while their mother cooked dinner. Blake told authorities a man in a dark-colored car pulled up and ordered Alisa to get in. A frantic search followed.
More than 24 hours later, someone spotted what they thought was a little boy wandering around a car wash in Fenton, Mo., some 70 miles south of Louisiana in St. Louis County. It was Alisa. A witness also saw a dark-colored car similar to the one Blake described.
Alisa's hair had been cut and she was wearing new clothes, which helped lead police to Smith. Tags indicated the clothes came from a Wal-Mart, and police traced them to a store in Troy, about halfway between Louisiana and St. Louis County.
Store surveillance video showed a man matching Smith's description. He also bought cigarettes, requiring him to give a date of birth, which aided the investigation. Fitch said the video surveillance did not indicate Alisa was in the store with Smith when he bought the clothes.
On Wednesday, police went to a tiny home in Hawk Point, Mo., a small community not far from Troy. Smith was spray painting his dark-colored car silver when officers approached, Fitch said.
Without warning, Smith pulled out a handgun and shot himself. He died at a hospital about six hours later. While his death leaves unanswered questions, police believe he acted alone.
Smith was convicted in 1995 of sodomy in a case involving a 10-year-old boy, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol's registry of sex offenders. He served about 11 years in prison.
Relatives have said Alisa was unharmed and that she told them she was treated well during her captivity.
Fitch said investigators still are looking into Smith's background and whether he may have been involved in other unsolved missing child cases. Among them is the case of Bianca Piper, a 13-year-old girl who went missing from her home near Foley, Mo., in 2005. Foley and Louisiana are both situated along Missouri Route 79, and are about 25 miles apart.
"You can't ignore the similarities," Fitch said.
In Alisa's case, authorities credited an Amber Alert, media and public attention for her safe return.
Last year, there were 12 cases involving 17 abducted children who were released after kidnappers learned of Amber Alerts, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He cited 11 cases involving 13 children in 2008.
"The goal is to mobilize the eyes and ears of the public during those critical early moments following a child's abduction, but there is another benefit," Allen said. "Abductors are at increased risk of identification and apprehension. More children are coming home safely, more abductors are being apprehended, and there is clear evidence of real deterrence."