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Police: Missing girl, alleged abductor panhandling before being found

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Abducted girl brittany found alive
  • NEW: The alleged abductor of a Virginia girl is a suspect in her mother's murder
  • NEW: The girl and suspect were soliciting money outside a California store Friday
  • NEW: They started driving west shortly after the girl's mother was killed in Virginia
  • The 12-year-old Virginia girl is "safe" and the suspected abductor is in custody

(CNN) -- A missing Virginia girl and her alleged abductor were panhandling outside a San Francisco supermarket when someone nearby spotted them on Friday and alerted law enforcement, police said.

Brittany Mae Smith, 12 -- for whom police have been searching since Monday -- was found Friday afternoon, as was 32-year-old Jeffrey Scott Easley.

Easley is a "very good suspect" in the murder of Tina Smith -- his girlfriend and Brittany's mother -- who was found dead at her Salem, Virginia, home last Monday, Roanoke County, Virginia, Police Chief Ray Lavinder said Saturday.

Easley and Brittany Smith left Virginia early last Saturday or late on Friday, December 3 -- the same day that the girl's mother was killed, according to Lavinder.

A surveillance video from December 3 shows the pair shopping for a blue domed tent at a Walmart in Salem, Virginia.

A similar tent was found within walking distance of the Safeway store in northern California, where a witness saw Easley and Brittany Smith on Friday. The tipster recognized the pair after watching broadcast report's about the case on HLN's "Nancy Grace."

Lavinder said Saturday that he believes the girl and her alleged abductor were asking for money and holding up a cardboard sign when they were spotted.

Police locate Brittany Mae Smith

Police were called, and the two were found shortly thereafter outside the store, more than 2,300 miles from where the girl was reported missing four days earlier, Lavinder said Friday. Police in San Francisco contacted their counterparts in Virginia with the news.

San Francisco Police Officer Albie Esparza said Brittany was turned over to California's Child Protective Services division after she was found. She has no visible injuries, has been in touch with family members and should return soon to Virginia, according to Lavinder. Easley did not resist arrest, he added.

"It's a fantastic sense of relief, and I know in my heart that it's due to information that you folks put out," Lavinder said Friday, thanking the media. "It's a party atmosphere, believe me."

Authorities found Easley's car relatively early in the manhunt. Lavinder said Saturday that authorities had located a silver 2005 Dodge Neon four-door sedan with Virginia tags that belonged to Tina Smith in a parking lot adjacent to San Francisco International Airport.

He said he believed the two had driven across country together, but he did not know when they arrived in California.

Police issued an Amber Alert for Brittany on Monday after finding the body of Tina Smith, 41, after her co-workers called to express concern that she hadn't shown up for work. Authorities in Florida and Alabama followed suit in subsequent days and notices went out to law enforcement nationwide .

Until Friday, Lavinder said the last known sighting of Easley and Brittany Smith was in December in the Salem, Virginia, Walmart.

The chief said Saturday that four Roanoke County detectives were heading to San Francisco, to help bring back Brittany Smith and to deal with Easley. Lavinder said he hoped "to get information back from them in the next 24 hours," though the earliest Easley could be extradited to Virginia is Monday, when California courts are back in session.

He could head east relatively soon if he waived extradition, or the process could be delayed for weeks if he contested the return.

Prior to his arrest, Easley was wanted for credit card theft, credit card fraud and abduction. Lavinder said that, "we are concentrating most of our efforts ... on the homicide investigation."

The chief has said Easley met Tina Smith online this summer, then moved into the family home in October. Authorities said they do not know if the girl went willingly with Easley.

Back east, the girl's great aunt told HLN's Nancy Grace on Friday night that Brittany already had talked to her father, and that there was widespread relief and joy from Salem to South Boston, Virginia, where many relatives live.

"Everybody here is just elated," said Lois Choquette, who is the late Tina Smith's aunt. "It's been a terrible thing, but we are just so thankful."

CNN's Greg Morrison contributed to this report.