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Father of abducted Virginia girl calls her safe recovery 'a miracle'

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Father: Daughter's recovery a 'miracle'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Benjamin Smith says he's excited to reunite with his daughter
  • A California woman says she locked eyes with Brittany Smith outside a store
  • The girl has headed back to Virginia, while her alleged abductor is in custody
  • The man is a "very good suspect" in the girl's mother's death, police say

(CNN) -- The father of a 12-year-old Virginia girl, who police say was abducted and taken on a week-long, cross-country trek by the man considered a prime suspect in her mother's death, on Monday thanked law enforcement, the media and the California woman who alerted police after spotting the girl.

Calling what had happened "nothing short of a miracle," Benjamin Smith said he was eagerly looking forward to reuniting with his daughter, Brittany Mae Smith, later Monday night or soon thereafter.

"I thought that the happiest day of my life was when my daughter was born," said Smith, addressing reporters in Virginia for the first time since his daughter was reported missing a week ago. "Tonight has taken that number one spot."

Benjamin Smith said he spoke with his daughter on Friday, shortly after she was recovered by San Francisco police. Not sure if it was her -- and knowing "there's probably 100 Brittany Smiths between here and California" -- he said he asked her his dog's and then her dog's name, before being convinced and overcome with emotion.

"I don't think I said another word after that," he said, with a wide smile.

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The girl's father expressed gratitude to numerous people who worked on the case and who publicized the names and faces of Brittany and her alleged abductor, Jeffrey Scott Easley. He singled out Theresa Shanley, who recognized the pair outside a San Francisco supermarket, as "my hero."

"There's not anything I could say to describe ... the way my heart feels about you," said Benjamin Smith, adding he hadn't yet spoken with Shanley though he wanted to. "A simple thank you and God bless you."

Despite Amber Alerts being issued in several states, authorities had no positive sightings of the girl and Easley until Shanley pulled last Friday into a Safeway parking lot in the Richmond district of San Francisco -- about 2,500 miles from where they were last seen together, in a Walmart in Salem, Virginia.

Shanley told HLN's Nancy Grace she saw a man begging for money outside the store. But what most got her attention was a girl sitting on a nearby cement ledge.

"The hair on my arms stood up," recalled Shanley of that damp, cool afternoon. "She spotted me, and I spotted her. And we never took our eyes off each other. (I felt) something is wrong here, something isn't right."

Shanley said she went inside the store, and asked a supermarket clerk to call police and tell them about the two. She told authorities that the girl might a missing child from Virginia and her alleged abductor. She said she believed she recognized the couple from pictures broadcast the previous night on "Nancy Grace."

Shanley said she went back outside briefly, thinking she'd left her cell phone in the car, and again locked eyes with the girl, though the two never spoke. Later, after police arrived, she found out the girl was Brittany Smith, and the man was Easley.

"Sure enough, it was her and him," Shanley said. "My intuition was right."

Two detectives from Roanoke County escorted the girl from California back to Roanoke, Virginia, on Monday, Roanoke County spokeswoman Teresa Hall said in a statement. The girl was to be released to her family.

Easley, 32, remains in custody near San Francisco after being charged with abduction, credit card theft and credit card fraud charges. And Roanoke County police Chief Ray Lavinder has called him a "very good suspect" in the death of Tina Smith, Brittany's mother.

Police believe that 41-year-old Smith, who was Easley's girlfriend, was killed between the morning and evening of December 3, Lavinder said. On that day, surveillance video shows Easley and Brittany Smith shopping for a blue domed tent at a Wal-Mart in Salem.

Lavinder said authorities believe that the two left Virginia, heading toward California, that night or early the next day. They traveled cross country in Tina Smith's silver 2005 Dodge Neon sedan, which was found in a parking lot adjacent to San Francisco International Airport after authorities had found Brittany Smith and Easley.

The pair were holding up a cardboard sign and asking for money when they were spotted, Lavinder said. The Safeway was within walking distance of the makeshift campsite containing the tent in which Easley and Brittany Smith had been staying.

Easley did not resist when police arrested him shortly after 2 p.m. Friday, San Francisco police Officer Albie Esparza said. And Brittany Smith had no visible injuries, according to Lavinder. The chief added Monday that the girl was told, after being recovered by San Francisco police, that her mother was dead.

The chief has said Easley met Tina Smith online this summer and moved into the family home in October.

Police issued an Amber Alert for Brittany on Monday after finding the body of her mother. Tina Smith's co-workers had called to express concern that she hadn't shown up for work.

Authorities in Florida and Alabama followed suit with Amber Alerts in subsequent days, and notices went out to law enforcement nationwide.

Authorities said they do not know whether the girl went willingly with Easley. Regardless, with Brittany Smith safe, Virginia authorities say, they have now turned their focus to the homicide investigation.

They are also trying to get Easley back east, though an extradition hearing hasn't taken place in California courts. He could go to Virginia relatively soon if he waives extradition, or the process may be delayed weeks if he contests his return.