An 8-year-old girl who was abducted by a stranger while playing outside a California home escaped from her captor Tuesday morning after a driver recognized the suspect's vehicle and cut it off, police said.
The child was found in Fresno about 11 hours after she disappeared around 8:30 p.m. local time Monday, triggering a statewide alert. Police arrested Gregorio Gonzalez, 24, who they said was a member of the Bulldogs street gang.
When the driver saw a girl's head in the window, he cut the truck off and forced it to stop, Dyer said. The suspect pushed the girl out of the car, and she ran to safety, he said.
The girl was taken to a hospital in good condition, but Dyer later confirmed she had been sexually assaulted. The police chief described her as "frightened, traumatized."
Authorities released the victim's name when issuing the alert, but The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.
"I was at the same time happy and grateful that my daughter had been brought home," the girl's mother told a news conference. "During the night, the hours seemed very long."
Police said quick action by Fresno resident Victor Perez helped the girl escape.
Perez told KFSN-TV he saw the truck's description on TV, then spotted it parked in front of another house. Perez jumped in his car and started following when he saw the truck pull away.
"I was yelling but I kept cutting him off so he would get off the road," Perez told KFSN. "At first, it was just like a simple question, 'I need to talk to you,' and (Gonzalez) goes, 'No, my truck is messing up. I need to leave,' so I said 'OK.'
"I didn't see no little girl. So the second time I cut him off, the little girl stuck her head out. That's when I said, 'OK, that ain't your girl right there.' Because he was hiding her – like pushing her down.
"I thank God he put me here to help out that little girl – that's for sure,"
The truck was eventually spotted by authorities, who had received a tip about its whereabouts, and Gonzalez was arrested in the parking lot of a Fresno apartment complex.
Dyer said Gonzalez was on probation for a felony domestic violence conviction and had been arrested numerous times, including on suspicion of possessing a sawed-off shotgun.
Police had no motive for the kidnapping. Police said Gonzalez lives with his grandparents and that the pickup truck he was driving belonged to his grandmother.
Police said Gonzalez texted his grandmother saying the truck had been stolen. His grandmother responded by saying she saw on TV that the police were looking for it in connection with a kidnapping case.
Authorities said the victim was playing with six other girls when a stranger approached them and managed to lure her into his pickup. Two adults who saw what was happening shouted for the girls to run away. But the man grabbed the victim and drove away as witnesses chased the vehicle, police said.
Fresno police said Gonzalez fits the description of a man who exposed himself to two girls earlier in the day.
More than 130 officers were called in to help with the search and went door-to-door over a three-mile area.
"I've got to tell you, it was the highlight of my career seeing (the victim) and her mom unite in that hospital room," Dyer said. "Because we beat the odds today because in many cases, we don't find the child alive."