By SEAN CARLIN, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Police were seeking a man in connection with the abduction of a woman from a Philadelphia street after investigators collected a trail of video and photo evidence showing him using the woman’s bank card and walking through a convenience store in Maryland, where the woman used to live.
Authorities said Tuesday they do not know who the man is. They were seeking the public’s help in identifying him as the woman’s relatives tearfully pleaded for her return.
The dark, blurry pictures of a man using the victim’s bank card at an Aberdeen, Maryland, ATM — and sharper images of him walking through a gas station minimart nearby — were captured less than nine hours after Carlesha Freeland-Gaither, a 22-year-old nursing assistant, was seen on surveillance video being carried struggling to a car in the Germantown section of northwest Philadelphia.
The FBI said Tuesday it’s offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect. Local officials previously pledged $17,000 in rewards.
“Our goal is the safe return of Carlesha to her family and friends,” Christian Zajac, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia office, said at a news conference.
The girl’s grandmother, Ana Mulero, told The Associated Press the missing woman had lived with her in Maryland for several years and still has acquaintances there. But she said she didn’t recognize the man in the photos.
Chief Inspector Dennis Wilson said Philadelphia police are working with Maryland authorities and the FBI to search the area.
The images were fresh leads in a case that quickly gained attention after police released black-and-white surveillance video showing the 22-year-old woman flailing in vain as a man rushed her along a sidewalk to a parked car.
Several of Freeland-Gaither’s relatives also spoke at the Tuesday press conference, making a plea to her abductor.
“Just return her to us, to her family,” Mulero said. “We need her.”
Freeland-Gaither’s mother, Keisha Gaither, said: “I just want her home. She got family. She’s loved. Just let her come home.”
To her daughter, Gaither said: “Just fight. Don’t give up. Just fight.”
Freeland-Gaither, a nursing assistant at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, had graduated from high school in Maryland and lived with her grandfather in Philadelphia until a couple of months ago, when she moved in with her boyfriend, relatives said.
Freeland-Gaither worked with cancer patients and was pursuing a career in nursing, Mulero said.
“I’m very proud of her,” her father, Carl Freeland, said. “She was always there for anybody and everybody no matter what.”
Police said they were unsure if Freeland-Gaither might have known her abductor or whether there was more than one person involved.
A witness called 911 at about 9:40 p.m. Sunday and reported seeing a woman identified as Freeland-Gaither screaming for help as she was forced into a dark gray four-door vehicle.
Police said Freeland-Gaither’s glasses and cellphone were dropped on the street, near piles of broken auto glass.
The witness said Freeland-Gaither — described by her parents as easy going until she’s threatened — broke the car’s rear side windows before the vehicle sped off.
Police said the suspect is in his 20s and about 5-foot-10 with a medium to heavy build. They said he likely is driving a gray, four-door Ford sedan — the vehicle in the surveillance video — probably built between 2000 and 2002.
Freeland-Gaither’s parents circulated fliers in Germantown, the neighborhood where she lived and was last seen. Facebook groups sprung up with prayers for her safe return.
Mayor Michael Nutter approved a $10,000 city reward Monday for information on Freeland-Gaither’s disappearance.
John McNesby, the President of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Tuesday the union would offer an additional $5,000 reward. The Citizens Crime Commission added $2,000.
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