12-year-old girl and US Marine may be travelling through France

A 12–year–old British girl and the ex–US Marine who have run away together may have flown on from Paris, police said today.

Detectives hunting Shevaun Pennington and Toby Studabaker, aged 31, are looking at the possibility that they may have caught a connecting flight and not stayed in the French capital.

Greater Manchester Police stressed it was only one of a number of possibilities they were examining as the search was stepped up in Europe for the pair, who met on the internet.

Officers from the force are travelling to France to assist French police.

The move comes as French police said there was no evidence to suggest Studabaker and the missing Wigan youngster were in France.

A source in one of the security agencies helping in the hunt said it was possible the French based their stance on immigration control and that the couple may not have passed through.

Police in Manchester remain adamant that the pair, who met on Saturday, were on the flight from Heathrow to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport later that evening.

A spokesman said they were looking at the possibility that they may have then flown on to another destination.

Shevaun Pennington seemed to be the same as any normal 12-year-old experiencing growing pains. She listened to loud punk rock, surfed the Net for hours and talked endlessly of "her boyfriends" despite never having been on a proper date.

No one could have guessed that the person she referred to as her "American boyfriend" was something other than the figment of an excitable school-girl's imagination.

Despite assertions by Mr Studabaker's family that Shevaun had convinced him that she was a 19-year-old student, when he met the schoolgirl for the first time on Saturday, they continued as planned and flew to Heathrow on pre-booked flights before travelling to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, where they arrived by 8pm.

Stephen and Joanne Pennington, held an emotional news conference to urge their daughter to return. Mrs Pennington said: "Please, we just want you back, we're not angry with you, we love you very much and just want you to come home. You are not in any trouble whatsoever. We just want her back, home, that's all."

The Penningtons had warned Shevaun of the dangers of the Net. "We told her she wasn't to give her name, address or anything else to anyone. As far as we were aware she was chatting to people of her own age," Mrs Pennington said.

"Shevaun had never had a proper boyfriend. She has had people she's called boyfriends, but she's never been on any real dates with boys. She does look older than her years. I'm praying that once this man knows how old she is he will do the right thing. I honestly believe Shevaun thinks this man is a lot younger," she said.

However, on the other side of the Atlantic, Mr Studabaker's family defended the actions of the former marine, claiming that he had been convinced he was meeting a 19-year-old student rather than a 12-year-old schoolgirl.

Speaking from the family home in Michigan, Sherry Studabaker, his sister-in-law, said the family was shocked at the discovery of Shevaun's age. "When she first e-mailed him, she said she was 19," Mrs Studabaker told The Independent. "She said she was a student at college. He didn't know."

She described how Mr Studabaker, who had planned the trip only two weeks ago as a "spur of the moment thing", had spent hours sending e-mails to Shevaun on her personal computer. The FBI removed it for examination yesterday as part of the international investigation into the disappearance of the schoolgirl.

Insisting that he would not have gone to meet Shevaun if he had known her age, she added: "I just want him to call me so that we can talk."

Inspector Steve Crimmins, the UK officer leading the search, issued an urgent appeal. "I urge everyone to keep their eyes open. An American ex-Marine and a 12-year-old English girl travelling together should be quite distinctive."

Shevaun, who should have been finishing her first year at Lowton High School this week, was last seen wearing a top emblazoned with the name of the pop group AFI, and wearing black baggy jeans. She had not returned home after leaving the house at 7.30am on Saturday under the guise of meeting two friends. Her parents' anxiety over their missing child rose when a police officer found that clothes and her passport had disappeared from the house. "We discovered later on that she had taken her school bag, which had some clothes in it. I had given her the passport a week ago because she said she was finally going to get an under-16s bus pass ... I never asked for it back, and I never had any reason not to trust her," Mrs Pennington said.

There has been growing anxiety over the susceptibility of young children to the dangers of internet grooming. A survey commissioned by the children's charity the NSPCC found nine in 10 adults were worried about the threat posed to children in chatrooms. Earlier this year, the Government launched a £1m advertising campaign to encourage parents to help children surf the Net safely.

However, in keeping with many children, Shevaun loved surfing the Net and, her father admitted, it had been difficult to prise her away from the compute at times. "She was on the internet all the time, like any kid is. It got to the stage where I would limit her to five hours, but she would still go on when we weren't there. On some occasions, she was on the internet for 11 hours," he said.

The computer took centre- stage in the kitchen of the family home in Leigh, Greater Manchester. For 12 months, as her mother prepared meals a few feet from the screen, Shevaun was becoming more deeply embroiled in her relationship with Mr Studabaker.

According to her mother, her response to boys was a maternal one and she took her school male peers under her wing, referring to them as "little boys".

It could be that maturity of attitude, and her grown-up appearance ­ standing at 5ft 3in and with shoulder-length blond hair, she was taller than most of the boys in her class at Lawton Community High School and needed proof of identity to get concessionary bus fares ­ that police are hoping has fooled Mr Studabaker into thinking she is older than her years.

But despite the semblance of maturity, Shevaun was the type of 12-year-old who still ran to her mother for hugs. The adult world of sexual relationships was a long way off.

Mr Studabaker, who grew up in North Carolina, had been based with the 3rd Battalion of the 6th MarinesDivision after attending college in Ohio. He had recently left the forces after completing a three-year tour of duty.

He served as a lance corporal in the US Marines anti-terrorism unit between May 2000 and 30 June 2003, and took part in the war in Afghanistan. His wife, Jenny, died of cancer last year.

A photograph of Mr Studabaker making a final phone call before being deployed overseas from his base, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, appeared in newspapers around the world just a few days after the 11 September terror attacks.

Another photograph of Mr Studabaker guarding Taliban and al-Qa'ida suspects at Kandahar airport in December 2001 was also used by news organisations.

While he had told friends he was going to take a trip to England, he had kept tight-lipped about meeting his female companion. Police said yesterday there was nothing suspicious about the events surrounding his discharge from the army.

The idea that he was aware of her real age is a far more sinister prospect for the police and the authorities. A check of Shevaun's correspondence after her disappearance showed she had been in touch "regularly" by letter and e-mail.

While parents have faced repeated warnings from the police to monitor their children's use of the internet, Shevaun's case shows that it may not be enough. As one officer said in a televised appeal yesterday, if Mr Studabaker did not know Shevaun's age before he met her, he certainly would have realised how young she was when they met at the airport.

Her parents can only hope Mr Studabaker will send Shevaun back to her family home and to her childhood.

Offenders who exploited the internet

Michael Wheeler, 36, from Cambridge, was jailed last month for three years after having sex with two 13-year-old girls he had "groomed" through internet chatrooms. He narrowly escaped life imprisonment by exploiting a legal loophole - the maximum sentence for unlawful sexual intercourse for a girl under 13 is life, but only two years if she is over 13. Wheeler, an electronics engineer, at first pretended to be a 19-year-old. He met his second victim after befriending her through the first girl, and was caught after one of their parents reported him to the police.

Mark Tann, 29, was jailed for 15 years in January after admitting 24 offences, including two counts of raping a four-year-old girl. He also gave advice to other paedophiles about how to groom and assault children. Tann, from Kent, was a church-goer, worked as a babysitter, raised funds for the NSPCC and had membership of the Labour Party. He was caught after a complaint from the mother of a girl for whom he had been a babysitter coincided with the discovery that he had used the service provider of the Labour Party web mail site to send an indecent picture of a baby.