Home safe: 12-year-old returns to her family as police arrest ex-Marine

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Almost five days after her disappearance with a former US Marine caused an international police hunt, 12-year-old Shevaun Pennington was "safe and well" at home last night.

Toby Studabaker, the 31-year-old who had masterminded their flight after meeting her on the internet, was arrested by German police in Frankfurt as he walked through the city centre at about midday yesterday. Frankfurt police said that Mr Studabaker would appear today in court in the city.

Despite claims from Mr Studabaker's family that he believed Shevaun was 19, Greater Manchester Police said yesterday he had known the schoolgirl's age and that, according to US police, child pornography images had been found on his computer at home.

By the time he was arrested, Shevaun had called her mother to say that she was on her way home. She boarded a plane from Stuttgart to Amsterdam, before transferring to a UK-bound flight.

Last night, her parents, Joanna and Stephen Pennington, 43, were reunited with their daughter at Leigh police station. She had flown to Manchester airport alone.

Mrs Pennington, 42, said: "I cannot tell you how relieved I am. It is such a turnaround from the situation days ago, which seems years ago. It is absolutely fantastic."

She said that she greeted her daughter with the words "How are you? Give us a hug." She added: "I'm not sure we are actually fit enough to celebrate. We are just so tired. We will just take it one step at a time, slowly, and get family life back to normal."

Mr Studabaker was in police custody in Frankfurt. Investigators were trying to determine whether he had committed any crime in Germany that would require him to face trial there, or whether he could be extradited immediately to Britain.

Superintendent Peter Mason, the officer who led the hunt for the pair, said: "He was arrested for abduction under the power of an international arrest warrant sworn out in the Greater Manchester area." Supt Mason added that he believed the schoolgirl had not been harmed in anyway.

Shevaun, who disappeared on Saturday, appeared to be a normal 12-year-old. She was a model pupil at Lowton High School, enjoyed Monopoly nights with her parents and was looking forward to the family buying pet rabbits after the death of her gerbil. When she talked of an American "boyfriend", few took her seriously. But after she disappeared, her parents discovered that for the past 12 months she had been corresponding with a Mr Studabaker.

The bible school dropout from Michigan had served as a lance corporal with a US Marines infantry division in Afghanistan before being discharged last month. Five years earlier he had been accused of sexual misconduct with two girls under 13, allegations that were later dropped.

He is a widower whose wife died of cancer. American police claimed that he had downloaded child pornography. Shevaun exchanged e-mails and letters with Mr Studabaker. She also started to receive mysterious calls from an American friend on her mobile phone at school.

On Saturday morning the schoolgirl told her parents she was going shopping with friends and headed for Manchester airport with only £16. She met Mr Studabaker there and the pair then boarded a flight to Heathrow where they transferred on to a flight to Paris.

Her parents informed the police at 10.30pm that she was missing. Their fears were compounded when they discovered her passport was missing.

Greater Manchester Police alerted Interpol and the FBI, sent detectives to France and issued an all-ports warning with descriptions of the two.

By Tuesday, with little knowledge of where Shevaun was, the international hunt became almost farcical.

While British police were insistent that the youngster and the US Marine had flown to Charles de Gaulle airport, the French authorities claimed that she had returned to Britain. Less than an hour later, British police ascertained that the "S Pennington" travelling back to Liverpool was not the missing girl.

Concerns for her safety grew when Mr Studabaker's brother Leo confirmed that the ex-soldier had been accused of sexual assault on a young girl at a relative's house.

But that night the first real breakthrough came when Mr Studabaker called his sister-in-law Sherry. She insisted that he had not touched Shevaun, that he was "very, very mad" because he had thought she was 19 and had said that he was planning to contact the FBI. The former soldier, she insisted, was no longer with the schoolgirl but had a signed letter from her clearing him of all wrongdoing.

Shevaun painted a different picture when she finally called home that night. In a brief conversation she reassured her mother she was well but appeared determined to evade capture alongside a man with whom she said she had built a "relationship".

In what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to coax the couple into the open, officers asked the media yesterday morning to cut out any reference to previous accusations against Mr Studabaker.

The language used by officers was deliberately conciliatory, conceding to Shevaun that they might be "girlfriend and boyfriend" while her mother said in a televised appeal that she would "respect" the relationship.

Within a short while, Mrs Pennington received the call she had yearned for ­ her daughter said she was on her way home. It emerged the pair had actually fled to Germany.

Mrs Pennington said last night: "It was a good phone call, the best I have ever had, ever."

DRAMA DIARY

12 JULY

7.30am: Shevaun leaves home, saying she is going shopping.

7.45am: Former US Marine Toby Studabaker, 31, arrives in Manchester via Amsterdam.

2.35pm: They fly from Manchester to Heathrow.

5.50pm: They fly to Paris. 8pm: (Local time): They arrive.

10.30pm: Shevaun's parents report her missing.

13 JULY

Police find Shevaun and Mr Studabaker were in regular contact via e-mail.

14 JULY:

7am: Police issue an all-ports warning to try to stop them. Interpol is contacted. Shevaun's parents plead with her to come home or to let them know she is safe.

15 JULY:

Sherry Studabaker, the man's sister-in-law, tells him to surrender himself and Shevaun. She says Shevaun told him she was 19.

9am: French police say there is no evidence of Mr Studabaker and Shevaun being in France. British police say they flew to Paris.

1pm: Detectives say they may have caught a connecting flight and just used the transfer lounge.

1.15pm: French later say an S Pennington left Paris on Saturday evening for Liverpool.

7.15pm: Mr Studabaker's brother Leo says he told him the girl was safe and he had called the FBI.

7.30pm: Police say the S Pennington was not her. Shevaun calls home but does not say where she is.

16 JULY:

9am: Police release CCTV stills of Mr Studabaker at Manchester airport. Shevaun calls home and takes a plane from Stuttgart to Amsterdam on her way back.

Noon: Mr Studabaker is arrested in Frankfurt.

2.30pm: Shevaun arrives at Manchester airport. Sherry Studabaker says the arrest is a "relief". Shevaun is reunited with her parents. Police do not think she has been harmed.