Shevaun case man to face British court within days

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The Independent Online

The former US Marine who ran off with Shevaun Pennington, aged 12, after meeting her on the internet, may appear before a British court on charges of child abduction.

Toby Studabaker, 31, and Shevaun disappeared for almost five days after she met him at Manchester Airport on Saturday morning to fly to France and then Germany.

Yesterday, as Shevaun was interviewed by police near her home in Lowton, Greater Manchester, detectives went to Frankfurt with an international warrant for Mr Studabaker's extradition.

During a 10-minute hearing at Frankfurt's Amtsgericht court, Mr Studabaker agreed to the informal extradition, but denied sexual relations with the girl and insisted he believed she was 18.

Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, the former lance corporal with the 4th expeditionary brigade from Michigan, appeared with no legal representation and was remanded in custody in Weiterstadt to await extradition. Mr Studabaker told the judge he did not know police were searching for him and Shevaun until they reached the French border with Germany. There, he took Shevaun to Stuttgart to fly home and continued to Frankfurt to go to the US consulate.

Hildegard Becker-Toussaint, a spokeswoman for the General Public Prosecutor of the state of Hessen, said Mr Studabaker would not face charges in Germany.

Ms Becker-Toussaint said Mr Studabaker and Shevaun had allegedly stayed in France for two nights, but had not stayed overnight in Germany. She said Mr Studabaker had been in Germany only a few hours before taking Shevaun to Stuttgart airport.

"If a sexual offence was committed, it was probably not committed in Germany but in France. Any lawsuit would be in a British or French court," she said.

Shevaun, the younger of two sisters, was reunited with her family on Wednesday after a hunt which involved the FBI, British, French and German police and the media.

Dr David Holmes, a forensic psychologist, said police were careful in their search, to prevent Mr Studabaker and Shevaun going into hiding.

He said the police adopted a softer line, asking the media not to make reference to the previous allegations of child abuse against Mr Studabaker, which were later dropped, to respect the "relationship" the pair had formed during a year of exchanging e-mails.

Dr Holmes, the director of forensic research at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "If the media had revealed harsh facts about him it would have been easier for him to say 'they are lying. Ignore it'."

In reference to Joanna Pennington's appeal to her daughter, he added: "To say we respect you as a person and we are going to treat you as an adult, to make sure she knew she was not in trouble and neither was he, made it easier for her to come home."

He added that it may take months for thegirl to overcome her ordeal: "If they have spent a year communicating on the internet, that will have created a strong bond which may well remain strong. That is where therapy come in. In situations like this, the adult engineers the situation and in order to see this, the young person needs to know they are to some degree a victim and the adult is the perpetrator."

With Shevaun home safely, the implications of her actions were being contemplated by neighbours at the quiet middle class estate where she lived. A tidy seventies estate of red-brick detached houses, it is home to civil servants, police officers and academics. .

But parents no longer allow their children to play in the surrounding fields after dusk. And many - until a few days ago -- were unaware of the potential dangers of the internet. Yet, most homes have a computer.

But Shevaun's parents said they were not oblivious to the potential perils of the Web and had tried to restrict the hours she spent using the computer. They had once threatened to stop her going to a friend's slumber party if she did not abide by these rules and had already considered how to install firewalls to prevent access to certain sites.

Many neighbours said they felt sympathy as Stephen Pennington, 43, a chemical industry worker, explained during appeals for Shevaun's return that he had tried to prevent her spending up to 11 hours at a time on the computer.

Thomas Higgins, 57, a retired prison officer, said: "I am computer illiterate. If I want to turn the computer on, I ask my seven-year-old, Robbie. They pick it up so quickly. There are lessons to be learnt here."

Brian Kett, a 41-year-old lecturer, said: "From an educational point of view, parents are trying to be proactive to enable their children to develop. The internet can be a very positive tool, but sadly we are in a society where we have to be aware of certain aspects of the internet. At the end of the day there is not enough monitoring going on by the authorities.

"It was very subdued here when she was missing. But [on Wednesday] night when she came home the whole place was vibrating. It was like a party atmosphere. Everyone was genuinely happy she was back. We all have a lot of sympathy with the parents. Nobody blames anybody.

"At the end of the day what do you do with your kids - lock them up? We have lovely fields and woods around but you can't let them go out. You hope that in their own home they are going to be safe."