FLORENCE, S.C. — — The Dundalk father and daughter sought in a multi-state search were found a day after they inconspicuously checked in at a small South Carolina motel more than 400 miles from where their journey began.
Timothy Virts handed over $36 in cash for a single room with his 11-year-old daughter Caitlyn smiling by his side. Colonial Inn co-owner Carol Gause could tell the pair was "a little girl and her daddy."
"I didn't sense anything wrong," said Gause, who rented them Room 101, a single next to the motel office, on Thursday night. During a break Friday evening, Gause scrolled through Facebook and received a jolt when she saw the pair's pictures posted within a news story about the search.
She checked the motel registry and called police, who swooped in to rescue Caitlyn and arrest her father, ending a nearly 36-hour manhunt that began in Dundalk and was linked to the murder of Caitlyn's mother, Bobbie Jo Cortez.
Virts' arrest came without incident and authorities said Caitlyn did not appear to be physically harmed. Family members expected the girl to be flown back to Maryland on Saturday night.
The day after the rescue, a timeline came into focus revealing details about the hours before Caitlyn's abduction Thursday morning until her release Friday night. Several family members said the sequence of events was triggered by a scheduled hearing that involved both parents.
According to Cortez's father, Daniel Wallace, she had invited Timothy Virts over to spend the night on Wednesday so he wouldn't miss the hearing.
But details of the hearing or jurisdiction weren't clear. No date could be found in court records, and Baltimore County police said they were not aware of any public open hearing involving the pair.
The next morning, family members said, Caitlyn's twin sister Cayla found Cortez murdered. Police said the 36-year-old had been bound with duct tape and stabbed to death in bed at her home in the 3100 block of Ardee Way.
Within a couple of hours, authorities realized that Caitlyn was missing and activated the Amber Alert, worried about her well-being in the hands of Virts.
"Obviously this was a very violent and brutal murder and this individual's mental and emotional health state obviously is questionable," Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson said. The case was pursued around the clock because police wanted to "make sure we don't have further tragedy for an innocent child."
After investigators found what they suspected was the murder weapon, police obtained an arrest warrant for first-degree murder. Virts, 38, was charged based on interviews with others in the house and physical evidence from the scene, police said.
Virts does not have an attorney listed in court records.
Detectives don't know of a motive, but family members on both sides saw trouble coming.
In 2012, Timothy Virts' father, Peter Virts, had sought a protective order against his son. Peter Virts described his son as a "controller" and worried about Cortez. "He doesn't get along well with too many people," Peter Virts said. "People were afraid of him and did what he said."
"We knew it was a bomb ticking, waiting to go off," added Violet Martin, Peter Virts' girlfriend. She said Timothy Virts was known to regularly carry a knife.
Martin said she believes he only took Caitlyn because she was his favorite. But Wallace said Caitlyn's twin Cayla may have been left behind because she was suspicious of her father.
"She kept telling everyone, 'Don't trust him,'" Wallace said.
Virts fled in a black 1999 Dodge Durango with bumper stickers of the region's football teams and one that said, "Protected by witchcraft." The SUV was registered to Cortez's husband, 38-year-old Daniel Williams Cortez, who's been jailed since December on sex offense charges. Baltimore County police said the charges are not related to the alleged abduction.
Baltimore County police fielded "thousands" of leads from the Amber Alert and pulled in secretaries and other employees to handle the volume of calls, Johnson said. The FBI placed Timothy Virts on the agency's wanted list.
Johnson said none of the tips panned out until credible information led investigators to believe that he was in North Carolina. They didn't zero in until Virts and Caitlyn arrived in Florence, S.C., a town about five miles from Interstate 95 in the eastern part of the state.
At about 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the Durango pulled into the motel in Florence. A balled-up yellow fleece blanket with purple and pink flowers, an open bag of nacho-cheese Combos and a Happy Meal box were inside the SUV on Saturday, and a purple skull sat on the dashboard.
Gause, who raised two boys who became law officers, said she didn't notice anything suspicious when the father and daughter came into the motel office. Virts handed her his Maryland driver's license and the license plate number for the Durango upon check-in.
On Friday morning, Virts paid for a second night in cash, and Gause saw the pair leave their room at about 4:30 p.m., assuming they were headed to dinner.
The motel was near capacity on both days, but Gause finally took a break around 7 p.m., when she scrolled through Facebook and matched Virts and the girl to a friend's post describing the intensive search.
She checked her records and called local police. Two officers arrived and checked the Facebook post and motel registry. "It wasn't long before things got rolling," she said.
One officer moved the police cruiser away, so not to alert Virts. They ran the Durango's tag through a national crime database, and when it came back with a hit, Florence City Police Chief Allen Heidler said he drove to the scene, along with an emergency response and negotiation team.
The agency's SWAT team also arrived, and Gause provided members with the room's layout. A negotiator called Virts' room, but he didn't pick up, Heidler said.
It was the tactical team's turn, Heidler said. The SWAT officers told Gause to stay in the back part of the office, away from the glass window.
Gause texted her daughter and a friend and told them both to pray. She heard officers knock on Room 101. They opened the door and Virts was standing in the doorway. He surrendered without incident, Heidler said.
When Gause came out of the back of the office, she saw officers surrounding the girl.
"They put her in a car, and the next thing I know they were gone," Gause said.
It is not yet clear what Virts' destination had been, Chief Johnson said on Saturday. He added that Virts did not appear to have received any assistance while he eluded capture. Johnson said Virts had a "limited number of assets" that would have helped him flee.
Federal authorities charged Virts with unlawful flight, but FBI special agent in charge Stephen E. Vogt said it was only done so a warrant could be obtained. Amy Weber, a releasing officer at the Florence County jail, said Virts waived extradition, and Baltimore County officials said that will expedite his return to Maryland to face prosecution.
"We do anticipate a successful prosecution," Johnson said.
Johnson said social services officials in South Carolina are working with Caitlyn and they will make decisions on where the girl will be placed after coordinating with her family. Caseworkers will continue to work with Caitlyn, her twin sister who was left in Dundalk and other siblings in the coming weeks, he said.
Back in Baltimore, Caitlyn's grandmother, Anna Trainor-Goodwin, was anxious to hug her grandchildren again.
In her home, the fridge is covered with Caitlyn's notebook drawings including a dragon and a tiger. Trainor-Goodwin said the girl aspires to be a fashion designer and described her as a "girlie-girl."
Elsewhere, was a picture of Bobbi Jo Cortez, Trainor-Goodwin's only daughter, wearing her hair in a bun. It was from a prom years ago.
"I feel like I let her down," said Cortez's father, Wallace. "She was the greatest mother in the world."
She was devoted to getting her children off to school with bagged lunches or money to buy food even though she worked nights, and buying them expensive Christmas gifts, he said.
Men had let her down, Wallace said, and she had indicated that she didn't want to let any more into her life.
"She told me she'll never trust a man as long as she lived," Wallace said. "She didn't want no more men in her life."
Baltimore Sun staff writers Ian Duncan and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
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