A nationwide hunt ended Friday night when Caitlyn Marie Virts, the 11-year-old girl missing since her mother was found killed in their Dundalk home on Thursday, was located in a motel room in Florence, S.C., with her father, Timothy Virts, who was taken into custody, Baltimore County police said.
"He is in custody, and she is safe," Cpl. John Wachter, a police spokesman, told The Baltimore Sun.
Virts, 38, was under warrant for arrest in connection with the stabbing death of Caitlyn's mother, Bobbie Jo Cortez, 36, who was found bound with duct tape in her bed in her home in the 3100 block of Ardee Way on Thursday morning.
Wachter said the Maryland Department of Social Services was in contact with their counterparts in South Carolina, working on arrangements to return Caitlyn to her relatives here. Baltimore County police detectives will travel to South Carolina, where Timothy Virts is being held on an FBI charge of unlawful flight.
The father and daughter had checked in Thursday night at the Colonial Inn in Florence, Jon Gause, the motel's owner, told The Sun. An employee had seen the Amber Alert issued for Caitlyn on Facebook and called the police, Gause said.
"I saw him as they were putting them into cars," Gause said referring to Virts and his daughter. Police had arrived shortly after he started his night shift at 10 p.m., Gause said.
"There were several law enforcement agencies working. There were enough people to overwhelm any situation," he said. He said he spoke to several officers at the scene, who told him Virts "seemed like he was perhaps ready to give up."
Caitlyn's grandparents expressed gratitude that the girl, whom police said appeared to be unharmed, had been found. She was temporarily being held by South Carolina social service caseworkers on Saturday, Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson said, who added that investigators do not believe that Caitlyn was physically harmed during the hours she was missing.
"I'm relieved," said Daniel Wallace, Cortez's father.
"I want to give her a big hug," Anna Trainor Goodwin, Cortez's mother, said of Caitlyn. "Hug her very hard."
Trainor Goodwin had last talked to her daughter on Sunday. "She gave me a real big hug, and said, 'Mommy, I love you so much,'" Trainor Goodwin said. "I had a feeling something was wrong."
Cortez, however, brushed off the concern, she said, but Trainor Goodwin added that she believed the couple were fighting over custody issues with Caitlyn and her twin sister.
Police credited the Amber Alert, issued locally after Caitlyn was discovered missing but subsequently expanded nationally, with helping to locate the girl.
"Absolutely," Wachter said. "That helped bring Caitlyn home."
Wachter said police received numerous tips of sightings and had been following up on all of them. Johnson said credible tips led his investigators to believe that the pair was in North Carolina sometime Friday before Florence law enforcement authorities had zeroed in on the Dodge Virts was driving at the Colonial Inn at about 8 p.m.
Police expressed their gratitude for all those who helped in the nationwide search, which had been assisted by the FBI. Johnson said it was a combination of media reports, social media messaging and broad law enforcement cooperation that led to Caitlyn's recovery.
"I'm overjoyed," Wachter said, so much so that he tweeted "We found her" at 10:13 p.m., even as he was still on the phone receiving the news from police officials.
Detectives obtained an arrest warrant Friday for Timothy Virts, in connection with the death of Bobbie Jo Cortez. The FBI placed Timothy Virts on the agency's wanted list and also issued a warrant for him.
Police had been looking for a black 1999 Dodge Durango with Maryland tag 5AJ4458. The vehicle is registered to 38-year-old Daniel Williams Cortez, who was married to Bobbie Jo and has been jailed since December on sex offense charges.
Police have not determined a possible motive and have no reason to believe that Cortez's charges are related to the case, Baltimore County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. Detectives obtained the warrant based on interviews with others in the house and physical evidence from the scene, police said.
Johnson said Saturday that police do have a murder weapon in their evidence.
"This was a very violent, brutal murder," he said.
Daniel Wallace said Timothy Virts was especially close to Caitlyn and believed he did not take her twin sister because the twin suffers from medical problems that might need treatment.
When Caitlyn's sister woke up for school Thursday morning, she discovered her mother dead in bed, according to Wallace, who lives in Carrollton Ridge in Southwest Baltimore.
"I know she was duct-taped and stabbed. I'm sure she saw her life go through her eyes," Wallace said of Bobbie Jo. "She was my life. I don't know what I am going to do."
He said he learned of his daughter's death from a TV news broadcast. "All I had to do was see the picture one time. I saw Caitlyn and I saw the father, and I knew that's them."
Wallace said his daughter was unaware of criminal charges against her husband until he was arrested in December. He has been in jail since then, and Wallace said two friends moved in to help his daughter pay the rent.
Bobbie Jo and Daniel Cortez had been married "about three years" after a courthouse wedding, her father said. They had known each other since attending Patterson High School in Baltimore, he said.
"She said she would never take another man ever" after she learned of the charges, he said.
Cortez's public defender, Jennifer Aist, said she had not yet received charging papers in the case in which an indictment was handed down this week. But she does not believe he is involved in the Virts case.
"Clearly Mr. Cortez is not involved. He's incarcerated," she said.
Wallace said Bobbie Jo allowed Timothy Virts to stay at the home in recent months because she worked nights. "She trusted him to watch the kids," he said.
Bobbie Jo worked for a medical supply company for about 10 years, and had attended culinary school but was pursing an online degree in forensic science. She wanted to work in law enforcement, Wallace said.
"Bobbie Jo was always happy. All she wanted was to be a happy family," he said. "My daughter treated them like angels. You never saw them kids without anything."
Police said two other children — as well as two adults — were at the house when Bobbie Jo Cortez was killed. Police said they are not sure why Virts only took Caitlyn.
Bobbie Jo was awarded sole custody of Caitlyn and her twin sister in 2011, though court records say both she and Timothy Virts were found to be "fit and proper parents." In 2004, the couple signed over custody of their twin boys to Virts' father, saying they were "not able to care for two additional infants at this time," according to court documents.
In 2012, Virts' father sought a protective order against his son. He wrote in court papers that Timothy had threatened him with violence.
Virts has waived extradition, allowing him to be transferred to Maryland as soon as Baltimore County authorities can arrange it. Johnson didn't know exactly when Virts and Caitlyn would return to Maryland, only saying that it would be soon.
Baltimore Sun staff writers Carrie Wells and Justin George contributed to this report.