SALISBURY - - More than 200 officers and volunteers scoured frozen fields and ponds Christmas Eve for an 11-year-old girl who police say was kidnapped from her bedroom by a registered sex offender.
Sarah Haley Foxwell was wearing a pink shirt and red pajamas printed with Christmas trees when she disappeared from her maternal aunt's home Tuesday night, police said. A younger sister awoke during the night to see Sarah leave the room with their aunt's former boyfriend, a registered sex offender, according to court documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
Thomas James Leggs Jr., 30, who lived in a building on the grounds of his parents' Salisbury home, was arrested Wednesday and charged with burglary and kidnapping in Sarah's disappearance, police said.
Leggs, who is listed on sex offender registries in Maryland and Delaware, was not cooperating with police, said Sgt. Charsten Wendlandt of the Wicomico County Sheriff's Office.
Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said Thursday night that authorities were still regarding their task as a search and rescue, and he said the effort would continue throughout the night. "We have not lost hope," he said.
As relatives and friends gathered for a Christmas Eve candlelight vigil at an elementary school, an aunt said she prayed that the girl she called "Haley Bug" would be found unharmed.
Sarah, a sixth-grade student at Wicomico Middle School, is a bright and lighthearted child, said Tracey Powell, a paternal aunt.
"She would just run the hallways laughing and giggling, and just jump into your arms," Powell said. "All we want is for her to come home safe and sound."
Standing near a shrine of teddy bears and flickering candles, Trent Molnar, who coaches Sarah's brother's baseball team, led the crowd in prayer, asking for Sarah to be returned home for Christmas.
Sarah's younger sister told police she saw the girl leave the bedroom with the man they knew as "Tommy," according to police and court documents. Leggs, who works in his family's custom cabinet business, recently dated the girl's aunt, who is the guardian for Sarah and two of her siblings, Wendlandt said. Another relative discovered Sarah missing in the morning, he said.
Leggs knew the family kept a spare key under a pot on the porch of the home, according to court documents.
Leggs "was developed as a suspect early on in the investigation before we were aware of his criminal background, but he does have a criminal history to include third- and fourth-degree sex offenses of small, young females," said Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis.
The girl's aunt, Amy Fothergill, said Sarah's green toothbrush was missing from the home, and police found it along with a lollipop in Leggs' 2003 champagne-colored Dodge pickup, according to documents. Leggs, who agreed to go to the sheriff's office for questioning, was wearing an outfit similar to what the younger girl said the man in the bedroom had on, according to documents.
Leggs told deputies that he had last driven the pickup about 1 a.m. Wednesday when he left a nearby bar.
Asked whether authorities believe the girl is alive, state police Sgt. David Owens said: "The sheriff's been reporting that we're holding out hope; I'll just stick with his words. We're doing everything we can."
First Sgt. Timothy F. Robinson, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, added that the department has "nothing but the utmost hope that we are going to find her and reunite her with her family."
Officers from numerous jurisdictions, firefighters and volunteers searched for the girl throughout the day and evening Thursday in below-freezing weather. Several dozen police officers were joined by volunteers from as far as the Western Shore and northern Delaware. Dive teams searched a pond Wednesday night, and helicopters and dogs were brought in to assist in the search.
"The outcry has been sobering, the number of people who want to help," Owens said. "It's a heck of an impact, especially on Christmas."
Volunteers who wish to aid in the search are being asked to report to Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury, home of the Delmarva Shorebirds baseball team, at 7 a.m. today for a briefing, Robinson said. He urged volunteers to work closely with authorities to preserve "any evidence."
According to charging documents, Fothergill dated Leggs "for a short period of time a month or so ago and ... Leggs just stopped contacting her." Fothergill told police that she knew that Leggs was a registered sex offender.
Reached by phone Thursday night, Fothergill passed the phone to a sheriff's deputy who said that she declined to comment. Court records indicate that she sued her sister for unpaid child support for Sarah and five other children in February 2008.
Sarah is 4 feet, 8 inches tall and has brown hair often worn in a ponytail. Police say she was last seen wearing red, fuzzy pajama bottoms with Christmas trees on them and a pink John Deere T-shirt.
Police also released a photograph of a 2003 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup used by Leggs and asked anyone who might have seen the vehicle to contact authorities.
Leggs was being held without bail at the Wicomico County Detention Center. His listing as a child sex offender in the Maryland Sex Offender Registry stems from a third-degree sex offense conviction in 1998. His status was listed as "compliant," meaning that he provided his address, employment and other information at the time of his last move in 2007.
In Delaware, he is listed as a "high-risk" sex offender in connection with the rape of a minor in 2001.
Electronic court records in Maryland show that Leggs was charged in September with fourth-degree burglary and malicious destruction of property. His divorce was finalized in April, and he was denied custody and visitation of his child.
Helen Young, who attended the Christmas Eve vigil with her young daughter, said she hoped that Sarah had been "hidden away somewhere" and would be found safe.
"I don't have a good feeling about it," she said, "but as a mother I have to have hope."