BRUNSWICK, Maine — Lisa Stephenson knew something wasn’t quite right when two young girls walked into the Blue Crab Grill late last month and filled out job applications.
“They said they were traveling and their phones and wallets were stolen in New York,” Stephenson told the Bangor Daily News. “I guess that was their story — they were trying to get money.”
The manager of the Newark, Delaware, restaurant wouldn’t give them cash, but took their applications and told them to return the next day.
Throughout the day, though, as Stephenson waited tables, she thought about the girls, who looked so young and showed up at the restaurant alone during the school day.
“Of course, it didn’t add up,” said Stephenson, who lives just over the state line in Elkton, Maryland. So she glanced at the applications and discovered neither teen had listed an address or a phone number, and neither had completed high school.
Concerned that the two girls were alone in an area just down the road from a truck stop that is “not a really good place to be around,” Stephenson wrote down their names.
A quick search of Facebook when she got home that night confirmed her instincts: A Brunswick woman was frantically searching for her 16-year-old Brunswick daughter, who, along with a 14-year-old Bath girl, had disappeared in the early morning hours of Oct. 25.
The girls were supposed to babysit together early Sunday morning, the older girl’s mom told the Bangor Daily News, but they never showed up. Before long, the younger girl’s mom realized her Toyota Camry was missing.
Both mothers spent Sunday in a fog, mystified at their daughters’ disappearance and terrified for their safety. They posted “Missing” notices on Facebook, and contacted the Bath teen’s family in South Carolina, where she was born and previously lived, thinking the girls might be headed to see a friend there.
After Bath police had listed the girls with the National Crime Information Center, alerting police across the country to stop them, police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called later Sunday morning to report the car had been involved in a minor crash before driving away from the scene, Bath Police Lt. Robert Savary said at the time. Neither teen has a license to drive, according to the older girl’s mom.
Then there was no news until the next night, when the older teen’s mother opened Facebook to find a message from Stephenson. The 26-year-old woman had searched Facebook as soon as she got home from work that night and discovered one of the notices about the missing teens. She messaged the girl’s mother “and then sat by my computer waiting for her to [respond],” Stephenson said. “The minute she did, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you serious?’”
The two continued talking by phone, and Stephenson notified local police, as well as her cousins, who are deputies in nearby Cecil County. But the police found no sign of the girls that night, and they didn’t return to the restaurant Tuesday morning.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office received several calls about two young girls panhandling in front of a strip mall on Crain Highway in Waldorf, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Diane Richardson.
“They appeared to be young and were asking for money,” Richardson told the Bangor Daily News. “It was odd that there would be two young girls outside this clothing store holding up signs asking for money. A lot of people were actually concerned.”
An officer picked up the two girls and took them to a district station, where he stayed with them until a social worker picked them up at about 10 p.m.
The younger girl’s mother flew to Maryland to drive her car home, and the older girl’s mom rented a car and left at 2 a.m. Wednesday to retrieve the girls.
What she discovered, the older girl’s mother said, was the girls’ “Thelma and Louise” plan. She learned that the girls had traveled south, without their phones, “straight through Boston, New York and some of the most scary places they could have been.”
They told sheriff’s deputies that they stopped in Washington, D.C., looking for a gas station, but someone told them to “get out of the city” and they decided Waldorf “looked like a nice place to stop and ask for money.”
“One of the scariest parts for me was that the social worker who found them a place to stay for the night said they were just south of Washington, D.C., and in that area [human] trafficking is huge,” the older girl’s mother said.
The drive back to Maine was quiet at first, she said. Their first stop was the Blue Crab Grill, to see the waitress who may have saved their lives. She worried, at first, that the girls would be angry.
Stephenson, who is six months pregnant with her first daughter, said she told the girls, “All I could think about was that in the future, if something were to happen with my daughter, I would want someone to get in contact with me to tell me she was all right, that she was alive and OK.”
Both girls eventually thanked her, Stephenson said.
“I said, ‘Do you understand why that was putting a target on you? At your age?’ I told them how serious it was and it seemed to dawn on them the things that could have gone wrong in that scenario.”
When they arrived back in Maine, the girls were grounded and the older girl, at least, is prohibited from using social media, including Facebook.
But her mom, and the rest of the family, spent much of the next few days on Facebook, praising and “friending” the Delaware woman who found their girl.
“This is a hero,” the mom wrote on Facebook. “A person who trusted her gut when she saw two young girls all alone and helped. A person who spent her own time calling authorities in multiple states to let them know the girls could be headed their way and a person who let a scared mom message her for hours trying to make sense of a terrifying situation. This is a hero.”
Because no charges were filed against the girls, the Bangor Daily News agreed not to identify them or their families.