A man who was among the hunters who found an 11-year-old girl abducted from Cody on Monday evening considers it nothing short of a miracle.
“The Lord put us there at that time for a reason,” Shane Larsen of Cody said.
It was dark, about 30 degrees and four miles from the nearest house when Larsen and his party found the girl, walking in the barrow pit along the road, dressed only in light clothing.
Those conditions could have later proven fatal to her.
“For him (the abductor) to do that to her. To just leave her up there on the side of that mountain and expect her to hike out of there – I can’t even imagine,” Larsen said.
“There’s grizzlies up there,” he added. “We had just seen one while we were hunting.”
Larsen, 44, who lives off Bartlett Lane up the South Fork, had gone out that afternoon to hunt elk with his friend James Laske, 44, of Michigan.
With them were Larsen’s son, Colby, 15, and Laske’s son CJ, 12.
“We didn’t get out of here until late that afternoon,” Larsen said Wednesday.
“We went all the way out to the end of the Carter Mountain Access Road, and had just enough time for a short hike. All we saw was that grizzly bear.”
Conditions were wet and muddy causing them to put chains on the tires of Larsen’s pickup.
“We had just enough time to get the chains on before it got dark,” he said.
They were unaware of the abduction and subsequent Amber Alert.
Toward the end of their drive out, still about three miles from the South Fork Highway, they rounded a corner, and the truck’s headlights played across a long straight stretch.
“Your mind can’t really process seeing somebody up there walking after dark,” he said. “It’s like seeing a giraffe on Carter Mountain.
At first we thought it was an adult female, up there exercising,” he added. “But I was still thinking to myself, ‘What is she doing this far back at this hour?’”
When they got closer, they saw it was a young girl.
“She was wearing a pair of little stretch pants, tennis shoes, a thin shirt and a thin jacket,” Larsen said. “I rolled down the window and asked if she needed help. She was crying, and she said ‘yes.’ I told her to get in the truck.”
Larsen’s pickup is a four-door crew cab. The girl got in the back seat with the boys.
Just how chillingly close the girl came to being missed, and quite possibly dying of exposure, becomes apparent as Larsen’s story continues.
“On our way in, we had seen one rig, with people cutting wood, and another with a horse trailer, other elk hunters,” he said.
“We noticed both those rigs were gone as we drove out, so we were the last ones out of there,” Larsen said.
“At first we thought she might have been part of the wood cutting party, and had just been left behind by mistake,” he said.
“Then she said, “‘A man kidnapped me, and he let me go,’” Larsen said.
“When you hear something like that, your mind just goes numb,” he said.
Among the things the girl told them during the next half-hour was that she had initially thought their vehicle was her abductor, coming back for her.
“I just think now, what if she had decided to run from us, thinking we were him? We might not have been able to find her,” Larsen said.
Upon hearing of the kidnapping, Larsen gave the girl his cellphone, and told her to call her mother.
Laske used his phone to call police.
Once she was on the phone with her mother, the girl started sobbing, and saying things that Larsen says “ripped my heart out.”
“To be hearing those things, your mind can’t even process it,” he added. “For our boys to be sitting there, having to hear those things – you can’t imagine.”
Emergency personnel arranged for a rendezvous near Larsen’s home.
A call was also made to the girl’s biological father who lives in Utah.
“He told me, ‘I’m already on my way up,’” Larsen said.
During the rest of the drive, the girl alternated between friendly chatter and harrowing details.
She said she estimated she had been walking for about a half-hour before they found her.
“I asked her if she was warm enough in the back seat, and she told me, ‘I didn’t really get cold, because I had been running most of the time.’
We kept asking her questions, trying to get as many details as we could, to share with police,” Larsen said.
The girl told them the man had lured her into his vehicle in the vicinity of the Cody library, saying he needed help finding his puppy.
She didn’t recall what state the vehicle’s license plates were from, Larsen said.
“She said the vehicle had only two seats in the front, and had an open space in the back,” he said. “She said the man had ‘lots and lots of pictures of naked little girls’ in his vehicle.”
The girl expected to go look for the puppy near the rec center, but the man had other plans.
Larsen said the girl told him the man pulled a gun on her, put a bag over her head and at one point struck her with the gun.
“She also told us that at one point, they got into a physical struggle, and she kicked him in the nose, and made his nose bloody,” Larsen said.
“I think she had amazing survival instincts,” he added.
Authorities have asked that details about what happened on Carter Mountain – previously released by the city of Cody – not be repeated in the media.
At the request of the FBI, the Enterprise is not reporting additional details the girl told Larsen, things he heard her tell her mother on the phone and also how she came to be freed.
After the girl was turned over to authorities, Larsen said a detective went back up the mountain with him, so he could show the detective the spot where they had found the girl.
Larsen said he hopes the girl and her family are doing well, and he can’t wait for her abductor to be caught.
“Hearing her tell us those things that night, we really wanted to find that guy,” Larsen said.
“For now, we’re giving her family their privacy, so they can deal with what they have to,” he said. “But I do want to talk to them again.”
(Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)