PHOENIX — Phoenix police Officer Mike Burns had just finished searching a desert area for signs of a 5-year-old girl and the man who had kidnapped her as she played with her sisters on Christmas Day.
No luck. But as Burns drove down a north Phoenix street, he spotted a truck that matched descriptions of the kidnapper's vehicle, and a man and a little girl inside.
When the truck made an abrupt turn and sped off, Burns knew he couldn't let it out of his sight.
"There was no doubt in my mind," Burns told reporters on Saturday, "If he disappears, we may not get her back."
About 10 minutes later, 45-year-old Larry Jon Ladwig was under arrest, and the frightened girl was rescued and taken to a Phoenix police facility that aids young victims of crime, where it was determined she had been molested. The girl was treated and is back home with her family, police Sgt. Andy Hill said.
Ladwig was booked into jail early Saturday on charges of kidnapping, sexual molestation of a child, aggravated assault of a police officer and felony flight. It's unclear whether Ladwig has a lawyer, and the Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to a request to interview him.
Statistically, Hill said if police don't recover a child abducted by a stranger within the first several hours, "chances are slim of recovering them alive."
"We really did have a Christmas miracle," he said.
The girl was rescued Friday night, more than seven hours after police believe Ladwig kidnapped her while she was playing outside a Phoenix apartment building.
The Associated Press is not reporting the girl's name because she may be the victim of a sex crime. The AP had named the girl after her abduction Friday.
When Burns' spotted Ladwig's pickup, he gave chase and alerted the force. Officers put spike strips across the road several blocks away that punctured Ladwig's tires, causing him to crash on the roadside.
Ladwig took off on foot but was caught and arrested a block away after a brief struggle during which Hill said he punched an officer in the face.
"It makes you feel good," Burns said of his part in the girl's rescue. "It takes a while to soak in."
Police received the call that the girl had been taken early Friday afternoon. An Amber Alert was issued, and authorities began combing the area on foot, by car and with helicopters.
Hill said the child had been playing in a common area at the apartment complex with her two sisters, ages 7 and 9, when a man parked his brown pickup in a nearby parking lot and walked over to them carrying a camera.
He said the man violently pulled down the 7-year-old's pants, took a photo of her, then grabbed the 5-year-old and threw her into the truck through a window.
"That's pretty doggone violent," Hill said. "He's a weapon himself ... (The girl) has got a lot to go through now. She's not unscarred from this, obviously in a number of ways. She's got a long road ahead of her."
After the kidnapping, the 5-year-old's older sister went to a neighbour's apartment and pounded on the door, The Arizona Republic reported. The woman who answered, Donna Reed, said the girl was carrying a ball and appeared to be shaking.
"She said some man just took her little sister," Reed told the newspaper. "She was a nervous wreck."
Reed called the police.
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The three sisters live with an aunt, who has legal custody of them, Hill said. The girls' parents live separately out of state.