State News

Missing Virginia girl found, Texas man in custody

Posted February 14, 2021 2:03 p.m. EST

— A Texas man has been taken into custody after the disappearance of a 12-year-old Virginia girl, authorities said.

Kaleb Christopher Merritt, 21, was captured by police in Henderson, North Carolina, after a manhunt that began Friday, according to authorities in Virginia. The girl was found with him, unharmed.

The girl was reported missing from her home in Bassett, Virginia on Friday afternoon. Police said she and Merritt connected in December on Instagram and communicated through social media until Merritt traveled to Virginia earlier this month to meet her.

Merritt set up a camp in a wooded area behind the girl’s home and met with her on several occasions, investigators said. The two communicated via a messaging app before Merritt coerced her into leaving her home with him, police said.

State and federal authorities tracked Merritt to North Carolina, where he and the girl were found.

Authorities said the Southwestern Virginia Internet Crimes against Children Task Force first notified the sheriff’s office in Henry County, Virginia, on Thursday that it had flagged Instagram messages.

Police later caught up with Merritt at a Planet Fitness in Martinsville and seized his cellphone. Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said police and a local prosecutor determined that the communication on Merritt’s cellphone was concerning, but not illegal.

The girl was reported missing the next day. Perry described her as a runaway and said investigators believe she left willingly with Merritt.

It's unclear what charges Merritt might face.

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