Haylee Donathan, the 4-year-old Ohio girl who vanished more than three weeks ago, was found alive Tuesday in the company of her mother and her boyfriend — a fugitive sex offender, authorities said.
Donathan, her mother Candace Watson, and Robbie Potter were discovered hiding for the past week at The Morning Star Ranch, a retreat in Valley Center, near San Diego, Peter Elliott, United States Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, said at a news conference. Late Tuesday, Haylee was in the custody of a children’s protective services agency in the San Diego County area, Elliott said. She was doing well but may have chicken pox, he added. “We understand she is healthy and happy and I believe, waiting to come back to her grandmother here,” he said. The journey west took them more than 2,000 miles from Mansfield, the north-Central Ohio city where the girl and her mother live. “I am very happy that my granddaughter’s coming home,” said Mary Watson, Haylee’s grandmother. “And I just want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.” Watson, 24, and Potter, 27, were arrested without incident and held by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. When asked their reaction, Elliott said, “I believe a little shocked that we were able to find them.” Potter and Watson were still using the same vehicle, a 1980s blue Chevrolet pickup truck they drove from Ohio, Elliott said. Watson’s hair was a bit darker and Potter also changed his appearance slightly. Authorities had feared Haylee was in danger. Potter, a sex offender, had escaped a halfway house on May 28, the day the girl and her mother disappeared. Countless tips came in while they were missing, but one in particular led to the breakthrough on Tuesday, Elliott said without elaborating. Elliott also praised intense national news coverage from programs such as HLN’s “Nancy Grace” and “Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell,” as well as local media and Clear Channel, which put up missing child billboards across the country. When she is returned to Ohio, Haylee will be placed in the custody of her grandmother, Elliott said. The U.S. Marshals Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force had offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Potter. Potter was wanted on a state warrant for parole violation and a federal warrant for probation violation. He is a convicted Tier 3 sex offender, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, a unit of the Justice Department. A Tier 3 sex offender is one who poses a substantial risk of repeat violations. While on the run, Potter and Watson were reportedly seen on surveillance video on May 31 at a Wal-mart store in Marion, Ohio, 40 miles from Mansfield. Haylee was not on that video. Adding to concerns, Watson’s roommate, Samantha Covert, said last week in an interview on Nancy Grace that she saw the little girl in bed with her mother and Potter the morning they disappeared. Covert said Watson carried a basket of clothing, pillows and blankets. Watson will likely face state charges, including harboring a fugitive, according to Elliott. In addition to other charges, he said Potter may be prosecuted under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, a federal sex offender registration and self-reporting law that carries a multi-year felony sentence if violated. On its Web site, the Morning Star Ranch describes itself as “a community of growers of organic, pesticide-free avocados, grapefruit, persimmons, nuts, and other produce.” Elliot said he believed it is a rehab facility and also called it a Christian retreat. A man who picked up the phone at the ranch declined to comment and told CNN he would have a representative call back to provide information. Other people were at the facility while Haylee was there, but Elliott said he had no information as to whether anyone assisted Watson and Potter.