Missing 11-year-old returns home after abductor's suicide

Alleged kidnapper commits suicide when stopped by authorities

Photo of John W. Gonzalez

KERRVILLE -- Leah Henry, an 11-year-old girl kidnapped in Houston four days ago, was hailed for her quick thinking and bravery when she escaped from her captor Friday into the arms of a sheriff's deputy moments before the suspect took his own life.

The suspected serial kidnapper, tentatively identified as Gary Dale Cox, 48, killed himself with a single revolver shot to the head after he was approached in his vehicle at a secluded hunting cabin by a deputy who had a premonition he would save the missing girl.

"I told my wife when I was leaving (for work) 'I'm going to get that guy today.' It was divine intervention," said Kerr County sheriff's Sgt. David Billeiter.

Though authorities would not state whether the girl was harmed physically, they said she was in good spirits, especially after being reunited with her family and being served her special request of pineapple pizza.

"The girl is doing fine," said Kerr County Sheriff Randy Hierholzer.

San Antonio FBI officials insisted the dead man was not positively identified, but other agents who provided his name said he was a registered sex offender from Montgomery County. FBI officials in Houston had already planned to release Cox's name and background on Friday when Leah was rescued, said FBI spokesman Bob Doguim.

Cox, who once lived in northern suburbs of Houston, has been in and out of the judicial system for years. He repeatedly molested and exposed his genitals to pre-teen and teen-age girls close to the age of his own children. He was convicted on indecency charges in 1988, 1993 and 1995.

Cox was paroled in 1998, imprisoned in 1999 for a few weeks for keeping pornography on his home computer, and released in February 2000 to a Houston halfway house, which he fled a month later.

Cox is also suspected in the recent abductions of young girls in San Antonio and Slidell, La., whose cases on Friday were still technically open.

In Leah's case, Hierholzer credited her safe recovery to public awareness about the frantic multistate search for her. About 9:30 a.m. Friday, an unidentified citizen called the sheriff to report a suspicious vehicle parked at a secluded hunting lease off Texas Highway 16, about 4 miles west of town.

When Billeiter arrived at the scene, the man and girl were in a car similar to one linked by the earlier kidnapping victims. The formerly white car recently had been painted red, causing Billeiter initially to think it was a false alarm.

Hierholzer said the deputy blocked the suspect's vehicle and got out of his patrol car to approach the man. Suddenly, the driver exited his car with a revolver in his hand and, without pointing it at the officer, walked around the back of his car toward the passenger side, where the girl was seated.

"At that time, he left the driver's side door open. When he did the little girl, thinking extremely sharp ... she bailed out ... and ran straight for Sgt. Billeiter," the sheriff recounted.

The deputy grabbed the girl, put her in the patrol car and quickly left the scene. But before they were 100 yards away Billeiter said he heard a single gunshot behind them. The suspect was later found dead near his car, which had Missouri license plates rather than the Texas plates it was issued. The car also had been stripped of most of its Mazda markings.

Hailing the 8-year deputy, Hierholzer said "what he did was think first to get the girl out of there."

Leah's parents, Linda and Tim Henry, were then notified about her recovery and she was taken to a Kerrville hospital.

Houston FBI officials picked up Leah's parents from their homes early Friday and took them to the bureau office on T.C. Jester.

"We were praying with them....we were holding our breath with them," said Rick Mosquere, the FBI agent in charge of the Houston investigation.

At a press conference Friday morning, Linda Henry said she spoke with her daughter shortly after she arrived as headquarters.

"She doesn't sound like her confident self, but she is fine," Linda Henry said. "My heart is soaring."

The parents then took a private plane to Kerrville.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Tim Henry praised the numerous law enforcement agencies involved in the search, including the FBI, Texas Rangers and various sheriff's and police departments along I-10, a common thread among the known abductions. But Henry saved his biggest "thank you" for the heroic deputy.

"David, you're my friend for life. You did great. You got my little girl out of there and I am just so thrilled to see her again, to see her laugh. She's in there eating some pineapple pizza which no one else will eat," Henry said.

Describing the family's private reunion with the girl, Henry said "she walked into the room. She kind of had her head down and she saw her older sister, her mother and myself. She kind of smiled and then we just had a big hug.

"We hugged for a good five or 10 minutes," he said.

"We've talked about how much she has been loved and how many people have been looking for her and how much we care about her. It's just been a wonderful feeling and I'm thrilled to be here," Henry said.

"We're going to go back to Houston and then get our life going again," he added.

Watching that emotional encounter was all the reward he could ever wish for, Billeiter said.

He said the girl told him she had been with the man at the cabin since Tuesday, the day she disappeared in Houston, about 260 miles east of here.

"She's very brave, very composed. She's a precious little girl. I can't say enough about her," said Billeiter, an ordained Baptist minister.

FBI officials at the Houston field office said they still have a long way to go before the case is wrapped up.

The first step is to confirm through fingerprints that the man who killed himself Cox. They expect to have a match today.

"This is probably when the hard work really starts," Doguim said.

FBI agent Rod Beverly of San Antonio said the suspect is likely to be linked by physical evidence to several more abductions.

"When we have an identity, when we're able to look at his travel patterns, we'll have a much better idea, but I'd say that it's certain that we're looking at at least twice what we're doing so far -- possibly at least six," Beverly said. Authorities believe he operated in Colorado as well as Texas and Louisiana.

Agents spent much of Friday concentrating on the vehicle, which contained several key clues.

"There was some type of badge on the floor in a wallet and a stun gun," he said.

In Slidell, La., where 11-year-old Lisa Bruno was lured from outside her home in April, police officials were elated at Friday's news.

"The main thing is this child is safe and the individual is dead," Slidell police Chief Ben Morris said. "The perpetrator is in hands of God and hopefully He has washed his hands of him and put him where he belongs."

The FBI and state crime scene specialists still had the shooting site sealed off to the public late Friday. The cabin is "in the boonies," the sheriff said, off a long dirt road in very thick brush and very secluded, with no neighbors within a half mile.

Officials wouldn't disclose who owns the cabin but said they believe it's the same site described by the kidnapped girls from San Antonio and Slidell.

More than six hours after the man's suicide, crime scene technicians still hadn't entered the cabin, Beverly said, but "it's going to be a very detailed, methodic search that takes place out there, with an eye towards not only gathering the evidence but to identify if he had co-conspirators ... or if there were other victims in other parts of the country."

Writers Armando Villafranca and Mike Glenn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.