Father of girl found swimming in pond speaks

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. - Police located the parents of a young girl who was found swimming naked in a pond in Jacksonville Beach on Friday morning.

The parents of the 7-year-old girl say they were staying at the Hampton Inn hotel near the pond where the child was found.

Home Depot worker Coye Johnson told Channel 4 she saw a young girl running toward a pond around 4:30 a.m. on J. Turner Butler Boulevard at Third Street.

"I came around the corner into the parking lot and the next thing you know, I see a little girl running across the parking lot," Johnson said.

She and a couple co-workers went to check up on the girl and found her swimming in a nearby pond naked, she said.

"When I got over here, I didn't see or hear anything," said Mark Ficklin, who rescued the girl from the pond. "Eventually I saw a head pop up out of the water. As I got closer, I saw a body. I saw her swimming around."

"I took my phone out, started flashing the flash at her," Ficklin added. "That's when she turned around and noticed that, came back to the bank valley and started playing with my phone."

Ficklin said the girl kept wanting to go back in the water and didn't seem to understand him when he talked to her. But he knew he had to keep her out of the water because he's seen a gator there before.

Jacksonville Beach Police Chief Pat Dooley said officers were notified and met the group at the pond. They went door-to-door at the Hampton Inn.

Police said they had a hard time communicating with the girl.

"She repeats everything we say, but she can't tell us her name or who her parents are," Dooley said.

The girl's father told Channel 4 she has autism.

He said she spent the afternoon playing video games, adding that his daughter probably looks at what happened as a great adventure, like she was Dora the Explorer. But her parents say it's a miracle she wasn't hurt or even killed.

"I mean, this really is our worst nightmare," said Marc Harris, the girl's father. "Never before have I felt the kind of fear, apprehension that you feel when your child is gone, and it's beyond your control."

Johnson said when police arrived, the girl made several attempts to run from them.

"Yes, she has some disabilities," Sgt. Tom Crumley said. "She is what a lot of folks would call a runner."

"She's been in a comfortable setting, she's drawn pictures, watching TV, eating snacks just like any little kid in America," Crumley added.

Around 8 a.m., police said the girl's parents called in to the department as soon as they woke up and realized she was missing. Investigators reunited the family.

Harris said his daughter had managed to get past their barricade in their hotel room and head outside just before sunrise.

It's quite a walk from the Hampton Inn to the retention pond, which is on the other side of Butler by the shopping center where Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond are located.

"People have been hurting kids these days. That was my biggest fear," Johnson said. "And I know how some people drive around here, too. My other concern was her getting hit by a car."

The Harris family is just moving here from Virginia Beach and into their new home Saturday. Harris said they couldn't be more appreciative of the police and his new community's response to their terrifying ordeal.

"I keep hearing over and over that almost always these circumstance here in Florida turn out very badly, and I take it as a miracle that it didn't," he said. "So we're thankful."

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