Multi-state manhunt ends as missing Maryland girl is found safe in S.C

Investigators do not believe that Caitlyn Virts was physically harmed during the time she was missing

March 08, 2014|By Jessica Anderson, Yvonne Wenger and Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

FLORENCE, S.C. — — The Dundalk father and daughter sought in a multi-state search were found a day after they inconspicuously checked in at a small South Carolina motel more than 400 miles from where their journey began.

Timothy Virts handed over $36 in cash for a single room with his 11-year-old daughter Caitlyn smiling by his side. Colonial Inn co-owner Carol Gause could tell the pair was "a little girl and her daddy."

"I didn't sense anything wrong," said Gause, who rented them Room 101, a single next to the motel office, on Thursday night. During a break Friday evening, Gause scrolled through Facebook and received a jolt when she saw the pair's pictures posted within a news story about the search.

She checked the motel registry and called police, who swooped in to rescue Caitlyn and arrest her father, ending a nearly 36-hour manhunt that began in Dundalk and was linked to the murder of Caitlyn's mother, Bobbie Jo Cortez.

Virts' arrest came without incident and authorities said Caitlyn did not appear to be physically harmed. Family members expected the girl to be flown back to Maryland on Saturday night.

The day after the rescue, a timeline came into focus revealing details about the hours before Caitlyn's abduction Thursday morning until her release Friday night. Several family members said the sequence of events was triggered by a scheduled hearing that involved both parents.

According to Cortez's father, Daniel Wallace, she had invited Timothy Virts over to spend the night on Wednesday so he wouldn't miss the hearing.

But details of the hearing or jurisdiction weren't clear. No date could be found in court records, and Baltimore County police said they were not aware of any public open hearing involving the pair.

The next morning, family members said, Caitlyn's twin sister Cayla found Cortez murdered. Police said the 36-year-old had been bound with duct tape and stabbed to death in bed at her home in the 3100 block of Ardee Way.

Within a couple of hours, authorities realized that Caitlyn was missing and activated the Amber Alert, worried about her well-being in the hands of Virts.

"Obviously this was a very violent and brutal murder and this individual's mental and emotional health state obviously is questionable," Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson said. The case was pursued around the clock because police wanted to "make sure we don't have further tragedy for an innocent child."

After investigators found what they suspected was the murder weapon, police obtained an arrest warrant for first-degree murder. Virts, 38, was charged based on interviews with others in the house and physical evidence from the scene, police said.

Virts does not have an attorney listed in court records.

Detectives don't know of a motive, but family members on both sides saw trouble coming.

In 2012, Timothy Virts' father, Peter Virts, had sought a protective order against his son. Peter Virts described his son as a "controller" and worried about Cortez. "He doesn't get along well with too many people," Peter Virts said. "People were afraid of him and did what he said."

"We knew it was a bomb ticking, waiting to go off," added Violet Martin, Peter Virts' girlfriend. She said Timothy Virts was known to regularly carry a knife.

Martin said she believes he only took Caitlyn because she was his favorite. But Wallace said Caitlyn's twin Cayla may have been left behind because she was suspicious of her father.

"She kept telling everyone, 'Don't trust him,'" Wallace said.

Virts fled in a black 1999 Dodge Durango with bumper stickers of the region's football teams and one that said, "Protected by witchcraft." The SUV was registered to Cortez's husband, 38-year-old Daniel Williams Cortez, who's been jailed since December on sex offense charges. Baltimore County police said the charges are not related to the alleged abduction.

Baltimore County police fielded "thousands" of leads from the Amber Alert and pulled in secretaries and other employees to handle the volume of calls, Johnson said. The FBI placed Timothy Virts on the agency's wanted list.

Johnson said none of the tips panned out until credible information led investigators to believe that he was in North Carolina. They didn't zero in until Virts and Caitlyn arrived in Florence, S.C., a town about five miles from Interstate 95 in the eastern part of the state.

At about 7:30 p.m. Thursday, the Durango pulled into the motel in Florence. A balled-up yellow fleece blanket with purple and pink flowers, an open bag of nacho-cheese Combos and a Happy Meal box were inside the SUV on Saturday, and a purple skull sat on the dashboard.

Gause, who raised two boys who became law officers, said she didn't notice anything suspicious when the father and daughter came into the motel office. Virts handed her his Maryland driver's license and the license plate number for the Durango upon check-in.

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