Three-year-old Jennifer Lend Ruengsri hugged her mother just hours after they were reunited, as relatives of her alleged teen-age abductor made a public plea Saturday for the disturbed young girl, who is still at large, to come home.
In another twist to an already unusual kidnaping, Jennifer's mother joined the mother and sister of kidnaping suspect Dana Jennifer O'Hair, 16, at a Saturday news conference to celebrate Jennifer's return and beg Dana to turn herself in to authorities.
"I have never turned my back on my daughter, and I never will," said Dana's mother, a tearful 41-year-old Anaheim woman who refused to give her name but permitted the media to photograph her and Dana's 23-year-old sister. "I just want her to come home. The police are not interested in making a criminal out of her. They want to help her."
Jennifer was allegedly taken from her Huntington Beach home early Thursday by Dana, who was described by her mother as "an emotionally disturbed runaway." Dana had been staying with Jennifer's mother, Rungrachanee Ruengsri, 19, and uncle, Suchait Ruengsri, 21, whose family came to the United States from Thailand.
Jennifer was found unharmed late Friday night after police received a telephone report that a little girl matching Jennifer's description was seen wandering alone at 10 p.m. near Anaheim's Sage Park, Anaheim Police Lt. Chet Barry said Saturday.
Ronnie Bruce Starnes, 18, of Anaheim told police he recognized Jennifer from news reports as the toddler walked east on North Street from Lido Lane, sources said. Starnes told police that the little girl was alone.
The dark-haired child was reunited with her mother late Friday night, after Rungrachanee Ruengsri identified Jennifer as her daughter, Huntington Beach Police Sgt. James Cutshaw said. The little girl was examined at UCI Medical Center in Orange, where doctors found no evidence of physical or sexual abuse, Cutshaw said. After she was pronounced in good condition, she was allowed to return home with her mother.
A search was continuing late Saturday for Dana, who was "wanted for questioning in this matter," Cutshaw said.
Police and Dana's relatives have said they believe the teen-ager took the toddler to replace her own daughter, Nikita, who was stillborn last October.
According to Huntington Beach police, Dana had been staying at the apartment in the 4900 block of Heil Avenue since March 1, when Suchait Ruengsri met her outside a Huntington Beach restaurant and invited her to stay at his house because he felt sorry for her. Dana had played with Jennifer for several days and asked the toddler's mother if she could be the child's "pretend" mother.
Found Child Gone
But Rungrachanee Ruengsri asked her brother to tell Dana to leave after finding some of her jewelry in the young woman's purse. When Jennifer's mother awoke at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, she saw the sliding glass door to the apartment wide open and found that both Dana and the child were gone.
"She doesn't remember anything," Ruengsri said of her daughter, who played happily nearby during the brief news conference at the Adam Walsh Children's Center in Orange. "She thinks she went for a ride and had fun."
As for herself, Ruengsri said Saturday that she was "a little tired, happy."
"I stayed by the door (during the ordeal)," she said. "I don't have a phone. I drove around and looked for her (Jennifer). . . . I just kept hoping she'd walk through that door."
The demeanor of the two mothers contrasted starkly Saturday as they stood together in the glare of the camera lights. Ruengsri was quiet, relieved and visibly happy. Dana's mother clutched a sodden tissue and frequently broke into tears.
"I just feel very bad that this happened," she said, wiping her red-rimmed eyes. "I am so grateful that this baby has been found. But now my baby is gone, and we want her to come back."
Dana's mother said her daughter became pregnant in 1986 and last October delivered a premature, stillborn daughter. The baby was born two months early and died of complications from an Rh factor in her blood.
"That's all she talked about--that baby and what a good mother she was going to be," the tearful woman said. "The last few times I saw her, she started crying and talking about Nikita, and it seemed like she wanted to get pregnant again."
Dana's mother, who last saw her daughter Feb. 19, said she thought her daughter took Jennifer to try to replace her lost baby.
"Dana took Jennifer because she fell in love with her and had lost a little girl," the woman said. "In Dana's mind, that's what her little girl would have looked like."
Dana's mother also said she thought that leaving Jennifer in Sage Park was a "deliberate act" on her daughter's part--a way to give the child back to Ruengsri. The woman said her daughter was no danger to herself or others, but that she was a troubled girl who "kept everything inside."