Registered sex offender accused of kidnapping Mesa girl

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Jeffrey M. VanWagoner By Jennifer Thomas Jeffrey M. VanWagoner By Jennifer Thomas

MESA , Ariz. -- A registered sex offender is back behind bars and facing a felony charge of kidnapping after allegedly snatching a 9-year-old Mesa girl Wednesday evening.

It happened shortly before 7 p.m. in the neighborhood of Stapley Drive and McKellips Road. The 9-year-old was playing with an 11-year-old girl when Jeffrey M. VanWagoner allegedly approached them in an orange car.

According to police, VanWagoner, 48, asked the girls if they knew who owned a black puppy that he had just found and had tied up in the back of the community parking area. The girls followed VanWagoner's car a short distance. While the girls talked with the suspect about the "puppy," investigators said VanWagoner grabbed the younger girl, pulled her into his car and took off.

The 11-year-old rode her bike to the victim's home and 911 was called. The police response was immediate.

Police believe VanWagoner got spooked and let the 9-year-old go after about 10 minutes. She was found uninjured about a mile from where the kidnapping occurred.

The victim told investigators that she screamed and kicked at the passenger door as the suspect drove her away. She said the man drove her through residential neighborhoods then released her. She knocked on a woman's door and asked to call her mother.

The girls were able to give investigators a specific description of the suspect and his vehicle.

A short time later, officers spotted an orange Chevy Cobalt and detained the driver. Both girls positively identified him as the suspect.

Police said what happened Wednesday evening is a reminder for parents.

"You need to speak to your children," said Sgt. Ed Wessing of the Mesa Police Department. "We talk about this repeatedly, but this is the old trick of look at the puppy, here's candy, comic books. We need to talk to our children. This is critical because these girls were just in their own community and one of them got taken right there in plain view of the other girl."

VanWagoner is a registered Level 2 sex offender with a prior conviction for child molestation and sexual conduct with a minor.

Police said VanWagoner now faces a charge of kidnapping, which is a Class 4 felony.