The investigators watching the sedan with the broken windows in the parking lot in Jessup, Md., on Wednesday evening saw two figures in the backseat: a man and a woman they hoped was a 22-year-old from Philadelphia who had been violently abducted three days earlier.
Then the man climbed into the front seat and tried to pull away. The ATF agents closed in with guns drawn. The man surrendered without a fight.
The terrified woman in the backseat gave her name: Carlesha.
And with that, the three-day ordeal that stretched across state lines and galvanized police and the public came to an end, with Carlesha Freeland-Gaither injured but safe, and a wanted man with a history of violence in custody.
Delvin Barnes, 37, will face federal charges, officials said.
"He's a vicious predator," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said at an evening news conference. "Hopefully, he'll be off the streets and in jail for the rest of his life, because that's what he deserves."
At the commissioner's side, a smiling Keisha Gaither, Freeland-Gaither's mother, thanked law enforcement officials and the public for her daughter's safe return.
"I'm taking my baby home," she said.
Freeland-Gaither, a nurse's assistant who moved to Philadelphia from Maryland two years ago, was grabbed by a man while walking along the 100 block of West Coulter Street on Sunday night. She had been on the way home from her godson's birthday party. The abduction was caught on video, showing a man stalking the woman, grabbing her, and dragging her into a waiting Ford Taurus. She was struggling and screaming during the few seconds it took for her abductor to drag her to his car.
The video, which police released Monday and which was widely broadcast, shows the woman kicking out two of the car's windows.
Barnes' arrest was the result of determined police work, a family's dedication to finding a daughter, and sheer luck, including a credit report so bad it led a car salesman to put a GPS device in Barnes' Ford in case it had to be repossessed.
That device became critical Wednesday afternoon when law enforcement officials near Richmond, Va., recognized Barnes from news reports as the man they were looking for in an unrelated case, in which Barnes allegedly assaulted and poured bleach on a young girl. On Tuesday, the FBI put out a wanted poster with Barnes' photo for that attack.
After conferring with law enforcement officials in Philadelphia and agreeing they were looking for the same man, investigators used the GPS device to track Barnes to a parking lot in Jessup.
Tim Jones, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special supervisory agent, told reporters in Maryland on Wednesday night that Freeland-Gaither was hysterical when she was found.
"She was very emotionally distraught. We took her to the hospital," he said.
After an ATF agent calmed her down, Freeland-Gaither was able to say her name, bringing relief to a family that had been praying for her return.
On Wednesday night, family members, friends, and well-wishers began gathering around 7:20 on Coulter for what was to be a candlelight vigil. Instead, it became a celebration.
Karen Reddy and sister Patricia Reddy-Gaither had returned early Wednesday from a trip to Maryland to put up fliers in the search for Carlesha.
"We couldn't sit still," said Reddy, 55, a cousin.
The sisters were joined by other relatives in two cars on the trip. They put fliers at a PNC bank where Freeland-Gaither's ATM card was used, at a nearby Wal-Mart, and at gas stations.
Reddy-Gaither, 49, who said she was Carlesha's aunt, said she was overwhelmed with joy when she heard the news.
"First thing I'm going to do is hug her," she said.
After the news conference announcing the happy ending, Philadelphia detectives drove Keisha Gaither to Howard County Hospital to reunite with her daughter.
The two had already talked on the phone. "She told me she loved and she missed me, and to come get her," Gaither said, adding, "I'm going to get my daughter."
Detectives also hoped to be able to interview Freeland-Gaither about her ordeal.
As late as Wednesday afternoon, detectives believed the abduction may have had some connection to people from Freeland-Gaither's childhood in Maryland, but police later said they believed Barnes, who was charged in 2005 with the violent rape of an estranged wife in Philadelphia and who has a long criminal record, targeted her at random.
In the 2005 attack, Barnes was accused of breaking into the victim's Northeast home and raping her, and later assaulting her father. He was acquitted of rape but convicted of aggravated assault, and was sentenced to four to eight years in prison.
In Freeland-Gaither's abduction, police said Wednesday night they believed Barnes did not know the woman he is charged with kidnapping.
Northwest Detectives Capt. James Smith said, "Right now, we're just taking it on as a stranger investigation."
Ramsey on Wednesday night praised his detectives' work over the last three days and thanked the media for spreading awareness and the public for sending in tips.
At the news conference, Keisha Gaither hugged the lead investigators on the case, Detective Jim Sloan, who she said had sat at her kitchen table for hours after her daughter's abduction and promised he would bring her home.
"And he brought my baby home," she said through tears.
Sloan, who worked the case with Detectives John Geliebter, Brian Boos, and Ed Davis, credited the speedy response of an eyewitness on the street, who called 911 twice at the time of the abduction, then retrieved Freeland-Gaither's cellphone and glasses from the street where they had fallen. Though the cellphone was locked, Freeland-Gaither's boyfriend called, and police were able to quickly notify her family members and tell them to mobilize with a social-media campaign.
As hours stretched into days, investigators amassed videos documenting Barnes' movements in Maryland after the abduction - showing him using Freeland-Gaither's ATM card at a Maryland bank and buying chips at a gas station - released them online, and asked for the public's help.
Police also obtained more video of the abduction, showing more clearly the brief but violent interaction between the woman and her kidnapper.
Though with each passing hour the chance that Freeland-Gaither could be brought back unharmed dimmed, Sloan said investigators never lost hope.
Then, on Wednesday, they got a break.
A woman in Havre de Grace, Md., found a receipt from an Acme Market in Rhawnhurst, a broken key chain, smashed glass, a zip tie, and an empty bag of Herr's potato chips. The receipt led to a video showing Barnes buying chips at the Acme. Detectives thought, Sloan said, that they were closing in.
Soon, Sloan said, his phone rang. A police officer assigned to the ATF in Philadelphia told him another law enforcement agent in Virginia had recognized their suspect as the man they were searching for in a case involving a young girl.
After police in New Kent County, Va., made the connection, FBI investigators agreed. "It went down real quick," Sloan said. Within hours, an ATF agent in Jessup was telling him police had Carlesha.
That's when the "good moment" came, Sloan said. When he called Keisha Gaither's house, Carlesha's sister picked up. She sounded forlorn, Sloan said.
"Don't sound so gloomy," Sloan said. "Why don't you just start cheering? We found your sister, and she's safe. Put your mom on."
When Keisha Gaither took the phone, Sloan said, all she kept saying was, "Get me to my baby. Get me to my baby."
email@example.com 215-854-2961 @aubreyjwhelan
Inquirer staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.