Berkeley County deputies encountered Thomas Lawton Evans under suspicious circumstances two days before investigators said he abducted 4-year-old Heidi Todd from Charleston and brutally beat her mother, a report released Wednesday showed.
The authorities had no reason to arrest him at the time, they said.
Before 8 a.m. Feb. 11, residents on Mendel Rivers Road, south of St. Stephen, reported a black Honda Civic parked on the rural roadside. Some neighbors told investigators a man had been walking through yards and asking for gas.
Deputies from the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office came across Evans along Harristown Road with a gas can in his hand. He said a church had given him the gas and some cash — a story that the deputy later confirmed, the incident report stated.
The car wasn't his, the document added. It was registered to a woman from Boiling Springs, an area of Spartanburg County in Upstate South Carolina. Evans had been living nearby after his prison release less than two weeks earlier.
The deputy asked local dispatchers to relay a request for Upstate authorities to check on the woman "to see if she knew where her vehicle was located," the report stated. Lt. Kevin Bobo of the Spartanbug County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that a deputy went to the woman's address at 8:45 a.m. that day "but we didn't locate anyone."
Though his driver's license was suspended, Evans had not been seen driving the car and was permitted to leave.
"He stated that he would have his brother come and pick up the car," the local deputy wrote in the report. "Upon confirming he was clear (of arrest warrants) and that no items were stolen, he was allowed to go."
Wednesday's development raised further questions about the ordeal and what led to it. Though he had been seen with the Honda before the kidnapping, officials said he was driving a stolen Chevrolet Impala with Illinois license plates when he was captured.
Sheriff's Chief Deputy Mike Cochran said deputies wouldn't normally have an obligation to wait for a licensed driver to show up and drive off with a vehicle like the one Evans had. With a large county to patrol, the deputies typically move on, which also spares the driver a large towing bill.
"As a general rule, you have to see him doing the driving to make an arrest," Cochran said. "This wouldn't necessarily warrant an arrest."
Early on Feb. 13, the FBI said Evans showed up at the Todds' home on Sweetleaf Lane on Johns Island. The mother of five was attacked from behind as she returned home, and Heidi was kidnapped, spurring a broad and frantic search for the missing toddler. Heidi was rescued the next day, and Evans was caught in Mississippi.
The 37-year-old suspect waived an extradition challenge during a court hearing last week and was slated to be taken to South Carolina. He was released from a Mississippi jail Tuesday but it is not known when he would arrive in the Charleston area. An arraignment in U.S. District Court in Charleston on Evans' kidnapping charge is likely in the coming days.
State charges also are expected to be filed.
Evans has a violent criminal history and had been released from prison Feb. 1 to serve the rest of his 10-year sentence on state supervision. Officials from the agency in charge of keeping tabs on Evans have said its agents did not get an opportunity to check on him in the short time since he was freed.
They had visited his Spartanburg County home before his release and found it suitable for living, the agency said.
Though he's from Berkeley County, it was unclear why Evans made his way back to the Charleston area. Officials said he had no connection to the Todds and targeted them at random.
Heidi's mother suffered bleeding on her brain and facial fractures during the attack at their Sweetleaf Lane home. A Medical University Hospital spokesman could not provide an update on her condition Wednesday.
Evans and the young girl were ultimately found in Alabama after he was seen sleeping in a car near some railroad tracks. He was arrested after a police pursuit that stretched into Mississippi.
Heidi, meanwhile, was safe.
Scott Wilburn, who got to know the girl's father through the Coast Guard, said this week the family had slowly started to improve after being shaken so deeply last week.