Florida Sheriff Scales Back Expensive Search for Haleigh Cummings

Authorities continue to follow leads; search hits sheriff's office budget.

ByGIGI STONE and LEE FERRAN via via logo
February 17, 2009, 9:51 AM

Feb. 17, 2009 — -- After a week of intensive searching, police and a volunteer group have scaled back their effort to find missing Florida 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings but have not given up, according to Putnam County Sheriff Jeff Hardy.

"We've not abandoned this search," Hardy told a news conference Monday. "We don't have all our questions answered and obviously we don't have Haleigh. ... We will go anywhere tips lead."

Today, Putnam County Sheriff's Office Capt. Steve Rose told reporters that authorities are following "several good leads" uncovered while canvassing the little girl's neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods on Monday.

Through the ordeal, Haleigh's family has shown similar dogged determination.

"If I lost hope, what does she have left then?" Haleigh's father, Ronald Cummings, told ABC News' Orlando affiliate WFTV Monday. "Like I gave up on her? I'm not giving up on her. Never."

Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer group that aided in the search, also concluded its search of the Putnam area to no avail, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

In the face of mounting expenses that the search has accrued for the sheriff's office, Hardy is seeking help from county, state and federal governments to fund the effort, according to WFTV.

Hardy met with county commissioners Monday about the problem.

"He told me that at some point they were going to have to come to us, they thought, because they would have exhausted their budget with what they have," Putnam County Commissioner Nancy Harris told WFTV.

Despite the budget constraints caused by overtime, fuel and equipment costs, the sheriff's office still has dozens of officers tracking down local leads. But Hardy said the law reaches beyond Putnam County.

"Any valid tips we will follow anywhere across the United States," he said.

Terrifying Discovery: Haleigh Cummings Disappears

Florida police are treating the Haleigh's disappearance as an abduction, investigators said last week, after concluding she did not simply wander off alone.

"All the world is a suspect," Detective John Merchant of the Putnam County Sheriff's Office told reporters. "We are going to treat everybody, every family member, every associate, like a suspect until we eliminate them."

As police launched a massive search effort, which has since been scaled back, that included divers and K-9 units, Haleigh's mother, Crystal Sheffield, begged for her daughter's return.

"Whoever has her, I know you're watching," Crystal told "Good Morning America" last week. "She ain't done nothing wrong. Please bring her back."

Haleigh, whose parents do not live together, disappeared from the Satsuma, Fla., home of her father, Ronald Cummings, Tuesday, Feb. 10. He reported her missing in an desperate 911 call.

"I just got home from work and my 5-year-old daughter is gone," he told a dispatcher. "If I find whoever has my daughter before you all do, I'm killing them. I don't care if I spend the rest of my life in prison."

There are 44 registered sex offenders within a five-mile radius of the home.

Police were interested in one sexual predator wanted in Marion County, although he is not considered a person of interest in the girl's disappearance.

Ronald Cummings had left Haleigh and her 3-year-old brother in the care of his 17-year-old girlfriend, Misty Croslin.

"She was sleeping right next to me," Croslin told the Palatka Daily News. "I can't believe I didn't hear anything."

Ronald Cummings told police that when he returned from work early Tuesday morning, the back door was propped open and Haleigh was gone.

"Somebody came in my back door, broke into my home and stole my daughter," he said.

"I don't know why somebody would take her," the mother said. "I'm scared for her. She is probably scared and cold and hungry."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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