From the moment that Crystal Merrill arrived for her overnight shift on May 18 at the 911 call and dispatch center in Fort Worth, Texas, the phone would not stop ringing.
Police were more than four hours into a manhunt for a suspect in the area and an 8-year-old girl he was accused of kidnapping. Her mother said he’d snatched the girl out of her arms during an early evening walk and thrown the child into his car. The suspect was now on the run with the little girl.
As Merrill fielded call after call, tip after tip, she said, her nerves started to get to her. A 30-year-old mother with two kids herself, ages 10 and 5, she said she couldn’t help but feel a strong connection to this particular missing-child case.
“I had heightened senses because…I’m trying to get every piece of detail and see, ‘OK, how should we process this?’” Merrill said. “’Do I just let our officers know or do we actually send a call up and we need to go check this out?’ Every call was like that.”
A few hours later, however, at 2 a.m., a 911 call from a good Samaritan gave Merrill pause. She didn’t know then that it was a tip that would play a key role in the case.
Merrill connected the call to the closest police department in the suburb of Forest Hill. Normally, after connecting the caller with law enforcement, Merrill would hang up, but something made her stay on the line and listen.
“I asked the [the caller], I said, ‘Do you have the license plate of that car?’ And I got the license plate from him,” Merrill said.
She said she thought the call sounded like something Fort Worth police should also check out. She got the alert out to the Fort Worth police and within minutes, she was tracking officer after officer as they arrived on the scene.
Then, all she could do was wait and hope that her instincts had been right.
Every second counted.
Fort Worth Police Sgt. Amelia Heise was the detective on call on that Saturday night when the report came in about a child being abducted.
“I was a detective before I was a mother,” Heise said. “After I became a mother, that protective sense just grew and I could really relate more to the cases and how the parents were feeling. And it really hits home a little bit more after you become a parent.”
Earlier that day, at 6:30 p.m. when the kidnapping was first reported, officers had arrived at a neighborhood tucked into the Fort Worth area. They found the distraught mother and a critical piece of evidence: A man’s doorbell camera had captured the abduction. On the footage, police could see the mother falling onto the street as a car drives away.
“The stranger abductions, they're rare,” Heise said. “You don't really get a lot of them, and when I was hearing the details, the seriousness and the unusual nature of it was setting in, and I just knew that this case was different.”
When they interviewed the mother, police said, she told them a man had approached her and her daughter twice. The mother said that when the stranger returned, he grabbed her daughter and shoved her into his car.
The mother fought back and at one point, police said. She told them that she had tried to jump onto the kidnapper’s lap to stomp on the brake, but he’d managed to throw her out of the car and speed away.
“The Ring doorbell video was the only piece of video that was available for this particular case. It was absolutely critical,” said Chris Thompson, a special agent with the FBI’s Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Task Force.
“The person who owned the home, essentially, accidentally activated the Ring doorbell at that time. It wasn't supposed to go off just from a passing car or from a person being observed in the street, as was seen in the video,” he said. “It was accidentally enabled by the homeowner and still captured the critical piece of information we needed.”
The mother was able to give the police a rough description of the suspect, and they had images of his car on the door camera's surveillance footage. Based on that, police were able to quickly get in touch with vehicle experts to determine the car’s make and model.
“As the officer…was telling me the details that he had at the time…I knew that we had to go, that time was against us and that we just could not move fast enough,” Heise said. “I realized we had 100 things we needed to do, and we needed to do them all at once because we just don't have time.”
News of the abduction quickly spread in local media and some members of the community also joined the search. Heise said her department reached out to its federal counterparts at Homeland Security and the FBI, which also showed up to help.
Nevertheless, each passing moment weighed heavily on her.
“It felt like time was flying by and that I was moving so slow, and that I just could not move fast enough,” Heise said. “Because I knew we needed to move fast and it just felt like I just couldn't get it done.”
As word spread, a tip call came in at around midnight to the police in Forest Hill, a suburb just south of Fort Worth. Someone reported a man and a child at a hotel there.
Forest Hill police officers responded to Woodspring Suites, an extended-stay hotel about 7 miles from the street where the girl had been taken. They spoke to a man in Room 333 and even went inside, but reported that they had not seen a child and left.
At around 2 a.m., about eight hours into the manhunt, a new 911 call came in. This time, though, it went into the Fort Worth call center, and Merrill answered.
During that call with her, a good Samaritan reported seeing a car that matched the police description parked at the Woodspring Suites in Forest Hill.
Body camera footage, obtained exclusively by ABC News from the Fort Worth Police Department, shows officers racing to the hotel. As the squad car approaches the hotel, the officer driving cuts the lights out at the last second. His partner is heard asking why.
“If this guy’s looking out the window, I’m not trying to let him see that we’re rolling around,” the officer says in the video.
The officers located and checked out the car in question. An employee provided them with a copy of the driver’s license belonging to the man who’d rented Room 333. Officers were able to determine that the motel patron matched the description of their suspect.
Once they had enough information, a group of police officers and task force agents prepared to enter Room 333.
Body camera footage of what happened next had never been made public before -- until now.
The footage shows officers making their way up flights of stairs and getting into position outside of the room. An officer warns the man inside to open the door.
“I’m trying to get dressed,” the suspect inside shouts back.
Officers break open the door and pull the suspect out of the room. The team rushes in, searching for the little girl. At first, they don’t see her.
Then, the officer’s body camera captures the moment when the little girl they had been searching for all night pops her head out of a storage bucket full of dirty clothes.
“Hey, here she is! We got her! We got her!” an officer says.
Cheers and sounds of relief could be heard ringing out among the officers and over their radios as they scooped up the little girl and carried her out of the hotel room.
The girl told officers that the suspect had forced her to hide and threatened to kill her family if she made a sound, police said. She had stayed quiet the first time officers had come to the door, but this hadn’t worked the second time.
“I was in a state of shock,” Heise said. “I was working as hard as I could to find this little girl, and I just couldn't believe that we had done it. And in that moment, I just felt a great sense of gratitude to the community, because they did this. They did this. It wasn't us. You know, they're the ones that were out there doing it.”
The man who had made that crucial 911 call was a pastor who knew the family. He was on the scene when the rescue happened and delivered the good news that the girl was alive and safe to her father on the phone.
Back at the call center, Merrill could hear her colleagues cheering.
“It was like a ton of bricks had been knocked off of me when I found out that they had found her,” she said. “I did cry at work. … I think it was just because my adrenaline was so high and my nerves [were] so bad, and [there was] a sense of, ‘We found her,’ like, no more worrying.”
At the end of her shift, Merrill said, she drove home, woke up her two children and hugged them tight.
“I went straight in and I just hugged my babies,” Merrill said. “It was just a lot because like I said, you could just [keep] thinking, ‘Oh, that could’ve been me.’ And it was good to know my babies were at home.”
In a different part of town, another mother who had grappled with the intense weight of the situation was also holding her children tight.
“I went home, and I sat down at the breakfast table, and everything that I wouldn't allow myself to feel that night, it hit me and I felt it,” Heise said. “It was so strange. I knew [the abducted child] was -- I knew we had her -- but I was still experiencing the fear and the stress...that I wouldn't allow myself to process, and it was pretty intense.”
The suspect, 51-year-old Michael Webb, was charged with federal kidnapping. He pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox picked up the case instead of delegating it to an attorney in her office.
“I'm a mother of three children, all girls, one of whom is an 8-year-old, just like the victim in this case,” she said. “So I decided that we need to send a message to this community, to everyone living in our community that we would, at the highest levels, be responding to this and ensure that justice was sought and had.”
Meeting with the family of the abducted child, Nealy Cox said, she couldn’t help but imagine what the mother had gone through.
“We met with the family, who is just so courageous and inspirational to me personally about how they were dealing with this,” she said.
At the end of the trial, it took the jury just 14 minutes to convict Webb on the charges. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Nealy Cox said the case has had a profound impact on not just her but everyone involved, especially the officers who rescued the girl.
“I mean, it was just an amazing moment. And you can hear it when you hear the patrol officer saying, ‘We got her. We got her. We got her.’ I mean, and you could hear it all over everyone's radios,” Nealy Cox said. “There was such a sense of relief. And then there was such a sense of worry and concern for the girl to make sure she was OK. How they dealt with her. How they told her she was safe. How they told her that she wouldn't be put in harm's way again.”
“They really dealt with it like they would their own child. … And it was really, it was an encouraging [thing] to hear all of that, see how connected they were to this case, even though none of them had ever met this family or knew this little girl before that evening,” she said.
Now the next step is to make sure the little girl who was terrorized and kidnapped can not only survive, but also thrive as she and her family move forward.
“This victim is a profile in resilience, in strength and courage, and she's definitely the hero of this story,” Nealy Cox said. “She's doing great. I mean, she's incredibly resilient. She's got love of a strong family… [They are] just as brave as she is.”
For Heise, this is one of those cases that she said is going to stay with her for the rest of her life.
“I look forward to seeing her grow," she said, "and to see her experience all the wonderful things that life can give to her from here on out."