A 14-year-old girl who disappeared in late February from a Readfield foster home has been found safe in Georgia, but police say that a 35-year-old man who took the teenager there killed himself this week and had been facing a criminal charge.
That man, Robert Gooden, was from Georgia and had met the girl online, Sgt. Blaine Bronson, of the Maine State Police, said Tuesday.
Working with Georgia authorities, Maine State Police were preparing to charge Gooden with criminal restraint, a class D misdemeanor, Bronson said. Before they could do that, though, Gooden died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound Tuesday morning.
Police have been searching for the girl, Heavenlee Benjamin, for more than a week. She was reported missing after last being seen Feb. 27. Last week police asked the public for assistance in locating her.
Police think Benjamin left her foster home on her own accord. On Tuesday she was found in a home in Smyrna, a small city outside Atlanta.
Bronson declined to provide much information about how Benjamin was brought to Georgia and said police continue to investigate whether other people were involved. However, he did say that Gooden posed a threat to the girl.
“We don’t know all the details of her time there with him,” Bronson said. “I can’t comment too much. But these situations, in general, when you have a predator preying on young kids, they are always dangerous and volatile.”
Georgia officials now are working with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to bring Benjamin back to Maine, Bronson said.
Authorities first learned that Benjamin might have been in Smyrna late last week, according to Bronson. A call to the Smyrna Police Department, which worked on the case with the Maine State Police, wasn’t returned immediately Tuesday afternoon.
Police were preparing to charge Gooden with criminal restraint, a misdemeanor charge that can be brought against someone who knowingly entices a minor away from the custody of her guardians. If Gooden hadn’t died, he would have been extradited to Maine, Bronson said.
“It was really a lot of boot leather police work,” Bronson said.
Last week, Bethany Murphy, a Readfield woman who is related to Benjamin’s foster family, described the girl as “very quiet.” She has been attending Maranacook Community High School and also spends “a lot of time” at the Readfield Community Library, according to Murphy.
In a Facebook message on Tuesday, Murphy said her family still was waiting to receive more information about Benjamin from the authorities.
“We are all, of course, so glad she is safe,” she said. “We are grateful that God answered prayers and kept her safe.”
Charles Eichacker — 621-5642