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Teen girls rescued, kidnapper killed

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LANCASTER, Calif., Aug. 1 — Two teenage girls abducted at gunpoint in Southern California early Thursday were rescued by sheriff’s deputies, who shot and killed the kidnapper about 80 miles northwest of the crime scene. The girls were said to be unharmed.

THE RESCUE occurred in Kern County, between Ridgecrest and Lake Isabella, Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie said at a news conference in Lancaster, the hometown of the missing teenagers.

Few details on the operation were immediately available, but Waldie said the girls — 16-year-old Tamera Brooks and 17-year-old Jaqueline Marris — were unharmed.

The kidnapper, whom he identified as Richard Ratliff of Rosemont, Calif., had been killed.

“The last word I got was the subject was deceased,†he said. “… He had a gun at the scene I do not know if he fired it.â€

Waldie said Ratliff had been wanted in Nevada on a $3 million warrant for rape, but he did not immediately provide any details.

GIRLS’ PARENTS SPEAK

Shortly after the girls were found, their parents thanked neighbors and friends for their prayers and support, and police for their decisive action.

“I couldn’t be a happier man right now,†said Brooks’ father, Sammie. “And I hope that I never — or any of you — ever have to go through something like this again.â€

Earlier, friends and family members awaiting a news conference in Lancaster hugged one another and sobbed with relief when members of it was reported that the girls were safe.

A desperate search for the girls began around dawn, as authorities pleaded for the public’s help in locating the girls and activated a new “Amber Alert†system to quick spread word of their abduction.

Brooks and Marris were sitting in separate cars with male friends shortly before 2 a.m. in the Quartz Hill area of Lancaster when the gunman approached them, ordered the males out and then fled with the girls in a white 1980 Ford Bronco that belonged to one of the males, authorities said.

A police handout photo of Ray Ratliff.

The vehicle was described as having a gray top and California license plate 1AIZ962 and bearing a “D&D Muffler†sticker on the rear window.

The girls apparently did not know the abductor, who threatened their companions with a semiautomatic handgun and then bound them with duct tape, authorities said. Neither of the male teenagers, who were found several hours later by a water agency worker, was injured.

Police initially said that the two couples were not acquainted, but friends of the missing girls said later that all four teens were friends.

‘LIFE-AND-DEATH SITUATION’

Los Angeles County sheriff’s Capt. Tom Pigott, who described the search as “a life-and-death situation,†said a command post had been set up near this desert town about 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Deputy Darren Harris told MSNBC TV that deputies were conducting a “grid search†for the missing vehicle and had alerted the FBI, the California Highway Patrol and the U.S. Border Patrol.

FBI supervisory agent Randy Aden, who supervises a bureau task force that investigates crimes against children, said that because the kidnapper had several hours head start, “we’re gonna open up and throw a net over the whole Southwest.â€

The state also activated its week-old “Amber Alert†system, which uses radio and television bulletins and electronic freeway signs to alert the public to a child abduction.

Pigott described the kidnapper as a Hispanic in his mid-30s to early 40s and said he left behind a Saturn sedan that was reported stolen in a July 18 carjacking in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas police said that in that incident a man confronted a 65-year-old woman outside her home and threatened her with a silver revolver.

Police spokesman Tirso Dominguez said the woman tried to get into her 1999 Saturn, but the gunman choked her and took her keys. The woman then honked the horn of the car, drawing her husband out of the house. The gunman forced the husband to give him the money from his wallet and drove away, Dominguez said.

Harris told MSNBC TV that the description of the carjacker roughly matched that of the kidnapper.

CONSIDERED ‘ARMED AND DANGEROUS’

Pigott said the abductor should be considered “armed and dangerous†and that people should call sheriff’s deputies at (323) 526-5541 rather than attempt to approach him.

Joshua Brown, who told investigators he was in the Bronco talking to Marris, said the man ordered him out of the vehicle at gunpoint, then used duct tape to cover his eyes and bind him to a pole.

“He told me he was going to kill me but he didn’t want to,†the 18-year-old told KNBC-TV of Los Angeles. “He just kept telling her to stay down, keep her head down, don’t look at him.â€

Sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Efflandt said the man poured gasoline over one of the vehicles, apparently trying to torch it, but was unsuccessful.

KIDNAP SCENE IS REMOTE

The area where the abductions occurred was described by police as a “lover’s lane†hideaway popular with local teenagers. The fact that the remote parking area near two water tanks is at the end of an unmarked dirt road led to speculation that the kidnapper is familiar with the Antelope Valley.

The state’s new Amber system was activated for the first time Wednesday night after witnesses reported a possible child abduction near Suisun City, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Solano County Sheriff’s Department was still investigating the reports on Thursday.

Amber, an acronym for America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response, was ordered to be immediately instituted last week by California Gov. Gray Davis after the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in Orange County.

The system is named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Dallas girl who was abducted and killed in 1996.

MSNBC.com’s Mike Brunker and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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