SPRINGFIELD — Benny Correa and his wife, Amanda Disley, were waiting to make a left turn at around 6:30 Wednesday evening at a busy intersection, when a passing vehicle caught their attention.
Something about the car — a blue, two-door Honda Civic with dark tinted windows — stopped Correa cold, and almost instantly, he understood why.
“Isn’t that the picture you showed me,” he asked his wife, “of the car with the little missing girl?”
Earlier that day, news of a disturbing kidnapping had shaken this Western Massachusetts city. A resident told police that a blue Honda Civic had pulled to a stop, and a man was seen forcing a child — later determined to be 11-year-old Charlotte Moccia — into the back seat as she screamed for help. A photo of the car had been posted online.
Now, as Correa pulled next to the Civic, he became even more convinced it was the same car. Same nonfactory wheels. Same tinted windows. Same missing front license plate.
The Wednesday night arrest of Miguel A. Rodriguez on kidnapping charges was the result, authorities say, of assistance from a variety of tipsters and Good Samaritans — a network of residents who contributed in bringing the 11-year-old victim home unharmed.
Arguably none, though, played a larger role in the girl’s safe return than the Correa Disley family, whose chance encounter and brazen chase would help police narrow their search and, ultimately, take Rodriguez into custody.
Well before cellphones across the state rattled to life with an Amber Alert, the couple made a decision. Instead of turning left, Correa took a quick right into traffic, following the Civic.
Still, it was difficult to imagine. Disley is not one to meddle in other people’s affairs. And as her husband could later be heard saying in a video Disley posted to Facebook, he tends to avoid law enforcement when possible.
But the couple are also parents. Disley is so protective of the couple’s kids that she won’t let them get their teeth cleaned at the dentist’s office without being in the room. Correa, for his part, refuses to let his children walk to or from school or even take the bus; instead, he picks them up at the front door of the school.
How must the mother of this kidnapped girl be feeling, Disley wondered, not knowing where her daughter was?
“I try to mind my business,” Disley would say in a video later posted to Facebook. “But that’s something you can’t mind your business on.”
In the moments that followed, the Civic suddenly attempted a left turn from the right lane, cutting off Correa.
Correa flicked his high beams onto the car, and immediately, he says, the driver responded suspiciously.
Not only did he immediately attempt to shield his face with a hood, Correa recalled, but it was evident by the movement in the back seat that someone was back there.
“He knew right then and there that I was up for him,” Correa said. “I knew who he was and I knew his car — and he took off.”
What followed, according to Correa and video posted to Facebook, was an intense and extended high-speed chase. The couple called 911 and spoke to a dispatcher as they drove.
The two vehicles weaved in and out of traffic, running red lights and reaching speeds Correa estimated to be in the mid-80s.
Despite the efforts of the Civic’s driver, Correa managed to stay close.
“I’ve been racing cars my entire life,” he said. “I know how to drive, and I pushed that truck to the absolute limits.”
At one point, the Civic pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store, attempting to evade Correa’s pursuing Escalade. For a moment, Correa thought he’d blocked the Civic in, but it hopped a curb and the chase resumed.
Authorities, meanwhile, were getting a larger picture of what they were dealing with.
Detectives reviewing a neighbor’s home surveillance footage from Tuesday had discovered that on that day, a blue two-door Honda appeared to be following the same 11-year-old child as she walked home from school, according to police.
Additionally, the report said, investigators learned of another incident involving a different girl on Jan. 13. In that case, the girl’s father told police that his child was walking home from school near a McDonald’s on State Street in Springfield when a blue Honda Civic driven by a “white male” pulled up next to the girl, and the driver tried to coax her into the vehicle.
As Correa gunned the engine in pursuit of the Honda now, all Disley knew was that the vehicle appeared to closely match the description of the vehicle she’d seen online — and that innocent people didn’t tend to drive that way.
Correa continued to follow the vehicle, losing it only after the Civic tore through an intersection, narrowly avoiding a tractor trailer, and Correa — whose children were in the car — had to back off.
Shortly thereafter, the couple met authorities in the parking lot of a local gas station, filling them in on where they thought the Civic was headed and offering advice on where to look for the vehicle.
The ordeal finally came to an end late Wednesday evening, when authorities, using the license plate number the couple had given them, located the Civic on the Massachusetts Turnpike around 7:15 p.m.
State Police troopers, who were on the scene for highway repairs, slowed traffic until they were able to surround the car, pull the child out of the back seat, and take Rodriguez into custody at gunpoint, officials said. According to State Police, a knife was found in the driver’s side door when it was stopped.
Charlotte was physically unharmed during the ordeal, which lasted about six hours, and she was later reunited with her parents, according to Ryan Walsh, public information officer for the Springfield police.
She told police that the suspect brandished a knife and threatened to kill her if she screamed or tried to escape, authorities said.
Walsh also said Thursday that police continue to investigate whether a woman was also in the car at any point during the kidnapping ordeal — though at this time, he said, police are convinced that Rodriguez acted alone. Rodriguez’s father, Henry, told MassLive that his son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that he has not been taking his medication prescribed for his mental illness.
On Thursday, Rodriguez stood silently in a Springfield district courtroom, hands handcuffed behind his back, listening as he was arraigned on kidnapping and other charges.
A not guilty plea was entered on his behalf, and Judge Michele Ouimet-Rooke ordered him held without bail, also ordering that he undergo a mental competency evaluation.
Charlotte’s parents, Carl and Denise Moccia, said in a statement they were overwhelmed by the “outpouring of love and support” and thanked neighbors, police, doctors, and “strangers near and far” for helping return their daughter safely.
“In particular, we’d like to thank Amanda Disley and her husband for their vigilance and courage in putting themselves in harm’s way to make sure she wasn’t out of their sight.”
Correa and Disley, meanwhile, were still attempting to settle back into their normal lives after a whirlwind 24 hours. A sick child required attention on Thursday, even as the news media swarmed, and there was also the matter of the damage Wednesday’s chase had wreaked upon the family car.
During the chase, Correa said, the suspension of his Escalade was damaged, a wheel cracked, a tire blown — though the damage, he was quick to add, was well worth it.
“I did my fatherly duty,” Correa said. “If it was one of mine, I would’ve burned the city to the ground looking for my kid.
“I know that father’s going to hold onto his daughter no matter what,” he added. “I’m just glad that he gets to hold his daughter again and kiss her good night.”