NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. -- The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office was wasting no time stepping up patrols near Deer Park Elementary School on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, a 9-year-old girl walking home from school told deputies two men drove up to her in a blue Toyota Solara and tried to lure her to get into the car.
She ran away, but spotted the same men walking toward her a few minutes later.
“This could've been anybody's little girl,” said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco. “She gets uncomfortable, and she does the right thing. She starts running.”
The little girl, say deputies, first ran to a neighbor for help.
“The guy was hollering at her, and she ran up to our front door,” said Frank Nickels. But at the time, Nickels says he didn't hear the girl knocking.
“I just glanced up and saw this real small girl coming around my yard here,” said Nickels, pointing to the back of his home.
Detectives say from there, the 9-year-old ran home, quickly locked the door behind her, and got the men to leave by triggering her home alarm system.
“Let me just tell you, that this is a very smart little girl,” Nocco said.
Deputies looked at neighborhood surveillance video and spotted the car. They traced the tag to 18-year-old Drew Bretnall.
Bretnall’s picture, they say, strongly resembles a sketch made from the little girl's description.
Pasco detectives say they made contact with Bretnall on Wednesday afternoon, and called him a person of interest.
Ironically, neighbors say had it not been for the fires burning in Pasco County and the decision to shift some school schedules because of the smoke, this might have never happened.
“Her older sister, who usually walks her home, because of the change in time at River Ridge, the sister wasn't here to walk her home,” said neighbor Sharon Nickels.
“You just think, oh, my gosh, anything could happen anywhere I guess nowadays. You can't be safe anywhere, I guess. You think you are, but you just don't know,” said neighbor Cindy Rao.
Nocco says it's a reminder that kids should try to walk home in groups, and have a whistle or noise maker to get attention if needed.
Nocco recommends students make it their daily routine to let a parent or guardian know when they're home safe. And he says kids should try to stick to the same route so they can quickly tell if something seems out of place.