Tracie Dean was driving home to Atlanta after visiting family in Mississippi when she pulled over to refuel in a small Alabama town. Little did she know that this routine stop would make headlines across the country. When Tracie entered the gas station's convenience store, she saw a little girl standing alone and tried to strike up a conversation with her. "Does your mommy work here?" Tracie remembers asking the girl. When she answered no, Tracie says a rough-looking man who looked about 60 years old suddenly spoke up. Tracie remembers he said to the girl, "Elizabeth, are you trying to find a new mommy?" His tone wasn't "warm" or "silly," Tracie says—she remembers it chilled her to the bone.
Tracie was in the store for only a few minutes, but it was long enough for her to realize that something was wrong. "I thought to myself, 'That child does not belong with that man,'" she says. She got in her car and started to drive off but couldn't bring herself to pull out of the parking lot. Instead, Tracie turned her car around and found out the man's license plate number. She then called 911, and the dispatcher said they'd look into it and call her back. A few minutes later, the dispatcher called to tell Tracie that everything checked out—the girl was the man's granddaughter. Tracie drove back to Atlanta, but couldn't get the little girl out of her mind.
Tracie says she felt "half-crazy" not being able to put the incident behind her—but she felt in her heart she had to find answers. "I told my sister, 'I will let this go when my heart says let it go.' And I could not let it go. I thought, 'If I'm right, this was [the little girl's] one shot.'"
Tracie desperately searched online for the girl's face on missing children websites and continued to contact authorities. When four days passed without a single lead, Tracie decided to become her own detective. She drove 260 miles back to the service station.