By CHRIS COLLINS
Of the Baker City Herald
Associated Press Writer
PORTLAND Two missing Michigan sisters whom police thought might be linked to a former Michigan man accused of killing his wife and three children in Oregon have been found in a rural West Virginia town unharmed, an FBI agent said Tuesday.
The girls appear to have had no contact with accused killer Christian Longo even though one of the girls said she had, said Greg Stejskal, a senior FBI agent in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The girls, Kala Haller, 13, and Elizabeth Haller, 16, were found Tuesday afternoon at a house in Hinton, W.Va., where they were staying with their mother, said Stejskal.
There is little reason to believe that an apparent prank phone call to the Baker County Sheriffs Office shortly after midnight Monday was made by either of the girls, although the caller identified herself as Kala Haller, Sheriff Troy Hale said today. The two girls were included on a website that lists information about missing and exploited children.
Hale is continuing to work with the FBI and the telephone company to track down who placed the calls that prompted the sheriffs department, search and rescue volunteers, Oregon State Police and others to search the Whitney, Austin Junction and Unity areas Monday. The rescue effort occupied about 20 people throughout the day at a cost of several thousand dollars, Hale said.
Temperatures in the area of Austin Junction and Whitney were as low as 26 below zero during the search.
The sheriff and dispatchers talked to the girl and a man who said he was Matt Griffen several times during the search. They said Griffen had abducted Kala and her sister. The girl told authorities that she feared that Griffen had killed her sister. She said she had escaped from him and was stranded in the forest somewhere off Highway 7.
Hale said the phone company was not able to track the calls that were made to the sheriffs departments business line Monday.
We will do what we can to find out who did this and put the mechanism in place so that we have the ability to trace such calls in the future, he said. I would really like to know their motivation for doing something like that.
We were obligated to go, he said. We have to verify there isnt someone out there in danger needing our help.
Although the searchers were disappointed and frustrated by the hoax, they will be ready to go again when the next call comes in, Hale said.
Theres no doubt about it, they would do it again, he said. Most of the time its real; this is the exception to the rule.
Thankfully we didnt have anybody get hurt on something that was nothing, he added.
The real Haller girls apparently were involved in a custody dispute between their parents. They had been living in Ypsilanti, Mich., with their father and stepmother for about one year after the couple won custody of the girls in a bitter legal battle with their mother, Theresa Claypoole.
Longo lived in Ypsilanti before he moved with his family to Newport, in September. Three months later, between Dec. 19 and Dec. 27, the bodies of Longos wife and three children were found in coastal inlets in Waldport and Newport.
Longo, 28, was arrested in Mexico earlier this month following an international manhunt. He is charged with seven counts of aggravated murder and is being held in Lincoln County Jail in Oregon.
At about the same time the Longos moved to Newport, the Haller girls disappeared.
They vanished from their Michigan home on Sept. 26, when they left their bedroom in the middle of the night through an open window and stole the familys four-door, gray Toyota, said Donna Haller, the girls stepmother.
After months of silence, Kala Haller began calling her parents and police in Michigan and Oregon over the weekend. She told her stepmother she had been kidnapped, was somewhere in Oregon and feared for her life.
She also told her stepmother she met Longo over the Internet before she disappeared from Ypsilanti. Kala said she hadnt seen her sister, Elizabeth, since Dec. 13, when the older girl drove off with another man.
Other, anonymous, callers told Portland police that Kala had been abducted by one of Longos associates. Portland police also searched a house in southeast Portland over the weekend after one caller said police would find the girls there.
Stejskal said Tuesday that tips linking the girls disappearance to Longo appear to have been a hoax. He said the girls were never in Oregon.
He said FBI agents in West Virginia were questioning the girls, but it was unclear if Kala even made the calls to police herself.
It doesnt appear at this point that theres any connection ... This other stuff that was going on in Oregon seems to be a hoax of some sort, but were trying to figure out what the hell was going on, he said.
The girls will be placed in West Virginia child protective services, but will likely be returned to Michigan because their father, Kurt Haller, holds a valid custody order, Stejskal said.
I am ecstatic, said Kurt Haller. I am going on the assumption that (the connection to Longo) is a hoax.
The FBI began to investigate a possible connection to Longo over the weekend, after Portland police and the Washtenaw County Sheriffs Department in Michigan received several tips that Kala Haller had been abducted by a man who was an associate of Longos.
Another tip came late Sunday, when Kala called an Oregon emergency dispatcher and whispered into a cell phone that she had been kidnapped. Kala said she was speaking on an abductors cell phone in a blue Honda parked in a McDonalds parking lot in east Portland.
A police search of the area turned up no Honda, said Angela Blanchard, a spokeswoman for the Clackamas County sheriffs office.
Donna Haller said she and her husband won custody of the girls last year from Kurt Hallers ex-wife, who now lives in South Carolina. She said the girls seemed upset by the custody battle.