Crime & Courts

Missing Marion Co. girl found safe at bank

HIAWATHA — A 17-year-old Lehigh girl who went missing earlier this week was found safe in northeast Kansas on Thursday after a man thought to have abducted her dropped her off at a bank, authorities said.

Brown County Sheriff John Merchant said a bank employee recognized Tara Rene Simhiser when she came into the Morrill and Janes Bank in Hiawatha around 11:25 a.m. The woman called police, who took the Lehigh girl into protective custody.

The man had been seen around a number of Kansas high schools, including three in Wichita, during the past three weeks.

Though Simhiser had been missing since Tuesday, officials didn't issue an Amber Alert until Wednesday after Marion County deputies learned of possible violence against her. Hiawatha Police Chief Evans Woehlecke said Simhiser seemed scared when officers arrived at the bank.

About 15 minutes after Simhiser was found, Hiawatha police stopped a Honda Accord driven by a 21-year-old Texas man who had befriended the girl's family about two weeks ago, Marion County Sheriff Robert Craft said.

The man was identified as the same person who had gone into a number of Kansas high schools.

"He showed up at three of our high schools," said Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district. "He acted kind of weird, but he never went into the school itself. He stayed in the office."

Arensman said the man didn't try to interact with students or do anything "overly suspicious," though he did claim to be an Olympic wrestler.

"He tried to enroll one time," she said. "He also said he was a college recruiter, or that he wanted to work with the wrestling team."

The Texas man first came to the attention of law enforcement three weeks ago after being identified on surveillance cameras at a school in Riley County. Police said he went into the school posing as a potential transfer student and left quickly when confronted by school officials.

He also was sighted at schools in Geary County and Marion County around the same time.

In many instances, school officials say the man walked away when his stories were questioned.

Craft said he initially considered Simhiser a runaway until deputies on Wednesday were told that the Texas man had committed some type of violence against her on Monday. The Amber Alert was issued soon after he received that information.

The man was arrested in Hiawatha on charges of driving on a suspended license and aiding and abetting a runaway. Craft said he may face other charges in Marion County.