Hope was fading that two young sisters abducted from their Tennessee home would be found alive two weeks after they vanished: Their kidnapper had already killed their mother and sister, and he was armed with a pistol as officers closed in.
Yet 12-year-old Alexandria and 8-year-old Kyliyah Bain went home to their father Friday alive, with no apparent injuries other than being tired, scared and itchy from poison ivy. They told the officers who found them that they had not had food or water for three days, said Mississippi Highway Patrol Master Sgt. Steve Crawford.
Beverly Goodman, the aunt of the slain mother, Jo Ann Bain, said she was relieved the girls were home but still saddened by the killings of Bain and Bain's 14-year-old daughter Adrienne.
"He's been missing for so long. How do you hide out from 350 million people?" Goodman said. "I thought they were going to find them dead _ the girls and him _ so I am very, very relieved that those girls are home and they're not dead, like I figured they were gonna be."
At one point, Mayes claimed to be the girls' father. That may be why he spared them, one criminologist said. It also may be that while he wanted to escape prosecution, he didn't believe the girls were better off dead. And he was close to the family, described as an uncle-like figure who smiled cheek-to-cheek with the girls in Facebook photos.
"He probably developed an attachment to them, and even the most vicious of killers can separate the world into people they care about, people they detest and people they don't care about," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.
Authorities said Mayes, 35, killed Jo Ann Bain and 14-year-old Adrienne on April 27 in Whiteville, Tenn. Mayes' wife, Teresa Mayes, is charged with murder in the killings. She told investigators she saw her husband kill the mother and oldest girl, then drove him, the younger children and the bodies to Mississippi, according to court documents. His mother, Mary Mayes, also is charged in the kidnapping but maintains she is not guilty.
Adam Mayes was hiding out with the girls in the woods just miles from his home in Mississippi, and some 90 miles from where the sisters were kidnapped in Tennessee. The area is frequented by hunters and dotted with deer hunting stands and other wood structures that one law enforcement official said may have been used for shelter.
An officer combing through the area spotted Alexandria Bain face down on the ground Thursday evening about 100 yards behind a church. They also saw the younger girl and Mayes prone on the ground. Officers yelled for Mayes to show his hands, but he got to his knees, pulled a 9mm pistol from his waistband and shot himself in the head, said Aaron T. Ford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Memphis, Tenn., office. Mayes did not say anything before shooting himself, and he did not brandish the gun toward the girls or officers.
The girls only sat up and stayed in place when Mayes shot himself, said Lt. Lee Ellington with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
"They were rather stoic in one sense and relieved," he said. "I heard the older girl tell her sister, `Now we can go home.'"
Guntown Police Chief Michael Hall previously said Mayes also had a sawed-off shotgun and a rifle with him. But Albert Santa Cruz, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said Mayes had only the pistol he used to kill himself.
Many questions remained about what exactly happened: Investigators have not said what the girls have told them since their rescue. Officers who were there said the main focus was to get the girls to safety, not question them on the scene. Authorities also have not said why Mayes may have wanted to kidnap the children or kill their mother and sister. And it wasn't known how they survived in the woods.
The girls were released from a hospital, officials said Friday, and reunited with relatives in Tennessee. Family spokesman David Livingston said their father, Gary Bain, was thrilled to have them back, but "you can understand that he is extremely distraught over the loss of his wife and daughter."
Funeral arrangements for Jo Ann and Adrienne Bain had not yet been made. Livingston said the FBI has asked that the surviving children not go out in public. They were to be interviewed by authorities on Saturday, he said.
Mayes' mother-in-law, Josie Tate, said Mayes believed he was the father of the two younger girls, but she later said she didn't believe that was true. Mayes' wife, Teresa, told authorities he killed the mother and older child so he could abduct the other two children.
In 2010, deputies in Tennessee investigated Adam Mayes after a relative claimed that he had child pornography and that she saw him nude while he was shaving the legs of a nude 7-year-old girl. But Mayes was never charged _ Madison County Sheriff's officials said the accusations were unfounded, and Mayes said the relative was trying to get back at him for something.
The Associated Press does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse and is not identifying the child in that case because of the nature of the allegations.
Authorities are trying to find out if anyone may have helped Adam Mayes in the latest case, and others could face charges. Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, would not say whether there was specific evidence that others had helped Mayes.
Speaking Friday on NBC's "Today" show, Tate said her daughter would have helped Adam Mayes only because he was a "control freak" who made his wife cut all ties with her family.
"I'm scared about what will happen to my daughter, that she will have to take the brunt of the punishment," Tate said. "If she participated in any way, it was because she was too scared to stand up to Adam or she was brainwashed."
Associated Press reporters Kristin M. Hall and Sheila Burke in Nashville, Tenn., and Erik Schelzig in Whiteville, Tenn., contributed to this report.