PERRY, Ga. (AP) — Police have linked a Missouri couple to crimes in Alabama and Georgia, saying the offenses fit a similar pattern: People are robbed, kidnapped and let go unharmed, usually after a car is stolen.
The latest in the crime spree happened when a gunman held up a young clerk at a Murphy Express station along Interstate 75 in south Georgia late Monday, taking money from the safe and cigarettes before forcing the clerk into an SUV where his female accomplice waited, authorities said. The couple drove about 15 miles before releasing the clerk unharmed on a highway overpass, said Perry police Lt. Ken Ezell.
Investigators suspect the vehicle was a Ford Edge stolen Sunday in Alabama, where three other crimes committed within a two-hour span Sunday morning fit a similar pattern.
Blake Fitzgerald and Brittany Nicole Harper of Joplin, Missouri, have been charged with robbing and abducting a hotel clerk in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and taking his car to the Birmingham area.
The clerk was let go in the upscale suburb of Vestavia Hills, where a woman was briefly abducted by two people who stole her family's Ford Edge — the vehicle police believe was seen in Georgia late Monday. Like the other kidnapping victims, she was let go unharmed a short time later.
Fitzgerald and Harper have been charged in that case, and are suspected in an attempted robbery of a McDonald's manager in neighboring Hoover, Alabama, the same morning. Ezell said Tuesday afternoon he was preparing arrest warrants charging them with kidnapping and armed robbery in Georgia.
"As far as their motives behind things, there's really not one," Ezell said.
The couple remained at large Tuesday afternoon. Based on where they dropped off the gas station clerk from Perry, about 30 miles south of Macon, they appeared to be heading south on I-75 toward the Georgia-Florida state line, Ezell said.
He said arrest warrants were being prepared to charge the couple with kidnapping and armed robbery in Georgia.
The U.S. Marshals Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force has been called in to assist with the hunt. Tuscaloosa police Lt. Kip Hart said a $10,000 reward was being offered for information that helped lead to an arrest and conviction.
Missouri records show in 2013, Fitzgerald and an accomplice were charged with burglarizing a Joplin woman at knifepoint in her home and making off with her purse, jewelry, electronics and a car.
Fitzgerald entered an Alford plea — not admitting guilt but acknowledging the prosecutors had sufficient evidence for a conviction — and was sentenced in 2014 to a suspended seven-year prison term.
Fitzgerald also was sentenced in southwestern Missouri's Jasper County to a simultaneous 120-day term in a drunken-driving case. Last July, Fitzgerald pleaded guilty in a Missouri assault case and was sentenced to a suspended five-year prison term.
Perry Police Chief Stephen Lynn said the couple may be abducting their victims to delay reports being made to police.
"They haven't hurt anybody so far and that's great," Lynn said. "I hope we catch them before somebody does get hurt."