An Alpharetta teenager reported missing on Monday and believed to be with a 44-year-old man has been found safe in New York City.
Mary Pridgen, 16, has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, according to her father Glen Pridgen. Pridgen got a phone call early Friday morning from Child Protective Services in New York City.
“She walked up to a police officer at 1:30 in the morning and said, ‘I’m a runaway. Please call my dad,” Pridgen said.
As he prepared to catch a flight to New York to pick up his daughter, Pridgen told CBS46 he's glad to know his daughter is safe. He was anxious to speak with her to find out how she ended up in New York City.
Days before, when Pridgen first realized his daughter had run away from home, he started calling her friends.
He learned something shocking -- his daughter was in a relationship with a much older man he'd never met, 44-year-old Michael Whitlatch of Cherokee County.
“I’m 49, so I’m just a little bit older than him,” said Mary's father.
CBS46 has learned Whitlatch is a filmmaker who once produced a documentary on young adults living with Asperger Syndrome.
Mary's father wonders if Whitlatch used his Asperger connection to grow close to his daughter.
In the months since Mary moved from Florida to live with her father, she's become a group leader for an organization of young adults living with the Asperger diagnosis.
“That’s one of the first things that she did when she came here, and he [Whitlatch] goes to these meet-ups," Pridgen said. "I believe he looks for vulnerable people, especially girls.”
Pridgen soon would learn Whitlatch was renting an apartment in the same complex where Pridgen and his daughter live. It was all starting to make sense. Those "long walks" his daughter had been taking were most likely the times she was meeting up with her boyfriend.
“She was living a double life, for sure,” Pridgen said.
Pridgen found a receipt for a $6,300 engagement ring Whitlatch apparently bought his daughter. In photos of the couple, she wore a diamond ring on her left hand.
Alpharetta police say Whitlatch wouldn’t answer their questions when they reached him on the phone. Even if Whitlatch knew Mary’s age, he cannot be charged with a felony because in Georgia, 16 is the age of consent.
“It shocks me that a 44-year-old man can – let’s just call it what it is – "groom" a 16-year-old with Asperger’s and it not be a crime.”
It's possible, though, that Whitlatch could face misdemeanor obstruction or interference with custody charges if police learn he knew Mary's whereabouts and didn't help police locate her.
Just before Glen Pridgen headed to New York to pick up his daughter, he had this message for Michael Whitlatch:
“You have a young daughter who is going to be 16 one day," Pridgen said. "Let’s hope she never meets a guy like you.”
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