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October 25 was a typical Friday for the Joneses. Around noon, Linda went out to lunch with some coworkers. Prince was presenting a program on good nutrition for the Broward Outreach Center.
In Montgomery, Alabama, Elrinda was desperate. She went to the home of a girl she befriended and asked to use the telephone. She tried calling Linda collect at work. There was no answer. Next she called Linda's sister, Miriam Crutcher, who paged Prince. "She said she heard from Elrinda," Prince said. "She's in Montgomery. She's all right and she's ready to come home. I said, 'What?'"
When Prince dialed the telephone number Crutcher gave him, Elrinda answered. "You sure this Elrinda?" Prince said. Just to make sure it was really her, Prince asked the names of her brother and sister. "Micah and Carina," Elrinda answered.
"There was no emotion," Prince said. "She was calm. She was just ready to come home. I asked her if she had been hurt. She said no. She was safe. She said she wanted to talk to her mom."
When Prince reached Linda, she was stunned. "Alabama?" she remembers saying. "How did she get up there?"
That evening, when the couple called their daughter after they returned home from work, they pieced together the story. Elrinda had been talking to a man on the Internet. She complained about her parents, and he said she was right. They were too strict, and she should leave home and come to live with him in Montgomery. The man, whom Linda declined to name but says is 20 years old, took a Greyhound bus to Fort Lauderdale and a taxi to the library and picked up Elrinda. She had told him what she would be wearing. The pair took the bus back to Montgomery. When Prince called the phone numbers on his cell phone bill, he reached the man, who allegedly said he knew nothing about Elrinda.
Linda and Prince drove to Alabama that weekend to retrieve their daughter. As they returned to Florida, Elrinda explained what had happened. She had been angry when she left, Elrinda told her parents. But by the time she arrived in Alabama, the anger was gone.
Elrinda lived in a public housing project with the man and his two young children, Linda says. (By press time, Elrinda wasn't ready to speak with New Times.) She cooked and did housework. Elrinda told her mother that she wanted to call but that the man said he would get into trouble if she did. "She used to take out her pictures of her family at night and cry," Linda said. Elrinda finally called home, Linda said, because the man kicked her out of the house and she didn't have anywhere to go.
When Elrinda walked in the door of the family's home, Carina ran up to her and hugged her older sister. "Why did it take you so long to come home?" she asked. Elrinda went to her bedroom and rolled around on her purple bedspread, hugging her stuffed Pooh Bear dolls. "Home is heaven," she told her mom. She even agreed with Micah that she would do three months worth of dishes to make up for the time she was gone.
This week, she planned to re-enroll at Nova. The family is relieved that Elrinda made it home safely and is considering whether to press charges against the Alabama man. She appears to be OK, Prince says. "I told her how blessed she is," he says. "She could have ended up chopped up in a garbage bag."