Missing girl found, mother arrested in Mo.

Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ST. LOUIS - An Alaska woman suspected of kidnapping her daughter two years ago was arrested in Missouri during a routine traffic stop after police noticed she and her young passenger appeared far too nervous for only missing a license plate, authorities said Tuesday.

Mary Joe Burgener, 44, of Wasilla, Alaska, was being held in Lincoln County while she awaits extradition, Troy Police Chief Jeff Taylor said. Her 13-year-old daughter, Noel Tara Burgener, has been reunited with her father in Alaska.

Burgener is accused of custodial interference and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. No court date has been set, but she was expected back in Alaska by mid-July and will be arraigned when she returns, said Trina Sears, an assistant district attorney for the region that includes Wasilla.

It was unclear if she'll face charges in Missouri. Lincoln County's prosecutor did not return calls Tuesday, though no charges were listed in the state's online court records. Officials in both states did not know if Burgener had an attorney, and Alaska's online court records system did not list one.

Burgener picked up her daughter from her ex-husband on June 28, 2008. Her father believed Noel was being taken to a camp, but when he arrived to pick her up a few days later, camp workers told him they had no record she attended, according to FBI records.

Authorities later found that Burgener purchased two airline tickets to Seattle with a June 29, 2008, departure date.

A search had been ongoing ever since. Authorities suspected she was in Montana or Tennessee, and the case was listed on several missing child websites. But it remained unclear Tuesday where Burgener and her daughter have been over the past two years.

"We're still investigating that," Sears said.

The traffic stop that netted her arrest came after police Sgt. Brian Walker in Troy, about 60 miles north of St. Louis, noticed a car with only one Oklahoma license plate. He pulled the driver over June 19 for not having a front plate.

The driver said she was Mary J. Pepper, and identified her passenger as her 16-year-old niece. But then Walker became suspicious - the woman's story was inconsistent, and the girl was hesitant to talk.

"He said he could just tell right off the bat that something wasn't right," Taylor said. "He said when he looked the mom in the eye, she looked straight ahead."

Walker's suspicions were confirmed when the dispatcher told him that the name Mary J. Pepper matched an alias used in an Alaska child abduction case. The driver matched the description of the suspect, and Burgener was taken into custody.

An FBI agent escorted Burgener's daughter to Lambert Airport in St. Louis within days of the traffic stop and she was flown back to Alaska, the agency said.

The girl has since been reunited with her family and is staying with her father, Sears said.

"Our office has had a chance to talk to him and things are going well," Sears said.

A listing for the father's phone number couldn't be found by The Associated Press.

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