BIGELOW — After a dark ordeal, further signs of hope and forgiveness have emerged at the home of Jeffrey M. Stinson, where two Amish girls showed up after being released by their alleged captors 11 days ago in a saga that has galvanized the north country and captured the nation’s attention.
As Mr. Stinson and his wife, Pamela L., reflect on the fateful night, the family of the two girls is beginning to build a new garage for the Stinsons to show its gratitude, replacing a garage destroyed by fire.
When the Stinsons returned from a recent vacation in Maine, Mr. Stinson was told by a neighbor that a door on his garage had ignited and the fire eventually consumed the structure. The fire was believed to have been started by a stray cat knocking over a battery jumpstart box inside.
Since the fire, Mr. Stinson and his family have discussed rebuilding the garage in traditional Amish style.
“We’ve been talking about having a garage-raising the old way,” he said.
Mr. Stinson — who said he believes everything happens for a reason — said the father of the girls told him Tuesday that he would be offended if he could not help rebuild the garage, believing the fire was meant to be.
“They won’t take no for an answer,” he said.
Participating in some of the beginning work at the Stinson house on Saturday were John M. Miller, 20, a brother of the Amish girls, and his neighbor, Harvey J. Swartzentruber, a bricklayer, who were happy to express their gratitude for the girls’ return with hard work.
“We’re mostly just helping out,” Mr. Swartzentruber said.
On the night the girls arrived, Mr. Stinson was getting a watermelon and cantaloupe from his garden for his daughter when he heard a rustling noise nearby, Mrs. Stinson said. Soon after, at 8:30 p.m., she said she heard a long, loud, panicked knock at the front door.
Looking through the window, she saw two girls. The girls, ages 12 and 7, were cold, wet and so hungry that they quickly consumed the watermelon Mr. Stinson gave them, eating it in less than a minute. According to the Stinsons, the younger girl was shaking uncontrollably.
The girls then calmly but repeatedly asked to be driven to their home near Route 812 on Mount Alone Road, between Ogdensburg and Heuvelton in the town of Oswegatchie.
Because the Stinsons felt a large police presence would have a negative effect on the girls, the family decided to get into Mr. Stinson’s diesel truck and drive them directly to their family, choosing the vehicle for its toughness and size.
“What kind of comfort were Jeff and I going to be to the girls while they’re being interrogated?” said Mrs. Stinson, who expected police to immediately question the girls about their ordeal.
Mr. Stinson said he knew there was a risk in not immediately alerting the authorities, but after a short discussion with his wife, he decided to take them home anyway.
“We never gave it any thought about implications or dangers,” he said. “We knew they had to get home.”
Driving back to the Miller property, the Stinsons’ truck was pursued by what Mr. Stinson said appeared to be a creme-colored Cadillac, which followed the truck so closely that only its roof could be seen in the rearview mirror, blinding the family with its headlights.
“We couldn’t even see to drive,” Mr. Stinson said.
On the drive, the girls said, “That’s him, that’s the car,” and dove to the floor of the vehicle in fear after seeing what they thought was a red car and alleged captor Stephen M. Howells II walking quickly behind it on the roadside, about 100 yards from the passing truck, Mr. Stinson said. Mr. Howells, 39, and Nicole F. Vaisey, 25, both of 1380 County Route 21, Hermon, each have been charged with two counts of first-degree kidnapping with the intent to inflict physical injury or sexually violate or sexually abuse.
Thinking a bullet might come through the window from the car behind, Mr. Stinson said he repeatedly moved left and right in his seat while his wife and daughter made an effort to cover the girls from showing the silhouette of a bonnet in the window that would be seen by the driver of the car that followed.
When the family finally turned into the driveway at the Miller home, the car that had followed them sped off north, according to Mr. Stinson.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” he said.
When they arrived, the girls made a beeline for their house through the Amish men and boys who had gathered there, who did not acknowledge them as they passed, due to gender segregation in Amish culture, according to Mr. Stinson.
However, one by one, Amish community members came up in groups by gender to speak with the Stinsons.
Amish elders present also met with them one by one, each to get an account of what had happened earlier that evening.
According to Mr. Stinson, the girls’ mother said the concern and reaction of the larger community took her and her family by surprise.
They never anticipated so much community participation in the search for the girls, he said.
In response to their selfless deeds, and to thank them for bringing the girls home safely, the Miller family intends to visit the Stinson home on Thursday or Friday to help build the new garage.
All 13 Miller children, including the girls, are expected to be present, along with their parents, grandparents and extended family, totaling 30 to 50 people, the Stinsons said.