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Something about the little girl in the red cowboy hat struck Tracie Lee Dean as disturbing. The girl, who appeared to be about 4, was playing by herself Jan. 15 inside a convenience store near Evergreen, Ala. When the child came close, Dean, 34, noticed the vacant stare she once saw in her charity work with destitute kids. “She had that ‘lacking love’ look,” Dean says. She asked the girl if her mother worked at the store. The child had answered “no” when a man suddenly appeared. “I heard him say [to the girl], ‘Are you trying to find a new mommy?’ It wasn’t sweet or kind or warm. It was bone chilling. I knew something wasn’t right.”

In fact something was horribly wrong, and it took Dean’s own dogged detective work to uncover just what. Five days after the encounter in the store, Conecuh County, Ala., sheriff’s deputies arrested the man, Jack Wiley, 58, and a housemate, Glenna Faye Cavender, 40. Authorities say doctors examined the little girl and found signs of sexual abuse. Wiley was charged with her rape and with sodomizing a 17-year-old boy staying with the couple, and Cavender faces two counts of child abuse. The children were placed in foster care—saved, say authorities, because Dean simply wouldn’t give up. “Tracie Dean has guts,” says John Walsh, star of America’s Most Wanted, one of many organizations Dean contacted in her quest to find out the truth about the child. “She is the perfect, shining example of how one person can make a difference.”

Dean comes by her sleuthing instincts naturally. Both her father and uncle were police officers. Plus “persistence is one of my traits,” says Dean, general manager at an Audi dealer in Atlanta and a board member of Our House charity, which supports homeless families. She put that tenacity to good use. After leaving the little girl, she copied the man’s license plate (“My daddy taught me” that, she says), then called 911. She admits her message was vague—that she had witnessed a “strange incident ” with a child—and waited nervously for the operator to call her back. The operator did a few minutes later, saying the man was the child’s grandfather and the store clerk knew them. Dean wasn’t satisfied. When she arrived home, she went to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Web site. Soon she found a missing Madison Township, Ohio, girl, 6-year-old Emily Elizabeth Rimel, who she thought resembled the one in the store. “It sent chills down my body because I thought, ‘This man kidnapped her,'” she says.

Over the next four days, she spoke to an Ohio investigator, America’s Most Wanted and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Throughout, Dean says, she felt law enforcement wasn’t acting quickly enough on her suspicions. (Investigators say they looked into all her leads.)

On Thursday Dean took matters into her own hands. That night, she and two girlfriends made the 265-mile journey back to the convenience store. She showed a photo of Emily to the clerk, who called store manager Gregg Odom. He was familiar with Wiley and Cavender, who sometimes visited his store twice a day with the kids.

While Dean viewed the store’s security tape, Conecuh County sheriff’s deputy Bryan Davis happened by on patrol. After Dean told him that the girl might have been kidnapped, Davis and other officers searched the area. The next morning deputies found the foursome at a trailer home a few miles from the store. The couple were itinerants who followed the NASCAR circuit, selling beaded trinkets, deputies say. After the arrest Davis called Dean in Atlanta. “I just bawled,” she says.

Wiley told CNN he would never hurt “my kid.” Authorities, meanwhile, have collected DNA samples to determine the children’s parentage but are sure the little girl is not Emily Elizabeth Rimel, the missing child from Ohio. Dean is happy the kids are safe, but Emily is never far from her thoughts. “If they found her,” she says, “I would feel my purpose in life was complete.”

Wiley and Cavender claimed to be refugees from Hurricane Katrina.