Conway police on Thursday said missing teen Tanvi Marupally has been back home and safe with her family since Wednesday night after fending for herself for nearly 70 days.
At a news conference Thursday, police shared just how the 15-year-old managed to leave Conway on Jan. 17 before traveling across several states without any help.
Conway Police Chief William Tapley said Marupally left home because she thought her family might be deported back to India.
Tapley and U.S. Marshal Jeremy Hammons both said that their investigation shows that Marupally was able to navigate her way to Tampa over several months without help from anyone.
"When [the U.S. Marshals Service] got involved, we did a briefing with Conway police," Hammons said. "I remember what stood out to me is that they kept telling me that this child is known to be very resourceful. She was able to survive, get out there and she made a long trek. I'm very thankful that she made it very safely."
The U.S. Marshals Service has been assisting in missing child cases since 2015, according to Hammons.
"I've been with the Marshals Service for 13 years," Hammons said. "I've worked a few missing child cases, but not to the extent that this one came with. I kept thinking to myself, we're talking about a 14-year-old girl [she turned 15 last week] here. She reads books; she goes to the library. Believe me, I was the nerd in high school and I know I spent my time in the library. If you put me out in the woods I would have never made it, and I had no idea I was dealing with a little Rambo here."
The chief said that, until yesterday, the only information the department and assisting agencies had involved her last moments on Davis Street in Conway.
According to Tapley, Marupally was finally found after a Tampa resident recognized her from a missing person post online after spotting her using a computer in a local library.
The resident took a photograph of the teen and forwarded it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The tip came just days after the reward for Marupally's safe return was increased from $5,000 to $25,000.
Tapley said, "Her love for the library is ultimately what brought her home." Further investigation showed that Marupally had been researching jobs using the computers in a Tampa library.
He said the department received a tip and photograph of Marupally in the library on Wednesday morning.
"Ultimately, in a case of sheer luck, when police went to check to see video footage from the library, Tanvi had returned," Tapley said. "She immediately stated her identity and was taken into protective custody."
Tapley added that, at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Marupally was asked a series of questions only she would know the answers to and that is how police confirmed her identity.
Tapley said efforts to bring Marupally home began immediately after that confirmation was obtained. "We were then able to organize, go to Tampa, pick her up and bring her back to Conway," he said. "We did the necessary parts of our investigation and reunited Tanvi with her family last night."
Tapley and officials with the U.S. Marshals Service explained how and when the teen arrived in Florida.
Authorities said at the news conference that Marupally headed north on Davis Street in Conway on Jan. 17 before walking alongside railroad tracks all afternoon and all night. At some point in her walk, she caught a train that took her to Kansas City, Mo. She arrived there on Jan. 22.
According to Tapley, Marupally checked into a homeless shelter in Kansas City using a fake name and remained in that community for approximately two months.
The 15-year-old then made what Tapley called a seemingly "random" decision to make her way to Tampa.
Marupally is said to have taken a bus from Kansas City to Tampa, where she began living in an abandoned building she discovered.
Further investigation showed that Marupally had obtained a new phone some time after leaving Conway. Speakers at the conference could not confirm where and when she got the phone.
According to a family friend Jenny Wallace, the teen was concerned about the prospect of her father losing his job and his work visa. The family doesn't face deportation because her mother also holds a work visa, Wallace said.