Hayleigh Wilson, runaway teen from Tennessee, may be with sex offender she met via online app

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Kik: A quick instant messaging service that claims 80 million users, who can send messages and photos with relative anonymity. It's rated 17+ but is growing in popularity with young teens and tweens. Image courtesy Stewart Scott-Curran/CNN

By Pat St. Claire and Joe Sutton

CNN

(CNN) — A Tennessee teenager sneaked out of her home Monday night, took her father’s 2004 Ford Explorer and drove off to pick up a 41-year-old man who is a known sex offender, a police chief said.

The teen, Hayleigh Wilson, 14, of Surgoinsville, likely didn’t know about Ben Shook’s past, according to Surgoinsville Police Chief James Hammonds.

Originally from Georgia, Shook has a long criminal history, including sexual battery and exploitation. He served 10 years in prison and was released in September 2014. Police say he registered once as a sex offender, but did not update his information afterward.

Online app meeting

“It looks like both the child and the suspect met on an online app” called Kik, Hammonds said. On its website, Kik says it has 200 million users.

DoNotContact.utah.gov offers a series of information and safety tips for parents regarding Kik, click here for details.

The website Be Web Smart, which aims to help parents understand their children’s digital world, expressed concern about use of the app by children in a 2014 article, updated a few weeks ago. It notes that while many people use Kik to simply send messages to friends, because “it is very popular for sexting … it is not a good choice for kids.” Kik is rated 17+ in Apple’s App Store.

Hammond also expressed concern about the use of such apps by children. “These kids talking to these people on these chat apps and they really don’t know who they are talking to,” he said. “It is really a dangerous thing.”

Amber Alert issued

An Amber Alert was issued after Hayleigh, wearing a sleeveless, flowery top and dark shorts or skirt, was seen at a Walmart Tuesday morning in Marion, North Carolina, with Shook, who has an active warrant out for failure to register as a sex offender. “We have no idea where they could be headed,” Hammonds said. “And it looks like they were buying tenting equipment at the Walmart.”

Father pleads for daughter’s return

Hayleigh’s father, Eddie Wilson, made a tearful plea for her return. He told CNN affiliate WATE, “You don’t know if she’s going to be home tomorrow or a year from now. I want Hayleigh to know that we love her and we want her home. We won’t stop looking for Hayleigh.”

“She’s a respectable little Christian girl but she got lured in,” he said.

Wilson also appealed directly to Shook, saying, “For Hayleigh’s sake I just ask you to be man enough to bring her home safe. Just let her out and go your own way, but bring my little girl home.”

Shook is described by police as a white male, 6 feet 3 inches and 175 pounds, with blue eyes, brown hair and multiple tattoos. He was last seen wearing a blue shirt with “Ford” written on it, dark shorts and a camouflage baseball hat.