As Sara Thomas finished an impromptu hike down Stone Mountain, Ruth Stringer was set to begin a five-mile run.
Patrick Leithead was there, too, lurking near the restrooms. They were among the few people at Stone Mountain on this dreary Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20.
"Something was off about [Leithead]," said Thomas, a GBI agent based in Athens. "He was acting very strangely."
Stringer, a lieutenant with the DeKalb County Sheriff's Office, also noticed the hulking stranger. "He was just sitting there on the bench," she said. "I probably wouldn't have paid him any mind had there been more people around."
As Stringer finished stretching, Thomas continued tracking Leithead. "He was checking out everyone who walked by," she said. She briefly lost sight of him, but not for long.
At about the same time, Stringer had stepped into the restroom, unaware that Leithead had already snuck inside. She spotted male feet sticking out from under one of the stalls, "as if he was kneeling."
"I thought maybe it was a couple making out, or a father helping a child," Stringer said.
Then she heard the muffled cries of a child.
"I knew I could handle myself," said the unarmed ex-Marine, "but at the same time I didn't know what would be coming out at me."
In her most commanding voice, Stringer ordered the man to release the child. She repeated the command. And again. Finally, a teary-eyed 13-year-old girl emerged.
"There's a man inside there," she told Stringer.
The off-duty lieutenant escorted her outside. Standing at the door, she yelled for someone to call 911.
Thomas was already heading her way, looking for Leithead.
"I was glad to see Sara coming," Stringer said. By then the 36-year-old suspect had emerged from the bathroom.
"I should've run," he told Thomas. Armed with the Glock she retrieved from her vehicle, Thomas held him down until park police arrived. Leithead, arrested and charged with aggravated child molestation, remains jailed without bond in DeKalb County.
"He admitted he had gone there with the intention to rape," Thomas said. Fortunately, he didn't get that far.
Fate played a hand.
Thomas said she wouldn't have been at Stone Mountain had I-85 not been clogged by traffic.
"We figured why not hike?" she said. "I really feel like God put us there."
Stringer said she was compelled to act.
"You're on-duty 24 hours a day," she said.
Thomas agreed: "There's no such thing," as being off the clock.
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