A Stafford woman’s flight with her four children has become the subject of criminal charges and a nationwide search.

Melody Bannister, 34, is wanted in Stafford on a felony charge of violating a court order, filing a false police report and four misdemeanor charges of abduction. The case was featured on the A&E television show “Live-PD” Thursday night.

Police said they aren’t aware of any sightings of Bannister or the children since Aug. 20 in Moulton, Ala., and suspect the children might be in danger.

According to Stafford Sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Vicinanzo, Bannister told police in early June that her children, ages 7 through 13, were being sexually abused by their paternal grandfather, who lives not far from the family home in Stafford.

Following a joint investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and Child Protective Services, Vicinanzo said, authorities determined that the complaints were unfounded.

A short time later that month, Bannister left with the children and the family pets for a planned weeklong vacation to West Virginia. At the end of that week, she informed authorities that she was going to visit a family friend in South Carolina and detectives never heard from her again.

In July, the children’s father, Bannister’s husband, petitioned for and received custody of the children. Bannister refused to return the children and instead petitioned a court in Alabama to give her custody. The Alabama court denied the request, Vicinanzo said.

The U.S. Marshals Service and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have since gotten involved in the search, which led authorities to places in Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

Vicinanzo said police believe Bannister may have been assisted by a religious group she belongs to known as Vision World. She said the family pets—a cat and a dog—were left at one of the locations she is believed to have visited.

Anyone with information about the family’s whereabouts is asked to call 1-877-WANTED2 or the Sheriff’s Office at 540-658-4400.

Keith Epps: 540/374-5404

kepps@freelancestar.com

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