A 28-year-old convicted robber released from prison just two months ago is back behind bars and accused in the kidnapping of a Birmingham woman who made a dramatic escape from the trunk of her car after being held captive for hours.
Birmingham police Wednesday night announced formal charges against Manuel Ali Towns. He was taken into custody Tuesday night, and held in the Birmingham City Jail until he was booked into the Jefferson County Jail at 5:42 p.m.
Towns is now charged with first-degree kidnapping and first-degree robbery in the March 14 abduction of 25-year-old Brittany Diggs. He is also charged with two counts of fraudulent use of a credit card. His bond is set at $500,000.
The ordeal began outside Diggs’ apartment on Fourth Avenue South and 38th Street in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood. When Diggs arrived home, Birmingham police Sgt. Bryan Shelton said the suspect - later identified as Towns - pointed a gun at the young woman, and demanded money. When she said she didn’t have any, he forced her into her black Nissan Altima. At some point, he moved her to the trunk of her car and drove her to at least three different locations, using her ATM card to get cash. Her captivity lasted for hours.
Brittany Diggs, 25, told NBC’s Today that she used her insulin pump light to find the trunk release latch when she was kidnapped and held captive during a robbery on March 14 in Birmingham.
Eventually, she was taken to Gas Land on Bessemer Road - at about 11:40 p.m. - where the suspect entered the gas station and tried to withdraw cash from the ATM. Yosef Alsabah, the owner of Gas Land, said the suspect tried to withdraw cash several times before approaching the counter and asking for help with the ATM.
Alsabah said the man was trying to withdraw more money than was in the account and was becoming frustrated. The owner told the suspect he should come back later and try again. When he left and started to drive off, Alsabah watched him through the window of the store.
That’s when he saw the trunk pop open and a woman jump out. She ran into the store yelling, “Help me, please help me. He’s been trying to rob me this whole time.” She crouched behind a wall, visibly shaken and obviously fearful.
According to Alsabah, the victim said after she was forced into the car, she was driven to multiple ATMs where the suspect withdrew money using her debit card. The victim used Alsabah’s phone to call her family, and police arrived shortly after. Alsabah said the victim had a few cuts on her, and was taken to a nearby hospital by a relative.
Birmingham police later recovered the victim’s car on Third Avenue West, still running.
Diggs gave an interview earlier this week to NBC’s Today, saying that she used the light on her insulin pump to find the release latch before leaping to safety in the parking lot of a Birmingham gas station. "The whole time he’s driving, he’s like, just, he’s yelling at me from the front seat, ‘You’re lying. I know you have something. Give me your money,’’’ Diggs told the national network.
She made the decision to escape when her captor got back into the car at the Bessemer Road gas station. “I feel the car reversing, and he’s pulling out pretty fast, so I’m like, oh shoot - I better get out of here.”
A friend of Diggs has started a GoFundMe account to help her friend relocate. As of Wednesday, it had raised more than $36,000.
Authorities said Diggs did not know Towns, and that the kidnapping was random.
"We’ll get him arrested and charged for putting this young lady through this harrowing crime,’’ Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper said after a 25-year-old woman was abducted outside her apartment and driven around for hours before she managed to escape from the trunk of her car.
Court records show he has a criminal history dating back more than a decade. Most recently, he was released from prison on Jan. 13, 2017 after serving five years and two months for possession of marijuana. He was sentenced in that case to 15 years with five to serve. Of that five years, he received 465 days of credit for time previously served, according to Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton.
In 2005, Towns pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and was sentenced to 20 years in prison with three years to serve. That robbery happened in 2005.
Towns in 2006 pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree robbery in a case from 2004. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison with one year to serve, court records show.
Efforts to immediately obtain details about his prior robberies were unsuccessful but court records indicate his probation on previous cases was revoked at least twice.
Birmingham police on Wednesday night said that once they released a picture seeking identity of the suspect, tips started coming in and investigators began working to identify the suspect.
Once positive identification was made, the suspect’s information was handed over to the department’s Crime Reduction Team, who were tasked with finding him.
The CRT found Towns Tuesday just outside the city limits of Birmingham. He was taken back to police headquarters for questioning and then jailed pending the ongoing investigation.
"This was truly a complex, multi-faceted investigation and I am extremely proud of the various BPD units that worked around the clock to get this suspect behind bars,’’ said Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper. “This victim deserves justice and the peace of mind in knowing he’ll face a Criminal Judge for his actions. Our streets are safer with him behind bars.”