2002, the year in review:
Child-snatchings are news, but a problem?
Criminologists have deduced that the number of kidnappings committed by strangers is rare, that teenagers are more often the target of such predators than are children and, moreover, that it is virtually impossible to pin down whether such offenses are on the rise. Still, it would have been difficult not to get the impression that the reverse of all that was true in 2002, given the national headlines generated by at least 10 snatchings that occurred between February and August.
“We have considerably better information about the number of people who are injured by farm machinery every year or the number of people bitten by brown recluse spiders than we have for the number of abducted kids,” David Finkelhor, director of the Crime Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told USA Today. “I don’t think there’s really an epidemic of abductions, but it’s really impossible to know.”
The abductions and disappearances began on Feb. 2, when 7-year-old Danielle Van Dam was taken from her San Diego home. Her body was found on Feb. 27. A neighbor, David Westerfield, was soon charged and, on Aug. 21, was convicted of her murder.
“We have better information about the number of people who are injured by farm machinery every year than we have for the number of abducted kids.”
On June 5, Elizabeth Smart, 14, was kidnapped from her bedroom in Salt Lake City. She has still not been found. Samantha Runnion, 5, was abducted near her Stanton, Calif., home on July 15. She was found dead the following day. Alejandro Avila, 27, was charged with her murder. Seven-year-old Erica Pratt was snatched nearby her Philadelphia home on July 22 by two men. She astonished police by freeing herself by chewing through the duct tape that bound her hands. And on Aug. 1, two Lancaster, Calif., girls, Tamara Brooks, 16, and Jacqueline Marris, were freed after police shot and killed their kidnapper, 37-year-old Roy Ratliff.
According to experts who have tracked such cases and have analyzed crime data submitted voluntarily in 1997 to the FBI by 12 states, abductions account for just 1.5 percent of reported crimes against children. Men commit 95 percent of stranger abductions, and 84 percent of kidnappings by acquaintances. They are generally motivated by sex, say criminologists, and are usually younger than 35.
Girls are more frequently taken than boys, accounting for two-thirds of the victims. Statistics cited by USA Today found that in kidnappings by acquaintances, adolescents are the victims 71 percent of the time. Strangers are more likely to abduct teenagers.
The numbers are confusing, however. While police entered 59,600 missing children in May into a database, they removed 57,998 who had been found, or were the subject of a custody battle between parents. The net increase was 1,602.
Yet during the first eight months of 2002, 62 kidnapping cases were opened by the FBI; 93 cases were opened for all of 2001; 103 in 2000, and 134 in 1999. And Justice Department officials estimate that between 2,400 and 3,600 children are taken by strangers and acquaintances each year. These include cases that did not involve the FBI, and those where the children were found quickly, either dead or alive.
“There doesn’t seem to be a firm number,” said Chase Foster, a spokesman for the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
Technology is credited with helping improve the recovery rate of missing children. While the figure was 62 percent in 1989, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, it is now 93 percent. The rate for all cases reported to police is 99 percent, The New York Times reported.
In the 5 percent of cases in which the kidnapper is not a family member, said the center, the rate of recovery has jumped from about 35 percent prior to 1990, to approximately 90 percent now.
“Technology has made a difference at every juncture,” said Ernie Allen, the center’s chief executive. “It has helped us to get information out to the public. It has enabled us to capture lead information. And it has enabled us to analyze that lead information and get it to law enforcement.”
The center’s Web site, www.missingkids.com, has more than 2,500 photos and profiles from around the world. Some 320 children have been recovered with the help of age-progressed images that can be created in approximately four hours with off-the-shelf photo-editing software.
2002, the year in review:
Amber Alert sweeps the nation
The greatly expanded use in 2002 of statewide child-abduction alerts is watering down their impact, particularly when used in cases involving runaways or family members, some law enforcement experts claim.
Since the creation of the Amber Alert program in Texas in 1996, in which local police agencies work with media outlets to get the word out immediately when a child is reported missing, other states have followed suit. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which helps coordinate the alerts, there are 37 plans in place nationwide, including statewide programs in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania and Utah.
In October, West Virginia officials said they would be adding lottery tickets and video lottery terminals to the highway signs, TV and radio stations and marquees of private businesses which currently alert residents to child abductions.
The information will be posted on all game tickets. New York, Florida and Nebraska also include Amber Alerts on lottery tickets and terminals.
“We’re trying to close off the state, in effect, by making West Virginians as aware as possible of an abduction,” said Gov. Bob Wise.
America Online said it would begin transmitting Amber Alerts in November to the personal computers, pagers and cell phones of its 26 million subscribers. The service would be voluntary and only target specific users, not spam members across the country, said officials from the missing children’s center.
“This is really the first time that an entity such as AOL has reached out to all the existing Amber plans across the states,” said Nicholas Graham, a company spokesman.
The Amber Alert concept has become so popular that the White House said in October that President Bush would create a position for a Justice Department Amber Alert coordinator, who will disburse $10 million to develop and upgrade such systems nationwide.
But it was a statewide activation in Nevada that month, when a 14-year-old girl was taken by her birth mother, that gave some advocates of the initiative cause for concern.
“This is a plan for the most serious child abductions, where a child’s life is in danger, and in the vast majority of cases, that’s abduction by a stranger,” said Tarrant County, Texas, Sheriff Dee Anderson, a founder of the Amber Alert movement. “That doesn’t rule out cases involving family members, but that’s in the minority of cases. “This is the very thing that we have always worried about, that people would lose interest because of overuse.”
Another potential problem was noticed, and quickly addressed, by the California Highway Patrol in October, when it ordered freeway signs flashing an Amber Alert sign to be turned off because motorists were creating a traffic jam by slowing down to read the sign.
Still, the prevailing view would seem to side with that voiced by Molly Bedell, a Newport News, Va., police detective who organized the local effort to create an Amber Plan. “If we can prevent just one death, it’s worth it,” she said. “But we don’t want to overuse it.”
2002, the year in review:
Wiping a smile from mailbox bomber’s face
Lucas Helder, 21, who struck terror throughout the Midwest in May with the pipe bombs he allegedly placed in rural mailboxes, was stopped by police three times for traffic infractions during his crime spree, and three times he was let go, before he was finally arrested in Reno, Nev., after his father turned him in.
Now he faces federal charges that could put him behind bars for life.
A junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Helder is accused of planting 18 bombs in five states — Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas — from May 3 to May 6. Six of the devices exploded, injuring four letter carriers and two residents.
His father, Cameron Helder of Pine Island, Minn., called police in the middle of the night after reading a letter from his son that referred to the bombings.
In an affidavit, FBI agent Mark Heavrin said Helder admitted to making 24 bombs — eight in his apartment in Menominee, Wis., and 16 in a Nebraska motel room. Six bombs were found with him when he was arrested.
In the letter, Helder spoke of death and dying, expressed anti-government sentiments, and used the phrase “Mailboxes are exploding.” He wrote: “If I don’t make it through this ordeal (if the gov’t doesn’t realize I can help) then I’ll have to get out of here for a while.”
Helder’s roommate, James Divine, told federal agents that he had called Helder’s father with his concerns. Under Helder’s bed, his father found two large plastic bottles that said shotgun or gun powder, a store receipt for 15 to 20 pipe casings, a box of paper clips, a funnel and a large box of nails.
Helder was pulled over three times by law enforcement as he drove 1,500 miles across the region in an attempt, he said, to create a “smiley face” pattern of mailbox bombings. When stopped by a highway officer near St. Edward, Neb., Helder blurted out, “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” The officer told him he was just getting a speeding ticket.
Fourteen hours later, an Oklahoma trooper stopped Helder for driving without a seatbelt, but let him go. The next day, he was stopped again, this time by a Colorado trooper for speeding. Helder, he said, looked like he was going to cry. Again, the suspect was allowed to go. Within 48 hours, Helder was arrested on bombing charges after police traced his cell-phone calls.
“He was just your average, everyday American boy driving down the road,” said Oklahoma Trooper Cody Rehder. “He didn’t seem unusual at all.”
Helder was charged by federal prosecutors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with using an explosive to maliciously destroy property affecting interstate commerce and with using a destructive device to commit a crime of violence. He also faces charges in Iowa’s other federal district court, as well as in Illinois and Nebraska.