Jewish World Review August 8, 2002/ 30 Menachem-Av, 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

The grim summer
of abducted children | LOS ANGELES This is Southern California's summer of the abducted girls. It's a grim distinction shared with the nation.

Some of the girls were abducted far from here - in Missouri, in Utah, in Philadelphia - but it's here, where all American phenomena begin, that the terror lurks deepest in every parent's (and grandparent's) heart.

California has turned this terror into a safety ritual. Only this weekend, police and service organizations, such as the Masonic orders, have opened booths at county fairs and other places where children gather with their parents to offer digital scans of faces and fingerprinting to keep on file against the unexpected. The waiting lines at the booths are often very long.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will soon offer a "digital identification package" that can be stored on a compact disk, and the information can be distributed instantaneously to hospitals and police via the Internet. The center, based in Alexandria, Va., reports a doubling of calls from terrified parents since Elizabeth Smart, 13, was taken from her bed at her home in Salt Lake City earlier this summer, and, soon after, when Samantha Runnion, 5, was snatched while playing in her front yard south of Los Angeles. Samantha's little body was discovered days later and a suspect arrested; Elizabeth Smart has not been seen since she was abducted. The Runnion kidnapping in particular held much of the nation in thrall. Dozens of FBI agents were assigned to assist local cops on instructions of President Bush. Nothing becomes political more swiftly, or with more intensity, than a child in trouble.

Though other abductions followed, with a frenzy of the cable-TV network coverage that raises the national temperature with a minimum of facts and context, the FBI insists that the epidemic is one of media hysteria, not of child kidnapping.

"Stranger kidnapping," where the child and kidnapper are not acquainted, has actually declined over the past three years, from 143 in 1999 to 106 in 2000, and 93 in 2001. So far this year, 62 such kidnappings have been reported to the FBI.

"It's hard to imagine any serious danger to children that is less likely than kidnapping by a stranger," Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who writes about how media coverage drives public anxiety, tells the Los Angeles Times. "If parents are going to worry about anything, this is not what it should be. We've had several very unfortunate events, but they do not add up to a trend or, as some cable-news channels are calling it, an epidemic."

Nevertheless, you might have difficulty persuading the parents of Jacqueline Marris or Tamara Brooks that this is so. Jacqueline, 16, and Tamara, 17, were abducted from a lovers' lane frequented by high-school kids in the Mojave Desert community of Quartz Hill, in rural Los Angeles County. Their abductor, who turned out to be a 37-year-old career criminal with a rap sheet dating from the time he was only 7 years old, pistol-whipped the girls' boyfriends, bound and blindfolded them. He hustled the girls, who had never met each other, into the white Ford Bronco belonging to one of the boys, and took off.

California's so-called "Amber Alert" was activated for the first time, relaying a description of the Bronco and its license-plate number to police and the public. The description went up on electronic traffic billboards on highways and freeways across California. Jacqueline's father, on his way to a vigil for the girls, saw it himself. "Every sign I saw," he said, "had the license plate of that vehicle on it and said to call 911." Twelve hours later, an animal-control officer spotted the Bronco a hundred miles from where the girls were taken prisoner, and called the sheriff. When the cops closed in on the Bronco where it had stalled in a dry river bed, the abductor, Ray Ratliff, jumped out with his gun. The cops shot him seven times, killing him on the spot.

"He was hunting for a place to kill the girls," said Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks, "and then a place to bury them."

The Amber Alert was adopted here only in late July, on the instructions of Gov. Gray Davis, nine days after Samantha Runnion was kidnapped. The alert originated in Texas - named for a kidnapped and murdered 9-year-old Dallas girl, Amber Hagerman - and is up and running in 14 states. It's activated when a child of 17 or younger is abducted and is thought to be in "extreme danger." Says one of the cops who searched for the missing teenagers: "It worked wonderfully." The Center for Missing and Exploited Children says the rescue of Jacqueline Marris and Tamara Brooks brings the total of children rescued by Amber Alert to 20. That's 20 happy endings to stories that usually don't have happy endings.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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