Ponderings on abductions and “abductions”

The East Valley Tribune did a very nice recap article about Mikelle Biggs, who was abducted ten years ago this month and never found. Her disappearance is, as they like to say, every parent’s worst nightmare: she was within yards of home, and out of sight for two minutes at the most, and she vanished into thin air without a trace or a sound. Apparently she was grabbed off the street and didn’t even have time to scream — or, if she did, no one heard her cries. As the article says, the case is basically going nowhere and is likely to remain cold until a body or a confession pops up. If that ever happens.

This kind of disappearance is, thankfully, as rare as it is terrifying. Estimates are that there are only about 50 “stereotypical” kidnappings a year — that is, children forcibly taken by a stranger and harmed or held overnight or longer. Even Mikelle’s case might not qualify; another article says her parents suspect a man who lived in their neighborhood. It’s possible Mikelle knew him, if only slightly.

Offhand, I think there are only a couple of dozen children’s cases on the Charley Project that I would definitely say were stranger abductions. There are probably more than that, but many times I don’t have enough information to tell, or the police don’t have enough information. Elizabeth Smart, as I mentioned previously, would probably have been considered a runaway, at least at first, if her sister hadn’t seen her kidnapped at knifepoint. (And she’d met one of her abductors before. The man was still pretty much a stranger to her, but you could argue that her having met him disqualifies her as a stereotypical kidnapping. But I digress.) Other cases are possible abductions, but the circumstances really aren’t clear. Aaron Anderson, for instance, could well have been abducted. On the other hand, he could also have fallen into a river near his home. For years the police focused on the drowning theory to the exclusion of other possibilities; now they admit that was probably a mistake. But no one saw anything, so who can tell? Aaron could have drowned. He could have been murdered. He could be alive now somewhere, not knowing his true identity, not knowing there’s anything amiss in his life.

Because these kidnappings are so uncommon, the police tend to be suspicious when one is reported. A child is many times more likely to be killed by a member of their own family than to be kidnapped. In Mikelle’s case, her family was cleared of suspicion and I’m pretty sure her disappearance is exactly what it appears to be. But often they aren’t, as in the Lucy Meadows case. I had my doubts about her case for a long time, because it just seemed hinky that a little girl could get snatched in the time it took for her mother to walk around the side of the car, and no one saw or heard anything. A kidnapper would practically have to have supernatural powers of speed and invisibility to pull that off. I kept my doubts to myself, but a couple of years ago it came out that the police suspected Lucy’s mother, and they had a witness (probably Lucy’s brother, though that hasn’t been confirmed) to the child’s possible murder. No charges have been filed, but now I think we all know what happened there.

Another hinky “stranger abduction” is the 1983 disappearance of Marlena Childress. In this case, the mother later gave several conflicting stories about Marlena’s disappearance, including one where she caused the child’s death. Even more tellingly, fifteen years later Marlena’s mother later stabbed one of her other children. (Thankfully, he survived.) I suppose Marlena could still have been kidnapped, and so could Lucy, but as things are now, I seriously doubt that’s what happened.

Because stranger abductions, especially in recent years, are plastered all over the news, many parents are very afraid it could happen to their child. I spent much of my childhood wandering unsupervised in the woods and fields and roads around my home — that doesn’t happen much anymore. Children are kept indoors, or at least tethered to a cell phone. Many of those cell phones can be tracked by the parent on a computer, so they know where the phone (and, presumably, the child) is at all times.

Rationally speaking, parents really shouldn’t be so afraid of stranger kidnapping, because, as I said, it hardly ever happens. They ought to be more concerned about what’s going on within their child’s home and school and neighborhood, because that’s more most of the trouble happens. To use my own experience: I’m reasonably sure that, when I was about four, a neighbor tried to kidnap me. At any rate, he was trying to force me into his house, for no good reason, and against my will. When I said I didn’t want to go, he took my arm and started to pull me along with him. When I (literally) dug in my heels, he actually picked me up and started to carry me, but then I began kicking and screaming and he put me down quickly and told me to go home. When I saw the man a few days later, he again invited me to come inside his house, promising to give me a rose if I did so. I said no, and he left me alone after that. I didn’t really know what was going on at the time. All I knew was I didn’t want to go inside his house. Only many years later did I realize how suspicious this incident was. The man lived just at the end of my block, and, for all I know, he still does. He wasn’t a stranger to me; he’d lived down the street from me my whole life. I knew him, and my parents did too. Most kidnap victims are taken by family members, or at least people known to them.

But I get the feeling most people don’t know how rare stranger kidnapping really is. And even if they did know, it may not matter very much, because I’m convinced that having your child get kidnapped and never found is one of the worst things that can happen to you.