A Litany of Lost Girls

We can recite their names—Samantha Runnion, Elizabeth Smart, Danielle Van Dam, JonBenet Ramsey, Casey Williams, Polly Klaas.  Their features are almost as familiar to us now as those of our own daughters and sisters and nieces—dimpled cheek, toothy smile, pixie nose, straight blond hair, auburn curls, feathered bangs.  We know the sordid details of their stories—taken at gunpoint from her own bedroom, abducted from her driveway, her kitchen, her front yard, found in the desert, under some bushes, in the basement, in an old abandoned factory, laid out just so on the gravel shoulder of an out-of-the-way road.

In 2002 it was happening so often and the stories were so prevalent in the news that we might have rightfully declared it the Year of the Lost Girl.  We seemed to be in the throes of an epidemic of abduction, but were the numbers really so unusual?  The experts say no, in fact the statistics haven’t changed: there continue to be around 150 kidnappings by strangers each year, but children are still more likely to be taken by a parent or known caretaker, and they are still more likely to be killed in traffic or playing with a gun than murdered by a predator.

And yet there it was, the spring of 2003,  and in the midst of  Operation Iraqi Freedom, in those riveting first days of shock and awe, our media nevertheless found the time and space to become fixated on something else entirely: the recovery of a missing girl, Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart.  Before she was taken from her bedroom in the middle of the night the summer before, Elizabeth was not anyone we’d ever heard of, but as soon as she was gone her story drew attention that was far more sensational than the simple circumstances of her disappearance might have called for.  And since her happy return home, the publicity has continued, including a weekday morning interview with Oprah Winfrey on ABC, a prime-time special with Katie Couric on NBC, a television movie on CBS during November sweeps, and a book recounting her parents’ side of the story, published by Doubleday with the uplifting title Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope.  All this for a girl who police say was sexually assaulted during nine months of captivity in the hands of a homeless lunatic fringe Mormon street preacher and his wife.

As Reuters News Service quoted Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication: “The whole thing makes you want to take a shower.” And yet, as contaminated as it may make some of us feel, all that coverage that was right in line with what seems to have become a world-wide fascination with cases involving lost girls.  The numbers are holding steady, and these stories should be old news, completely familiar to us by now, yet our interest in them stays put, seems even to have grown.

Witness The Lovely BonesBy the time this Alice Sebold novel landed on bookstore shelves in the fall of 2002, word-of-mouth had already made it the most highly anticipated book of the season.  Two months later, after an enthusiastic critical response, a million copies were in print.  The novel, whose author was herself a victim of a violent rape at the age of 18,  tells the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon who looks down from heaven to recount the sordid details of her own rape – by a neighbor –  and murder – stabbing and dismemberment – as she watches her family and friends deal with their grief.  Three days after she disappears the neighbor’s dog brings her elbow home from a nearby cornfield, but that’s all of her body that’s ever found.

In 2003, only four hardcover novels had runs of 15 or more weeks.  Of these, The Lovely Bones had a 40-week run, on top of 25 weeks in 2002.  That 65-week total set the longest-running record for a book of hardcover fiction published in the previous five years.

On January 9, 2002, 12-year-old Ashley Pond disappears on her way to school from her Oregon City, Oregon, apartment complex, and then three months later her 13-year-old friend, Miranda Gaddis, is gone, too.  Eight months after that, during the weekend of August 24 and 25, their bodies are found buried in the yard of a nearby home.

Summer, 2002: In Soham, England, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman both 10, vanish shortly after being seen walking near their homes.  Their bodies are found in a ditch near Lakenheath, Suffolk, two weeks later.

It was October 1, 1993, that 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in her bedroom as her mother slept in the next room.  A massive volunteer search in the area of her hometown of Petaluma, California, and two months of law enforcement investigation followed before her killer led authorities to Polly’s body.

In Southern California,  7-year-old Danielle Van Dam is taken from her room, sexually assaulted, suffocated, and then dumped in the desert by David Alan Westerfield, a 50-year-old engineer who lives just two doors away.

Early in the morning of December 26, 1996, Patricia Ramsey finds a three-page ransom note downstairs in the family’s Boulder, Colorado, home.  6-year-old JonBenet is missing.  By afternoon her father has found her strangled body in a basement room of the house.

On the evening of July 15, 2002, on a quiet residential street in Orange County, California, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion is abducted as she plays in front of her house.  She is found the next day, and an autopsy reveals that she was sexually molested and asphyxiated.  Her elaborately posed body seems to have been deliberately left where it would be quickly found.

And one week later, on July 22, 6-year-old Casey Williamson is reported missing from her father’s home in suburban St. Louis, Missouri.  Her body is found later that day in a nearby abandoned glass factory, after a door-to-door search of the neighborhood.


I know that I am not alone in my fascination with these incidents, and I admit that my interest is sometimes sordid, exhilarated by fear and shock and anger and the gratifying possibilities of righteous acts of revenge.  We would all like to think that we will to go to any lengths to keep our little girls safe, capture and punish the monsters who prey upon them, find those who have been lost to us, and bring them back to innocence, back to safety, back home where they belong.  We have legislated spur-of-the-moment Amber alerts into the law enforcement systems of our cities, capable of almost instantaneously broadcasting incidents of abduction, complete with images of the victims, suspect composites, license plate numbers, and vehicle descriptions.  We listen to breathless breaking news reports on radio and TV.  Follow ongoing stories in the daily papers and weekly news magazines.  Have access to an internet of websites plastered with the faces and statistics of missing girls, fierce family support networks, and weepy tribute pages embellished with clip-art teddy bears, girly pink ribbons, sentimental poems.

Even some of the most sophisticated space technology that NASA has to offer has been called upon to help, as on July 12, 2003, when an 11-year-old girl was assaulted under the scrutiny of security cameras in a Target store in South Charleston, West Virginia.  After she and her mother split up to do their shopping, the girl was stalked by a man posing as a security guard.  Eventually he made his move, approached, and accused her of shoplifting.  Knowing her own innocence, she tried to retreat, until he pulled a knife and forced her into a more private area of the store, where he assaulted her, then fled.

The recorded images of the stalking were recognizable enough to have tracked the movements of a shoplifter, but they were too grainy and out of focus to offer any conclusively identifying details after the fact, when the stalker was long gone and his defiled victim had been found.  So the tape was sent to NASA’s nearby Langley Research Center for processing by a high-tech procedure known as Retinex, digital sharpening that its patent holders say was originally developed for “remote sensing of the earth,” whatever that is.  Satellite maps?   Espionage?  Terrorist tracking?  The images of the Target store assault were thus improved and enhanced for rebroadcast, and two days after the incident the authorities had their man in custody.  South Charleston Police Chief David Dunlap triumphantly credited the quick capture of his culprit to the publicity from that surveillance video, explaining that it was an anonymous tip from a TV viewer that led to the arrest.

Seven months later, in February 2003, another, even more dramatic, incident was caught on videotape – this one from a security camera at a carwash in Sarasota, Florida, which showed 11-year-old  Carlie Brucie as she was approached by what appeared to be a twenty-something white man.   She didn’t seem to know him, as he talked to her for those few moments before he had hold of her – his reach revealing  tattoos on both forearms as well as a flash of name patch on his shirt – and was dragging her off toward his car.

Once again NASA was called in to enhance the snowy surveillance video images, asked to sharpen and enlarge them for the public, in hopes of jogging the memory of anyone who might have seen something of either the girl or her abductor that night.  Although NASA physicist David Hathaway refused to say whether the investigators specifically instructed him to focus in on the identifying features of either the suspect’s tattoos or the embroidered name spelled out on the pocket flap of his shirt, he did tell reporters that he’d been given a list and added that it would be easy enough for anyone to guess at what information the police might be interested in obtaining from the pictures.  Yet another surveillance camera at the carwash showed a cream-colored Buick station wagon entering the parking lot a few minutes before the abduction, and those images were also used to try to identify, find, and eventually capture the suspect, focusing in on the license plate, no doubt.

This ominously sudden disappearance of a popular blonde 6th-grader was enough in itself to trigger a wide-ranging search within her own local community, but once the existence of the tapes was established the next morning, TV coverage became frantic, the story went international, and the mom appeared at a press conference, begging camera crews to, “Please air [Carlie’s] face and air that car on TV as often and as much as possible.”   Within hours of this plea, the assailant was identified by a friend who had recognized him on the tape.  The man was arrested and soon led police to where the girl’s body had been stashed hours earlier, under some bushes beside a nearby church parking lot.

According to Robin Morarelli, the head of student services for Florida’s Sarasota County schools who sent in grief counselors to console Carlie Bruscia’s classmates at McIntosh Middle School, this slaying hit particularly hard because of the video, which allowed viewers to see for themselves a few of the exact last moments of the girl’s life.  “It makes it very real,” Morarelli was quoted as saying.  As if something like that weren’t already real enough.

We all feel stricken when a girl goes missing, whether we read the book or see the movie and be witness to the details of exactly how the whole thing went down or not. The loss of a child exposes everybody’s helplessness and vulnerability – the teachers, the police, the other children, and maybe most especially those who are parents themselves, the parents of adolescents in particular, who may not feel they have much control over anything anymore anyway.  Worse, from the amount of coverage that saturates our news, you would think that child abductions are commonplace, posing a real and present danger to our girls all the time.

But the truth is, most such abductions end with the child being safely returned home, and child murders are rare compared to the total number of reported missing kids.   Our stories of these lost girls are an exorbitant exaggeration, and we wallow in the drama of it, allowing ourselves more fear and more concern than the true numbers call for.  And, however well-meaning, the U.S. Department of Justice only confuses us further by putting out one pamphlet that normalizes the statistics, while at the same time publishing another that tells both parents and children what they need to know and do to avoid abduction and murder.[1]

In his book The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner writes that three out of four parents say they fear their child will be kidnapped by a stranger.  James R. Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence, cites “Reader’s Digest” reporting in the early 1980’s that thousands of missing children are murdered each year.  He quotes  Representative Paul Simon of Illinois proclaiming, “The most conservative estimate is that 50,000 young people disappear because of stranger kidnapping,” and then goes on to tell us that “[i]n 1985, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children said there were between four thousand and twenty thousand stranger kidnappings every year, a figure soon bloated to fifty thousand by the media…”[2]  Some have thrown out numbers as high as 400,000.   Glassner quotes Geraldo Rivera in 1997:  “‘This isn’t commentary, this is reality:  they will come for your kid over the internet; they will come in a truck; they will come in a pickup in the middle of the night.  They will come in the Hollywood mall in Florida.  There are sickos out there.'”[3]

Here are the facts:  The U.S. Department of Justice reports that of the more than 70 million children (under the age of eighteen) in the United States, 800,000 are reported missing each year, but only 12,000 of these involve non-family abductions.  Further, less than half of these are by strangers and only 115 are of the most serious kind, in which the abductor intends to keep the child permanently, the child is gone overnight, is killed, transported fifty miles or more, or is ransomed.   Only one third (less than 40) of these most serious cases result in the child being killed, and only half of these involve girls.[4]   20 out of 35 million is still too many lost girls, of course, but it is not at all the epidemic we would think it is from reading and watching the news.

So, why do we continue to be so afraid when we have the statistics to tell us we should know better?   Maybe it’s because even as much as we may loathe the crimes themselves, still we love the stories too much to abandon them, as we take a kind of guilty pleasure from the fears that they inspire.

[1]United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, NISMART: National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, October 2002, and When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, Third Edition, May 2004.

[2] James R. Kincaid, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), p. 78.

[3] Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.  (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 64.