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Child abduction-murders: Why?

Prime motivation is sexual assault, 44-state study finds

Sunday, October 01, 2000

By Karen MacPherson and Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The grisly murder and mutilation of 11-year-old Scott Drake is a rare event, but homicides of children by strangers motivated by sexual deviance are not.

Although neither the FBI, the Justice Department nor private groups keep data, a study by the Washington state attorney general's office found that about 100 children are abducted and murdered by strangers each year, most of them involving some form of sexual perversion.

Funded by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the study shattered commonly held beliefs which "in the past have worked against police, parents and the victims," according to Christine Gregoire, the state attorney general.

The study, finished in 1997, examined 600 child abduction-murder cases from 44 states over a three-year period. Updated statistics appear to support the 1997 data.

The major finding was that there was approximately one child abduction-murder for every 10,000 reports of a missing child. Sexual assault was the primary motivation. The majority of the killers -- 53 percent -- were known to have committed prior crimes against children, the most common being sexual assaults.

The typical victims in the child abduction-murder cases were white girls, about 11 years old, often described as "normal kids" from middle-class neighborhoods with stable family relationships.

The typical abductors were white males, about 27 years old and unmarried. Half of them -- 51 percent -- lived either alone (17 percent) or with their parents (34 percent.) Half of them also were unemployed, and those who were employed worked in unskilled or semiskilled jobs.

"Therefore, the killers can generally be characterized as 'social marginals,' " the study said.

Commonly, the killers had a legitimate reason to be at the site where they first contacted their child victims. Twenty-nine percent lived near the site, 19 percent were there for some normal social activity, and 18 percent either worked in the area or were there for some other business.

Most of the children abducted and murdered by strangers -- 57 percent -- were "victims of opportunity," the study added. In nearly two-thirds of the cases, the abductions were "snatch and grab" confrontations where a killer saw an available victim and quickly assaulted and subdued her.

In only 14 percent of cases did the killer choose his victim because of some physical characteristic.

In the majority of cases -- 53 percent -- the initial contact between the victim and the killer took place within a quarter-mile of the victim's home. And in 33 percent of the cases, the first contact occurred less than 200 feet from the victim's home.

"The most common basic elements in these crimes are: a motivated offender, the opportunity to commit the crime, and ineffective guardians," the study said.

The study suggested several ways to improve the chances for safely recovering a child who is abducted.

First, speed is essential in reporting a missing child. Typically, there is more than a two-hour delay in reporting a missing child, yet the vast majority -- 74 percent -- of the abducted children who were murdered were dead within three hours of their abduction, the study said.

Parents or guardians could improve the chances that their child ends up safe by immediately calling the police if the child is missing, the study said.

In addition, police need to respond immediately to a report of a missing child. Since the victims often are abducted close to home, police should start with a canvass of the neighborhood.

As they question neighbors, police should ask "What did you see that was unusual?" and "What did you see that was usual?" since the study found that, in two-thirds of the cases, the killer was in the area because he belonged there.

For parents worried about the possible abduction and murder of their child, the study offered these tips:

Children are not immune from abduction because they are close to home. Because most of the abductions took place close to the victims' homes, it is probably not a good idea to send an unescorted child to the neighborhood grocery store. Overall, the most important thing parents can do is to be certain that their children are supervised, even if they are in their own front yard.

Children are often told, "Don't speak to strangers" and "Don't get into cars with strangers." That advice should be carried one step further. Children should be told, "Don't even approach a car, whether the occupant is a stranger or not." Children should be told to turn around and run to a safe place if someone offers them a ride, asks for directions or offers treats.

Adults should be aware of strangers and unusual behavior in the neighborhood. Many child abductions are witnessed by people who do not realize that a crime is being committed. For example, when someone observes an adult struggling with child in a public place, many think it is a guardian taking control of an unruly child. In many cases, that is what it is. However, noting descriptions and license numbers is a good idea.

Finally, if a child is unaccounted for, the police should be notified immediately.

FBI sources say that a child abductor/murderer often develops nervousness, sleeplessness, irritability and an unnatural interest in news reports about the case. About 10 percent volunteer to help police search for the missing child. Police worry that abductors who kidnap children they don't know, such as the still-unknown man who abducted a 10-year-old Somerset County girl last year, become increasingly brazen, motivated to strike again and again until they slay their victims.

As with the case of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, murdered in Denver, dozens of child homicides remain unsolved.

Nationwide, only 66 percent of all U.S. homicides are considered solved. There are no FBI statistics on how many child homicides remain unsolved. But some are grisly. Laura Smither, 12, reported missing April 3, 1997, was found dismembered. Anthony Michael Martinez, 10, abducted at knife point April 4, 1997, was found naked in a California desert, his hands and feet bound with duct tape, mutilated and fed upon by vultures.

The World Health Organization last year published statistics indicating that while adult murders are declining, the number of child killings is up more than 58 percent.

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