Sending Out An S.O.S.

The bad news traveled fast. A man with a gun had abducted two teenage girls from a dusty, hilltop lover's lane overlooking the Mojave Desert town of Quartz Hill, Calif., leaving their boyfriends tied up with duct tape as he sped off in one of their cars. Within minutes of the 911 call, dozens of investigators from the sheriff's office and the FBI had jumped on the case and alerted the media to the white 1980 Ford Bronco now carrying the kidnapper and his two victims. Before daybreak, radio and TV stations were broadcasting news of the abduction. Commuters hitting the freeways at 7 a.m. peered through their windshields at 500 electronic billboards around the state flashing the description and license number of the car. By early afternoon sheriff's deputies, working off tips from drivers and viewers, had cornered 37-year-old ex-con Roy Ratliff on a remote dirt road 100 miles away, where investigators believe he'd taken the girls to kill them. "No way!" Ratliff shouted, waving his gun while deputies fired off 17 shots and the hysterical teens leapt from the Bronco to safety. Less than 12 hours after the ordeal had begun, the kidnapper was dead.

The case was the sixth major kidnapping in recent months to garner wall-to-wall media coverage--the result of a new symbiosis between law enforcement eager to spread news of abductions to generate tips and media outlets willing to comply for reasons ranging from civic spirit to good ratings. Critics decry the constant coverage as wretched media excess, comparing it to last summer's overheated warnings about shark attacks (in both cases, there weren't more attacks, just more stories about them). But a burst of publicity can help save kidnap victims. As one of the girls told a TV reporter at the weekend, "You guys saved our lives."

Last week's kidnapping case marked the first use in California of the statewide Amber Alert, the notification system aimed at the swift dissemination of crucial news about child kidnappings. Named after Amber Hagerman, a 6-year-old abducted and murdered in 1996 in Arlington, Texas, the system is up and running in 43 states and is credited in the recovery of 21 children, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. There were bugs in California's first test run: five hours elapsed before the freeway signs were turned on; even then, few drivers knew what an amber alert was. It was late morning before the signs were changed to read child abducted.

Nonetheless, the system did its job. Ratliff's wife was watching TV Friday morning and recognized the Saturn police had found abandoned at the kidnapping scene as the car her husband had been driving. Concerned, she phoned the information in. He had carjacked it on July 18 in Las Vegas, agents quickly learned. With Ratliff's name in hand, detectives began digging into his past and discovered a 20-year history of drug and burglary convictions--and a warrant for his arrest on charges of raping a relative. Soon after, a driver on Highway 178 in Kern County and a flagman working at a road construction site informed authorities that they'd spotted the Bronco. Police began buzzing the area, and finally closed in after an animal-control officer saw the vehicle nearly hidden in the woods. "I honestly believe they were 10 minutes from being killed and buried," Kern County Sheriff-Coroner Carl Sparks told reporters.

The triumphant rescue was tempered by the sad news that surfaced Thursday evening, when Sheriff Sparks announced to the media that the girls had been raped. Their families were furious at him, and he apologized on national television the next day. "If I offended the family in any way, I regret that," Sparks said. The disclosure also sent editors scrambling to erase the girls' names and blur their faces, in accordance with the media's practice of withholding the identities of rape victims--especially juveniles, like the 16- and 17-year-old involved in this case. But Jacqueline Marris, the older girl, decided to talk to a local TV reporter Friday night--and told a harrowing story of a battle with Ratliff shortly before law enforcement arrived. Grabbing a hunting knife hanging from the gear shift while Ratliff slept, Marris says she "stabbed him in the throat," while the other girl smashed his forehead with a whisky bottle. The kidnapper pulled his gun on them and thwarted their escape. But thanks to the help of an electronic posse, help was on the way.