When Kids Go Missing

The two hang gliders had come to the national forest near Riverside, Calif., to enjoy the brilliant skies, but instead stumbled on a scene straight out of hell. "We found a dead body," the caller sobbed frantically to the 911 operator. "I think it might even be the little girl that's been on the news!" Thus came the abrupt end to the national search for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, kidnapped less than 24 hours earlier while she played Clue with a friend outside her home in Stanton, Calif., by a man who said he needed help finding his dog. Last Tuesday's grisly discovery threw investigators into a frantic search for the killer, who they feared might strike again--and soon. FBI profilers said the murderer left a "calling card," displaying the dead girl's naked and bruised body in a provocative way not far from the highway, as if daring investigators to find him. By Friday they believed they had. Sheriff's deputies arrested Alejandro Avila, a 27-year-old factory worker from nearby Lake Elsinore on suspicion of kidnapping and murder. Avila was acquitted two years ago of molesting two 9-year-old girls--one of whom reportedly lived just down the street from Samantha.

The Runnion case was the third high-profile kidnapping to dominate the national media in recent months, following the abductions of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam and 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, both of whom were snatched from their beds in the middle of the night. No wonder Sheila Joyner of Baton Rouge, La., is scared to let her 11-year-old daughter ride her bike in the daytime. "I turn on the TV and hear about dead little girls," says Joyner. With countless hours of daily TV coverage of these crimes, you have to wonder whether the nation isn't in the midst of an epidemic.

But terrified parents, take comfort: there is no epidemic. Wrenching as these cases are to the victims' families and friends, there has been no real increase from the 200 to 300 kidnappings each year by strangers that a 1990 federally funded study found. "It's really an optical illusion" caused by the media attention these cases have received, says David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociologist who coauthored the 1990 study and several others for the Justice Department.

What has changed is the way in which police, the media and missing-children groups have come together in recent years to focus attention on the issue. The shift has been driven in large part by parents who've lost their own children to kidnappers: "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh cofounded the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children after his 6-year-old son was abducted and killed, and Marc Klaas started a group in Sausalito, Calif., after his daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered in 1993. Then there is the Texas-based Laura Recovery Center Foundation, formed after the kidnapping death of 12-year-old Laura Smither, which has mobilized and trained volunteer searchers in about 60 cases since 1997, including the van Dam and Smart kidnappings.

These groups have learned from experience that the media are their most valuable ally. Publicity increases tips that fuel an investigation, and many communities have launched special-alert systems in the past few years to get news of an abduction on the air within minutes. The hope is that listeners in cars or at home will spot a fleeing suspect. Parents of the victims are urged to go on the air to humanize the child in case the abductor is watching. "When people see those images of the victim, it hits home because those are intimate scenes from her life," says Mike Grass, who is providing public-relations advice to the Smart family. Saturation media coverage certainly worked in the Runnion case. The arrest of Avila followed "several" tips from citizens prompted by the intense news coverage, according to Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona.

Avila told a Los Angeles Times reporter on Friday that he didn't take Samantha. He insisted he was at a shopping mall the evening she disappeared. But Sheriff Carona disagreed. "I am 100 percent certain that Mr. Avila is the man who kidnapped and murdered Samantha Runnion," he said. Investigators reportedly found fibers and DNA evidence linking Avila to the crime.

While media exposure may have helped to find Samantha's alleged killer, it also went a long way toward scaring the hell out of parents and their kids thousands of miles away. Last Wednesday police were saying that the killer could strike again within 24 hours. "I watch my 2-year-old so much more carefully now," says Cheri Wilkinson from Michigan. "You hear how the little girl in California was raped and lying naked by the side of the road, and you just can't imagine what she went through."

Especially for the highly competitive all-news channels, these gut-wrenching stories grab eyeballs and, presumably, increase ratings. "These stories become national stories in a way they wouldn't have years ago," says Prof. James Alan Fox, criminal-justice scholar at Northeastern University. "Because it's live, it gives you the feeling that it's happening in your backyard, even if it's clear across the country." Or the world. People were e-mailing condolences to the Runnions from as far away as New York, Halifax and Moscow.

Law-enforcement officials say the widespread publicity given this summer's cases has not produced a copycat effect. But some serial killers may be drawn to the klieg lights, reveling in the sense of power the media give them. "They can hold an entire community, maybe even the entire nation, in a grip of terror," says Northeastern's Fox. There's another downside: the intense focus on select cases, however unusual or dramatic, can alienate communities struggling to cope with losses that don't hit the national headlines. Alexis Patterson, 7, disappeared on her way home from school in Milwaukee on May 3, a month before Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping. Jahi Turner is a 2-year-old San Diego boy who vanished from a park in April after his stepfather had allegedly walked away for a few minutes. Both kids are black. While the two crimes got considerable local attention, they received nothing like the wall-to-wall coverage--on TV and in print--of the suburban white girls.

One benefit to widespread coverage of cases like Samantha Runnion's is that the attention forces parents to talk to their children. "TV gives me a window of opportunity to sit down and discuss what's happening and how to prevent a snatch," says Michael Sands of Los Angeles, who has let his 7-year-old son Nicholas watch cable coverage of these abductions. "Yes, it is gruesome, but why shouldn't kids learn what people are like and what the risks are?" That lesson might just save the next child who is asked by a stranger to help find his lost dog.