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Nov. 16, 2012
The Statistics, and How To Avoid Becoming One
It’s a parent’s greatest fear, magnified for most Americans in 1979 when six-year-old Etan Patz vanished on his way to kindergarten, and recently exacerbated by the brutal abduction and murder of Colorado schoolgirl Jessica Ridgeway in October 2012.
A child being permanently snatched by a stranger, or even assaulted and killed by them, is the worst case scenario imaginable, and, ever since the Patz boy’s mysterious disappearance, the kind that everybody is on guard for now. An abduction of this extreme nature is formally classified as a “Stereotypical” kidnapping, but, despite the collective terror about it happening all the time, it’s also the most uncommon. In fact, only about 100 to 120 kids per year go missing under such awful circumstances.
A comfort to know in an era that feels at times so utterly lawless, and figures which should offer worried families some peace of mind, but, unfortunately, this is as far as the good news goes regarding child abductions.
Both the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children and the Department of Justice confirm that approximately 850,000 children under the age of 18 officially go missing each year in the United States. This translates to about 85 to 90 percent of all missing persons annually and rounds out to roughly 2300 of such reports being filed for juveniles every single day. In more graspable terms, that’s one child a minute disappearing without a trace.
Of those youngsters who are not actual runaways, more than 200,000 will end up having been taken by a family member; generally a female, but not always. These type of abductions are labeled “Family Kidnappings” and, whether committed by a mother, a father, an aunt, or a cousin, are almost always successfully resolved in short order.
Another 58,000 are non-familial abductions, usually committed by a person the child knows fairly well or is familiar with somehow, such as a family friend or a close neighbor. These are called “Acquaintance Kidnappings” and, interestingly enough, have the highest concentration of juvenile offenders. At a rate of 75 percent, the average nonfamily perpetrator is typically a male, and 67 percent of these are under the age of 29.
The dreaded “Stranger Kidnapping” or “Stereotypical” abduction, like that of Jessica Ridgeway by teen killer Austin Sigg, thankfully only occurs once in awhile. Still, it’s the type that generates the greatest public attention and that causes many a parent's heart to stop whenever young children are suddenly out of their sight.
In a 1998 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic of Rochester Minnesota, three-quarters of custodians polled said they actively worried their kids would someday be abducted and harmed. A full one-third of the participants expressed a level of fear about such an event occurring which practically bordered on paranoia, surpassing all of the other more commonplace concerns they had for their children’s wellbeing, including sports injuries, automobile accidents, and substance abuse.
And it’s reasonable to conclude, what with all the high-profile kidnapping/killings that have occurred in the decade since that study was conducted, and the media’s ever-growing flair for sensationalism, the percent of overwrought parents has only increased with time. This, despite the data unequivocally proving over and over again that it will almost never be a complete stranger who makes off with a little one, but, rather, somebody who the victim personally knows.
To an extent, though, the fear of a young daughter or son being grabbed and slain by an unknown subject, though disproportionate to the actual risk, is somewhat warranted—of the hundred or so kids per annum who suffer such a fate, 76% percent are killed within just three hours of their reported abductions, and 89 percent within only 24 hours. As well, the recent uptick in juvenile aggressors, like Austin Reed Sigg, who deliberately select other children to victimize is a new cause for concern, since their daily (and totally lawful) interaction with minors can markedly increase the chances of children being kidnapped now.
Having knowledge of children’s whereabouts at all times and responding as quickly as possible when they go missing is key then to getting them returned promptly, alive. But understanding the facts about stereotypical child-napping, and who the most likely suspects in such cases might be, is invaluable to preventing these traumatic events from occurring in the first place. The statistical breakdown therefore, in both kidnappings and attempted kidnappings by strangers, is as follows:
• 72% involved a suspect in a vehicle
• 69% involved a female child
• 35% of victims were walking to and from school
• 32% of victims were lured with an offer of a ride
• 12% were lured with candy
• 8% were lured with phony questions
• 8% were lured with promises of money
• 8% were lured with a tale of a lost pet
• 38% of all suspects were known sex offenders
• 16% of all suspects were registered sex offenders
• 19% of attempted abductions were thwarted by good Samaritans
• 28% of attempted abductions were thwarted by the victim through kicking and/or yelling
For onlookers who witness these crimes in progress to become more effective in intervening, some longstanding myths need to be dispelled as well, because the truth is most children will rarely ever ‘cry wolf’ in public, let alone call out for help. Indeed, when confronted by a kidnapper some kids actually freeze in fright, an act that often serves to facilitate their abduction. These are predictable traits and reactions which make young people ideal targets for skilled, opportunistic villains who know that, when an adult orders a child around, most will quietly do as they’re told, including getting into a car when they’re afraid or have misgivings.
This means, if there is even the slightest suspicion that a child is about to be abducted, even though they may not be protesting or resisting, then that hunch needs to be acted upon without delay.
It also implies that, while teaching youngsters to “be polite” and to “respect their elders” is as vital as ever to properly socializing them, caretakers need also emphasize there are exceptions to the rule, even if children recognize their potential abductors, which frequently they do. For after all, good judgment is critical in these fast developing situations, and the split-second ability of a child to ascertain that a request or command they’ve been issued by someone is dubious—and to loudly and physically disobey it—will prove essential to their survival.
So, too, asking them to be conscious of their vulnerability to anyone bigger and more cunning than they are who may want to do them harm is also important, albeit that must somehow be tempered with the paramount need to instill in young people a sense of confidence in their surroundings and in themselves.
Granted, protecting kids and yet encouraging their independence is a difficult balance to strike, but we can see the world has grown dangerous in these past few decades, and, as a result, there seems to be no other choice but for everyone, including children, to maintain a state of hyper vigilance.
In the effort to be safe and make our communities safer places too, we are not alone, as law enforcement agencies have also acknowledged that the times have drastically changed from those we once knew.
For instance, in response to the Ridgeway girl’s horrific slaying, Colorado officials recently launched Operation Shepherd 2012. With it, they sought to immediately locate over 15,000 registered sex offenders living within their jurisdiction. Some of these individuals who had gone on the lam, and a few others who were in gross violation of the terms of their parole, were apprehended and placed behind bars again.
It may be an added budgetary burden for small, local police departments, but sweeps like Operation Shepherd are necessary, authorities feel, because the numbers are now in and it’s become clear that those who sexually prey on young children have the highest rates of recidivism.
These are the ones that have to be watched like a hawk at all times once they’re released from prison, and their every action tracked and accounted for. There is no known cure for their perversions, sadly, and not even the threat of protracted incarcerations will deter the majority of them from reoffending.
Because of this, U.S. Marshall Deputy Chief Ken Deal recommends that "for the safety of children," parents should "get to know your community." He says the best way to begin to do that is by regularly checking a state’s Sex Offender Registry which is public information to all who want to access it and available online 24/7.
While not every convicted sex offender fulfills their release obligations and properly registers on the list, most of them will, and it’s crucial for families to know as much as they can about where these dangerous individuals have taken up residence. Certainty is better than making false assumptions about who such felons might be and what they must look like and where they probably live because, “They come from all backgrounds,” U.S. Marshal Roberto Rodriguez cautions. And they don’t merely fondle their young victims, either: “We have very violent sexual offenders,” he additionally warns. “We have sexually violent predators.”
And we’ve probably always had them, although not nearly as many as we’re seeing now, and children weren’t necessarily their number one preference.
Once upon a time not so long ago, it was women, trained since their girlhoods to be weak, trusting and submissive, who were the primary objects of serial rapists and killers. When victimized in this manner, they were often further mistreated by the criminal justice system where they were portrayed as “bad girls” who were “asking for it”, either because of what they were wearing when assaulted, or because they were allegedly “too promiscuous”.
Throughout history this was the standard experience for female victims of sex-related crimes, whose characters were routinely and liberally assassinated by the media, police, attorneys, and judges, even when they had died at the hands of their attacker. Obviously, on the surface, such institutional victim-bashing was done out of pure ignorance and bias, but there was also an underlying psychological motivation at play as well: The need to assure society, and allow society to reassure itself, that such terrible things could not happen to “good” people.
But they do, unfortunately.
It took a long time for authorities to come around to the truth about violent predators: That their vicious crimes are not compelled by sexual attraction or uncontrollable lust, but, instead, through a pathological desire to hurt and do wrong, and that, in executing those illicit desires, they are constantly seeking for easy prey.
In the meantime, however, women had gradually begun adjusting to this harsh reality on their own, learning how to be less vulnerable in public, how to protect themselves if grabbed, how to appear more formidable. Over time, many decided to shed the image of “the weaker sex” altogether, endeavoring to make themselves physically stronger and faster, and even studying the art of self defense.
And how did violent perps cope with these changing dynamics? For starters, they sought out smaller females, naturally. But even this cautious approach to criminality was fraught with perils, as many savvy felons soon came to realize. Especially when the woman was athletic.
The case of Mickey Shunick in one that has undoubtedly given a lot of serial perpetrators pause this year, forcing them to rethink their malevolent motifs and strategies.
Shunick, 22, was a senior at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when she vanished. Petite, popular, and pretty, the young woman was last seen early in the morning of May 19th 2012, riding her bicycle from a friend’s place.
At that very same hour a registered sex offender named Brandon Scott Lavergne was scoping out the neighborhood in his white truck, a forbidden activity that unbeknownst to him was captured on surveillance cameras. When he spied Shunick biking he followed her for a short distance before using his vehicle to knock her down. Then, armed with a knife and a semiautomatic handgun, he ordered her to get into the truck with him and when, instead, Shunick attempted to call for help on her cell phone, he began threatening her at knifepoint.
Mickey Shunick was a fighter, though, and she knew the outcome of resisting an abduction couldn’t be any worse than what would happen if she permitted herself to be taken. So she reached into her saddlebag, grabbed some Mace, and pepper-sprayed her assailant.
A battle then ensued at the side of the road, during which Lavergne was handily disarmed by his small victim and then stabbed repeatedly by her with his very own knife, in the process sustaining what would later be deemed life threatening injuries.
It is not known for exactly how long the two struggled in the dark like this, but eventually Lavergne did manage to retake his knife again and in turn stabbed Shunick at least four times with it, after which she lost consciousness.
Concluding then that she had died because he could find no pulse, Lavergne hastily placed Shunick’s body (and her bike) in his truck and transported the victim to a secluded location some 40 minutes from the scene of the crime, with the intent of burying her in a shallow grave.
Digging proved slow going, however, because by then Lavergne was already feeling the effects of his multiple lacerations. And, to make matters worse for him, Mickey Shunick was not dead.
Regaining consciousness, and possession of the knife, Shunick stood up and once more attempted to turn the tables on her aggressor, stabbing him this time squarely in the chest. At this point, unfortunately, a flabbergasted Brandon Scott Lavergne finally got the upper hand. Exhausted and bleeding profusely, he pulled out his firearm and shot Schunick in the head, killing her instantly.
But the final wounds Shunick rendered on Laverne before her death had left him unable to continue with his grave digging project, so he dragged her now lifeless body back into the truck and fled to his home to dress his injuries and destroy his bloody clothing.
A few hours later, hardly refreshed, Lavergne would return to the remote area he had selected earlier for Shunick’s burial, but once again, because of those knife wounds, he could not complete the chore. Still, he was desperate to be rid of Shunick at last, so he placed her corpse at the tree line, covered it with leaves and twigs, and hightailed it again.
It’s difficult to fathom the workings of such a psychotic man’s mind, and whether there is within its dark depths some master plan that he’s sticking to, but, if there had been one for Brandon Scott Lavergne, it surely didn’t encompass being stabbed within an inch of his life.
Lavergne returned to his house once more to clean his seeping wounds and to ditch more incriminating evidence. Then he made arrangements to stay the night with an out-of-town friend, en route there discreetly dumping Shunick's bike on a riverbank beneath an overpass where it was to be discovered only a few days later. A find which would ultimately lead to his arrest.
In his police confession, Lavergne stated that he also disposed of the handgun and the knife, and that when he left his friend's the next day, he went directly to where he’d abandoned Shunick's body, relocating it and burying it in a heavily wooded area close by. It wasn’t found until several months later, in August 2012, when he offered it up in exchange for a plea deal.
At the time he entered his guilty plea, thereby avoiding the death penalty for the murder of Mickey Shunick, Brandon Scott Lavergne also admitted to the unsolved slaying of yet another young woman, Lisa Pate, in 1999. Just like Shunick had done, Ms. Pate also struggled to escape her captor, but she wasn't as fierce a foe and didn’t leave him forever scarred.
"My sister, Mickey Shunick, was a warrior," Charlene Shunick said in a written statement she gave the press following Lavergne’s grim disclosures. "If it wasn't for her, our community never would have been able to bring down a dangerous man that harmed multiple people."
Mickey Shunick's mother, Nancy Anne Rowe, also released a public statement. "She refuses to be a victim,” she wrote. “My courageous child faced down a monster. Now I think I can face monsters too. And so can you."
The monster who kidnapped, assaulted, murdered and dismembered ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway is technically only a child himself, a sobering discovery and, for criminal profilers, a real game-changer as well. The likes of teenage sociopath Austin Reed Sigg reveal a troubling trend emerging this century; a brand new breed of violent sex offender who is capable of mingling among children without standing out or being suspected.
There is nothing more chilling than the thought of someone abducting, violating and killing a child, except, perhaps, for a child being slain in this manner by another child. Sigg’s current efforts to be treated by the courts as a juvenile for the Ridgeway murder are doomed therefore, and soon he will have to face trial as an adult for these adult offenses. When that realization sinks in, then he’ll start laying down hints to prosecutors about certain hidden aspects of his crimes, just as Mickey Shunick’s killer did, in hopes of striking a deal for a more favorable sentence. For now, we can only guess at what secrets Sigg will finally spill, but this much we know already: He targeted children solely because his earlier attempts at abducting women were unsuccessful.
Whether 17 or 70, violent sexual offenders like Austin Reed Sigg are all grappling with the same dilemma lately: Women are not the easy pickings they were once thought to be. They’ve taken necessary steps to make themselves less likely to being victimized, and some are even inflicting serious damages on those who underestimate them.
Deadly deviants always carefully study the terrain before they strike, and many are taking heed of stories like what happened to Mickey Shunick’s attacker because it downright scares them. Remember, they don’t want to get hurt as they hunt, they just want to hurt others, and that’s why more of them have shifted their focus to defenseless children.
This now makes it imperative for kids to also take preventative measures.
Apart from the obvious fact that young people are more naïve than adults are, their bodies are also still growing, thus most of them don’t quite have the same capacity to defend themselves as even a woman slight in stature might have. Yet there are still a number of things kids can do to make abductions more difficult, if not impossible.
Police advise children to thrash, fight, bite and scream when confronted by a kidnapper, and if grabbed by the jacket or backpack to quickly slip free of the item and head toward a populated area to report the incident. Kidnappers are unlikely to pursue a child who knows to do this because the last thing they want is to create a public spectacle.
Experts also say to just ignore a gun if one is displayed and to run away regardless, since firearms are only employed to intimidate a child and are rarely, if ever, used against them. If running is not an available option, kids should get under a car (belly up) and hold onto the undercarriage so that the kidnapper cannot easily pry them out. In the unlikelihood of a perpetrator being so determined that they’d risk crawling under the car too, just exit on the other side of it.
Clint Van Zandt is a retired FBI profiler and former hostage negotiator. He offers families a free instructional DVD titled “Protecting Children From Predators” at www.LiveSecure.org, and furnishes the following specific insights and safety tips for foiling would be kidnappers:
10 Safety Tips For Children
1. “Do not get into any car unless your parents personally tell you to do so. Also, stay away from anyone who follows you on foot or in a car. You do not need and should not go near a car to talk to the people inside.
2. “Adults and other people who need help should not be asking a child for help; they should be asking other adults. Adults should not be asking you for directions or to look for a ‘lost puppy,’ or telling you that your mother or father is in trouble and that they will take you to them.
3. “Quickly get away from anyone who tries to take you somewhere. Yell or scream, ‘This person is not my father (or mother).’
4. “You should use the ‘buddy system’ and never go places alone. Always ask your parents’ permission to leave the yard/play area or to go over to someone’s home, and especially always ask permission before you go into someone’s home.
5. “Never, never hitchhike! Do not try to get a ride with people unless your parents have told you it’s OK to do so.
6. “People should not ask you to keep a special secret. If they do, tell your parents or teacher. Also, tell anyone who wants to take your picture, ‘No,’ and quickly tell your parents or teacher.
7. “No one should touch you on the parts of the body covered by your bathing suit, nor should you touch anyone else in those areas. Your body is special and private.
8. “You can be assertive and you have the right to say ‘No’ to someone, including adults and even relatives or friends who try to take you somewhere against your will, touch you or make you feel uncomfortable in any way.
9. “NOTE: Many parents use a special code word that only the child knows to convey a message should someone other than a parent ask a child to accompany them anywhere.
10. “THE YELL: Practice a ‘special’ yell. It is low, loud and long. It tells the person trying to hurt the child, ‘I know what to do! I’m not an easy victim!’ It tells everyone within the sound of the child’s voice, ‘I need help!’ It gets the child going, it breaks the ‘spell.’ A child should not panic and freeze, thereby becoming immobile in an emergency. When you yell you take a deep breath, thereby getting oxygen and energy to your brain and muscles. Your own yell can give you courage and get your feet moving when you need to run away!”
School Bus Stop Safety
1. “Parents should ensure that if possible, an adult waits with children at school bus stops (not always possible with one-parent families or where both parents work), but something could be worked out with all parents of children at the bus stop to be there on a rotating basis.
2. “Know the path your child takes to and from home to the school bus stop.
3. “Tell your children to avoid short cuts through woods, alleys, parks, or other areas where they could be alone.
4. “Identify safe houses along the way that your child could run to or into for help if needed.
5. “Insure your child does not have his or her name on a backpack, etc., as this would enable a potential abductor to call out to the child by name.
6. “If children feels concerned for their safety, they should always tell their parents and the bus driver of any such concern.
7. “If approached on the way to or from the bus stop or at the bus stop, tell your parents, the bus driver and school officials.
8. “Report any suspicious vehicle. Write down the license number and provide it to school and law enforcement officials.
9. “Stand away from any vehicle that stops near the bus stop and do not allow yourself to come close to or enter the vehicle of someone you don't want to.
10. “Run from anyone displaying a weapon. Do this while throwing books, yelling and making as much noise as you can. Under no circumstances go with an abductor. Kick, bite, and no matter what the threat, do not go along with your kidnapper. Once he takes you away, your chances of survival greatly diminish.”
How To Escape a Kidnapper
1. “Children should not be afraid to tell their parents or a trusted adult or teacher if they feel threatened, even if someone has told them not to talk. If victimized, it is never their fault and never something they should be ashamed of or something that they hide from their parents or other caregivers. Tell your children you love them and that if they disappear, no matter what their kidnapper says, you will never stop loving them and you will never stop looking for them.
2. “Never go with anyone you don't want to, and don't let someone take you away from where the potential kidnapper first approaches you. (This and Tip No. 3 below are the most important things a child can do to stop from becoming the victim of a kidnapper.)
3. “Yell, scream, fight and run from any potential abductor. No matter what the assailant says, make as much noise and attract as much attention as you can.
4. “If someone tries to lure you into a vehicle, run the opposite way the vehicle is facing, forcing the kidnapper to turn around to chase the child.
5. “Run to your home, a neighbor's home, into a store or other public place yelling that someone is trying to kidnap them.
6. “If on your bike, grip the bike. The kidnapper can't get both you and your bike into a car. If you're on the street and you can't run, grab a street light, traffic sign, trash can, mail box or other fixed object while yelling for help.
7. “If the kidnapper points a gun at you, run anyway. Most kidnappers don't want to attract attention by firing a gun and they probably couldn't hit you anyway. It's better to be wounded and left to get help from others then to go off with a kidnapper.
8. “If grabbed, twist your body and scream: ‘This is not my dad (or my mom)!’
9. “If your assailant grabs you by your coat or backpack, twist out of his grip, leaving him with the coat or backpack as you run and scream toward another nearby adult. Attract the attention of this adult by grabbing and holding on to him or her.
10. “If forced into the front seat of a four-door car or van, immediately jump into the back seat, open the rear door and escape. (Don't put on a seatbelt as this will obviously slow your escape time.)
11. “If placed in the trunk of a car, look for the emergency trunk release lever and pull it and escape. If you can't find this, pull out the wires to the tail lights on both sides of the trunk, thereby attracting attention to the vehicle when the stop lights don't work. (Parents, tell police that your child knows how to do this; therefore, the police will be looking for cars with malfunctioning tail lights.)
12. “Grab the keys from the kidnapper's car and throw them out the window.
13. “If in traffic, step on the accelerator and make the car crash into the car in front of it.
14. “Honk the horn and try to force the kidnapper to wreck the car.
15. “Do not eat or drink anything your kidnapper gives to you. (It may be drugged.)
16. “If your kidnapper takes you into a store, knock things down, break bottles, yell and scream that you have been kidnapped.
17. “If you're held in a house, flash the lights on the front porch off and on. If in an upper apartment, flood the bathroom to cause water to flood the apartment below.
18. “Never stop trying to escape and always take the opportunity to use a phone to call 911 and ask for help.
19. “Parents, discuss and practice these things with your children. While doing everything we can to prevent our children from becoming the victim of a kidnapper, we need also equip them with the above information to help them escape should they be taken by an assailant. Information is key and can save the life of your child.
20. “As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Never, never, never give up.’ [Visit www.LiveSecure.org for more safety tips and advice.]”
Of course, a troubling issue like this we really don’t want to have to know about, and that reaction is perfectly understandable and human. Nonetheless, those in parenting roles cannot afford to simply turn a blind eye and hope for the best, nor dodge discussing the matter with their kids because it’s too distasteful to dwell on.
Only awareness will help to minimize the very real risks that the young are posed with today. Only by educating ourselves and our children about those dangers can we hope to ward them off. Only by tackling the problem of serial predators head on and with eyes wide open can we reduce the number of kidnappings like Jessica Ridgeway’s to none.
- Eponymous Rox http://KillingKillers.blogspot.com