Editor's Note: This is the sixth analysis in a series on kidnapping.
Jackie Barron Wilson was executed in Huntsville, Texas, on May 4 for the 1988 abduction, rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl. Although he proclaimed his innocence until the end, Wilson was convicted of taking Maggie Rhodes from her bedroom in Arlington, Texas, and in the space of a few hours sexually assaulting and killing her. The case illustrates many of the characteristics of sexual-exploitation kidnappings, including the high mortality rate for victims. According to the U.S. Justice Department's National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children (NISMART) study, 797,500 children were reported missing in 1999. Of that figure, 203,900 were believed to have been victims of family abductions and 58,200 abducted by nonfamily members. The report also said 115 children were the victims of the most serious, long-term nonfamily abductions called "stereotypical kidnappings." In these cases, the child is transported a distance of 50 miles or more, and then either killed, held for ransom or held with the abductor's intent of keeping the child permanently. In nearly half of these cases, the child was exploited sexually, and in at least 40 percent of these cases, the child was killed. In a sexual-exploitation kidnapping of a child, sexual assault often is the sole motivation. When ransom demands are made — which is rare — they usually are an afterthought, often made after the victim has been killed. In about half of the cases, the victim's body is concealed rather than left for authorities to find. Therefore, many of the victims of this crime are never found. According to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General, the majority of sexual-exploitation kidnappings are carried out by males against females. The kidnapper in these cases averages 27 years in age, usually lives alone or with his parents, and holds a low-wage job. Furthermore, two-thirds of those arrested for sexual exploitation kidnapping have been arrested for crimes against children before — mostly of a sexual nature. The offenders in these cases often repeat their previous methods in these crimes, making it easy for law enforcement to determine a pattern and identify the perpetrator, although this can be done only after multiple offenses are committed. Most of the perpetrators live near their victims or have a legitimate reason for being in proximity to the victim, such as day laborers or other contracted labor. This happened in the case of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, who allegedly was abducted from her bedroom in Utah by Brian Mitchell, who had been employed at her home to do roofing work. Unlike kidnap for ransom
, or political kidnappings
, the abductor often has no interest in keeping the victim alive, or eventually releasing her or him unharmed. On the contrary, the repetitive nature of the crime means the abductor is more likely to kill the victim in order to cover his tracks, and thus ensure that he can continue his behavior. Most victims in these cases, in fact, are killed within the first three hours of the abduction. Because most kidnappings of this nature occur close to the home and school, parents and children may feel a false sense of security. The best deterrents to these kinds of crime, therefore, are close supervision of the children or knowledge of their whereabouts, situational awareness and aggressive reporting of suspicious people. In addition, community situational awareness adds another layer of security. Neighbors and even service personnel such as mail carriers, utility workers and delivery drivers should be aware of unusual behavior in the area and be encouraged to report it. Starting at an early age, children should be made aware of the threat and taught how to respond to it. Initiatives like the national "Stranger Danger" program, which has been run by local police departments for decades, focus on children from kindergarten to fifth grade. Parents should supplement these programs by discussing the threat frankly and openly with their children. Children should be taught never to approach an unknown car or individual, and to run from any stranger who approaches. Most children will exhibit submissive behavior when confronted by a threatening situation, which often allows a kidnapper the opportunity, however brief, to strike. In the case of abduction, hesitation can lead to tragedy — as shown in the surveillance tape of the 2004 abduction of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota, Fla. Parents also should employ an attitude of suspicion when it comes to strangers. Extreme caution should be exercised by parents when allowing unknown individuals access to the home. In the Smart case, the victim's father hired an unemployed drifter to do roofing work on the house, placing him in close proximity to his daughter. In the case of any child abduction, the first hours after the crime are critical. Most missing child reports are made an hour after the child is first noticed missing — and the child may have been abducted long before that. Given the critical three-hour window, this is often far too late. Parents should have up-to-date photographs
and fingerprints of their child readily available, and be able to describe what the child was wearing and the places he or she went that day. Although sexual-exploitation kidnappings are rare, the child victims are more likely to be killed than those kidnapped for ransom or in custody disputes. Parents should take steps to minimize their children's vulnerability to this crime — and act aggressively in reporting the disappearance of a child.