Search for Utah girl uses advances in sleuthing
SAN FRANCISCO — The case of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her bedroom last week, strikes a primal chord. It plays upon the worst fears of parents and echoes one of the most notorious crimes in American history when Charles Lindbergh's baby was abducted from his bedroom by a nighttime intruder who forced open a window.
Now, as then, the nation has responded with petitions and prayers. Yet Americans have added something else their eyes and ears.
By some estimates, more than 1,000 volunteers showed up in Salt Lake City each day for four days last week to help search for the 14-year-old girl. Even today, hundreds scour hillsides and scrub some coming from as far away as California and Texas.
It is, experts say, a dramatic example of how the response to kidnappings, here and nationwide, has become quicker and more comprehensive.
Stirred by high-profile abductions during the past two decades, law-enforcement agencies and the public have become aware of the need for decisive action in the hours after a kidnapping. The result is a network of media coverage, high-tech machinery, and expertise that can be mobilized at a moment's notice to canvas an entire region before the day is out.
It is not a cure for kidnapping, and experts acknowledge that this new vigilance still can't prevent many unfortunate endings. But these are important advances, they add, that go farther than ever before toward recovering children who have been taken.
"You can look at the news and see that improvements have been made," says Jenni Thompson of the Polly Klaas Foundation in Petaluma, Calif. "There's an awareness of this as there has never been, and the ability of law enforcement to react quickly has improved dramatically.... Now, there's much more urgency."
That has been apparent in Salt Lake City during the past week.
Some of the responses have been familiar. Volunteers made buttons and posters. McDonalds handed out fliers with takeout meals. Specialized backcountry SWAT teams and helicopters with infrared sensors spread out through the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains.
Yet there are new resources, too, that didn't exist five years ago. Many of the volunteers have been marshaled by experts from the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, a Texas organization founded in 1997 to coordinate abduction-rescue efforts.
Perhaps even more significant, though, was the fist-ever use of the Rachael Alert. Named after a Utah child who was kidnapped and found dead in 1982, the statewide system operates under the idea that the public can be an invaluable help in the hours after abductions.
After the police determine that an abducted child is in danger, they notify several major television and radio stations, who broadcast an emergency signal similar to a tornado or thunderstorm warning and provide as much information as possible.
It's modeled on the AMBER Alert that was begun in Arlington, Texas, in 1999 and has since spread to 10 states and more than two dozen cities. Nationwide, officials credit these alert systems with the recovery of 17 children. One, for example, was dropped off at the side of the road when her kidnapper got tired of hearing the description of his car on the radio.
"It is a very good tool that has not been available," says Bob Walcutt, executive director of the Laura Recovery Center Foundation. "You put out an AMBER alert, and you have 100,000 people looking at once."
Although it's unclear what role the Rachael Alert played, Utahans responded to news of Elizabeth's abduction on an unprecedented scale. Normally, Mr. Walcutt says, he expects a few hundred volunteers to show up. One observer suggested that as many as 3,000 came last Friday.
Part of that is the nature of the crime. In an abduction that rivals the Lindbergh story in its boldness, the kidnapper took Elizabeth from her own bedroom while her 9-year-old sister watched. He threatened to use his gun if either made a sound, and Elizabeth's sister was so frightened that she didn't tell her parents until two hours later.
Another factor in Salt Lake's massive response is the area's tight sense of community. It is a city molded by the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its deep emphasis on community. In fact, Winter Olympics organizers found they had too many volunteers because they had expected based on years of experience that a huge number would drop out. Almost none did.
Yet the swollen numbers also fit a national trend. Stories like Polly Klaas's the Bay Area girl taken from a slumber party at her home in 1993 and killed have gathered attention, as have public-education drives to fingerprint children.
This increased awareness has led to a five-year decline in the number of people both adults and children abducted annually. And while each case like Elizabeth's shows the need for progress, officials say the outlook is brighter now than it has been for some time.
"Today, there is a system in place and it is working," wrote Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a report on the 2001 data. "The public is paying greater attention to missing-child photos, and the vast majority of America's missing children are coming home safely.