When the Unthinkable Happens

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A few years ago, when I was gathering information for my website, www.heavenforbid.org, I was introduced through an acquaintance, to a woman who earlier in her life had lived through a parent’s worst nightmare, the kidnaping of her child.  Mary Johnson (Fictitious name) and her 18 month-old daughter lived in a region northeast of the San Francisco Bay, known more for it’s vast vineyards, then violent crime. For almost three hours, Mary was gracious enough to share her horror, talk about police involvement, and what she and a friend personally did to secure the release of her daughter and send the perpetrator to prison.

According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), approximately 800,000 to 900,000 children are reported missing annually.  These figures may be somewhat misleading, most people do not call back when there child returns, or perhaps, even more sadly, some missing children may never be reported missing at all.  If you take the lesser number, the 800,000, divide it by a year (365 days), that equates to almost 2,000 children reported missing every day.

Year in and year out, these figures are pretty sobering, but we live in a country with almost three billion people.  In reality, even one million missing children is a pretty small number, unless one of those children is yours.  To put this number in proper perspective, as your child enters the public or private school system, sometime between grades K through 12, a student in your school district will be reported missing or abducted.

The vulnerability that surrounds our youth demands our upmost attention at all times.  Even the seemingly innocent movements or lull in our attention can easily be turned into an action we will regret for the rest of our lives.  The loss of a child is an irreplaceable act that has no condolences to ease the pain.  What was once, but now is gone is an emptiness that will haunt those affected with an ache that knows no cure.

Mary Johnson can attest to the above statistics.  Perhaps she thought, as most parents do, that this will never happen to my child, it always happens to someone else, to another family.  Besides, she believed she had taken the correct precautions by completing a Child Identification Kit and storing it in a safe place at her home.

One last comment before we get into Mary Johnson’s story.  Many families rely solely on someone else to provide protection for our children.  We have various ID kits and cards, most adorned with thumbnail pictures of our children, maybe a thumb print, some ask for hair samples, even a DNA swab.

If you are a big fan of the CSI television shows as I am, you must realize the above mentioned kits mostly contain items to identify the deceased.  Through Mary’s story, you will realize the vast difference between being proactive as opposed to reactive.  In my mind, Mary’s aggressive behavior, her unwillingness to follow the status quo, secured the safe return of her daughter and the incarceration of her daughter’s abductor.

As Mary’s young daughter played within a gated yard of their home, under the watchful eye of her mother, everything seemed picture perfect in this semi-rural wine country atmosphere.  When Mary’s cell phone rang, she thought nothing of leaving her daughter for a moment, entering her home, retrieving the phone and returning to her child.  Those split seconds will live in infamy within Mary’s mind for eternity.

For those split seconds were enough time for someone to kidnap the child and vanish into an area many people vacation at because of the peacefulness and friendly attitudes of those who call this place home.  Needless to say, this crime shook this community to it’s very roots.  Denial, how could something like this happen here, were harshly replaced by the unprecedented reality of the act.

Consequently, the Sheriff’s Office was equally caught off guard by the brazenness of the crime, especially in this locale, which added to a shaky start of the investigation.  Mary’s account of her involvement with the police differ greatly from the image most of us have towards law enforcement.  Calling 911, set in motion perhaps Mary’s biggest obstacle, her reliance on law enforcement to rescue her child.

Although, 911 would be the first telephone call any of else would make, Mary’s recollection of police involvement invokes the essence of frustration.  Mary and her family had an idea of who the kidnaper may be, but were rebuffed by authorities.  It was Mary, not the police that posted pictures of her missing child and the description of the possible kidnaper on the Mexican and Canadian borders.

Mary and a close family friend turned Mary’s home into a volunteer center, working with 20-plus people daily, passing out flyers and leaflets throughout her area, to neighboring counties, as she forged a nationwide search for her missing child.  As Mary, her friend, and volunteers forged a deeper bond, Mary’s riff with local law enforcement deepened.  It may have started as a battle of egos, but soon Mary’s will and determination quickly eclipsed the efforts of the police.

Mary and her friend Susan (Fictitious name), focused their combined efforts on their suspect.  Together, they would go to some of the seediest bars, in the worst areas imaginable, in search of information that could provide a clue to his whereabouts.  The boldness of two women alone, risking virtually everything they had, were perceived as FBI agents by those they questioned.

As they became better at investigating, their information became more pertinent and their focus became fixed on the correct suspect.  Mary laughed, somewhat in amazement of her and Susan’s “Policing skills.”  Mary and Susan often received tips or information days or weeks before police investigators did.

By now, armed with information they were headed in the right direction, Mary turned her focus to the mass media.  At the time of the kidnaping, there was a television show call “America’s Most Wanted,” hosted by a man whose son was kidnapped and later murdered.  Unleashing her full barrage at the show’s producers, Mary was initially offered a 10 to 15 second blip of her missing daughter.

Undeterred, Mary blistered this television show with unrelenting passion.  Her telephone calls were so frequent, those who answering the telephone recognized the sound of her voice.  Eventually, Mary turned that 15 seconds into an 11 minute featured segment of a nationally broadcasted television show.

What followed next was truly a miracle, because of unending faith, unyielding purpose, perhaps just plain stubbornness, Mary found a way to reach out to millions of viewers.  The exposure of her story of a kidnaped toddler from a sleepy little community nestled in the San Francisco foothills reach out across America.  Tips from people watching the show began to flow in at an unprecedented rate.

All the information was valuable, but one caller nailed it.  A clerk from WalMart, who watched the show the past evening remembered a young girl and a man being in WalMart a day or so earlier that matched the description of Mary’s child and the kidnaper.  The Walmart was located in the State of Kentucky.

The FBI, along with local authorities began a massive manhunt for the kidnaper.  Within days, the kidnaper was taken into custody and Mary was reunited with her child.  In Mary’s mind, the safe return of her daughter was solely because she relied on her motherly instincts to lead her, not the standard response of the police.

Without and police training, she followed her gut.  Through her determination against all odds, this mother of a toddler overcame what professionals could not conquer, the rescue and safe return of her child.  Heroics can now be lauded on Mary, Susan, and the hundreds of volunteers who worked tirelessly for this outcome.

When I spoke to Mary, her daughter had reached the teenage years and did not recall much of her ordeal.  They had both settled into the normalcy of life, safely tucked away in another State.  With the years passing away, the man responsible for the kidnaping, started counting down the months till his release from prison.

Although there was never any contact between the two, Mary was well aware of the situation.  This filthy, disgusting animal had paid his debt to society and would soon be walking among us without notice.  While still in prison, this beast vowed to kidnap this child again upon his release.  Perhaps this story will unfortunately continue . . .

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