When Stranger Danger lurks everywhere

The news last month was alarming: Some creep in a white four-door had attempted to lure a 12-year-old girl into his car as she headed to the pool.

The June 11 “incident” occurred in a pleasant community of cul-de-sacs off Briarlake Road in north-central DeKalb County. That amped up the fright quotient right from the get-go; it’s a homey quilt of neighborhoods where these things just don’t happen.

At first glance, this was a terrifying intrusion of evil forces from the wicked, modern world, and soon the police were inundated with other reports of menacing strangers. In the end, it was probably a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing – something that happens when old fears meet new media, magnifying worry exponentially.

By June 14, a resident who asked to remain anonymous told a TV station, “He’s looking at girls around 12 years old. He’s made an attempt on two little girls.”

Another 12-year-old girl at a neighboring community, the story added, “said a man yelled at her and told her to get into the car.”

Not to be outdone, a few days later, a morning anchorman at a competing station breathlessly told morning viewers: “Folks, it has happened again. DeKalb County police have issued a predator alert after a 12-year-old girl escaped a possible kidnapper.”

People waking up were greeted to a blaring headline on TV: “12-year-old DeKalb girl escapes kidnapper.”

Neighborhood Google groups spit out clues and called for vigilance. Another report said a vehicle like the one approaching girls had pulled into a driveway where three boys were home alone, but luckily the driver was frightened off by barking bogs.

When it was all over, DeKalb police had investigated perhaps 25 different reports, said Capt. Nicole Rutland, who last week addressed a church auditorium full of concerned residents in the area.

“We never did locate (the original) vehicle or that driver,” she told me.

What police did do was run down calls of suspicious white station wagons, SUVs, non-sedans and cars with tinted windows (the car that started the whole scare apparently did not have them).

The family of the girl who made the original report left for vacation for a week before police could interview her. Until then, they chased a phantom.

One case of a “suspicious vehicle” was a resident driving to the store. Police informed the driver someone had reported that he was driving slow. “Yeah, I was driving the speed limit,” he said.

“When you hear of something like this, you have a heightened sense of awareness,” said Capt. Rutland. “We’ll never discount what people say. I don’t want to fault anybody for being afraid.”

Exactly. Alert residents help police solve crimes and catch crooks. Residents on hyper-alert? That might be different.

Constant predator watches, Amber Alerts and stranger-danger presentations have pumped up our innate fears, said a former FBI agent who has researched child abductions for decades.

They reflect “a primal human fear that the worst thing that can happen is someone takes your children,” said Kenneth V. Lanning, who was assigned to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy and now is a consultant in crimes against children cases.

“It’s very simple, it’s good versus evil,” he said. “Your children are out there playing and someone tries to steal them. It’s a better story than it being your grandfather or parish priest or swimming coach doing it.”

Lanning remembers this primal fear from his childhood in New York City 60 years ago. His mother used to warn him “to watch out for the gypsies.”

Fear of gypsies has morphed through the years into fear of child molesters, sexual predators and, for a while, Satanic cultists, who supposedly stole away children and abused them in unspeakable ways.

In the 1980s, during the height of hysteria over child kidnappings and missing children and milk cartons with children’s images, there were estimates of up to 50,000 kids disappearing.

However, Lanning said, the number “of stereotypical child abductions,” of stranger-on-stranger kidnappings, is somewhere in the 100- to 300-a-year range – nationwide.

The raw fear such cases unleash, and people’s yearning to help makes it hard for police to assess which ones are real attempted abductions, Lanning said.

“It becomes a mass hysteria. Everyone stopping at a red light, or who waves at a kid or drives too slow is a suspect.”

In mid-January, a Gwinnett County boy playing basketball in his driveway told police a thin man had parked his black pickup truck near the cul-de-sac and begun walking toward him. Days later, another boy reported that a fat man in a black pickup opened his door and tried to pull him in.

By month’s end, Gwinnett police got more than 100 tips concerning suspicious black pickups. Their investigations yielded nothing, and then there was nothing left to pursue.

In DeKalb, the car pulling into the driveway with the three boys at home alone simply turned out to be an SUV turning around in a driveway.

When they were able, police talked with the DeKalb girl whose report started the recent upheaval. She did not remember if she heard what the man in the car said, his music was too loud. Neither the car, nor the driver, was located. The case has been suspended.

In Other News