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Sex-Related Child Abduction Homicides

Written by Vernon Geberth

http://www.missingkids.com/html/amberplan.htmlThere is nothing more disturbing to an investigator than the murder of a child. This is especially true when the murder is a sex-related event. Sex-related child abduction homicides are usually committed by strangers. The investigation becomes extremely complex as the authorities attempt to identify an unknown stranger, who has abducted a child and left the area.

The immediate problem is how much time was lost before someone realized the child was missing and how to disseminate the necessary identification and investigative information to both law enforcement and the general public to enlist the assistance of an entire community in order to save the child.

The abduction and murder of a child under 18 years of age by a stranger is a rare event. Statistically they run about one-half of one percent of all murders in the United States (between 100 to 200 cases annually). Although the data indicates that these incidents are statistically rare, they are horrendous crimes. Child abduction cases affect not only the immediate family of the victim, but entire communities and our society as a whole as media coverage of the event is nationally broadcast. 

It is every parent’s nightmare that a child can be so wantonly harmed and many times slaughtered. It is the realization of this horror that requires the criminal investigator to develop the knowledge and expertise to manage child abduction cases and learn from the experience of other similar events how to professionally investigate these types of cases. We in law enforcement strive to do better and learn from our past mistakes in order to protect the public.

The investigation of child abduction murders can present law enforcement with a unique predicament. The respective police departments and their investigators are often pressured by the media to resolve them quickly and many times the cases become “driven” by outside forces. Investigative leads based on facts should generate the direction of the investigation. However, in a high-profile case such as child abduction where the general public is asked to provide information, a number of tips or leads will be provided to authorities. 

These tips and / or leads can come to the authorities through official channels and identifiable sources as well as from persons who call anonymously. This deluge of information requires sufficient resources to follow up on potential information as well as the necessary resources to check on recently released and registered sex offenders within the community. 

The Initial Investigation

The police report is usually generated when a child is discovered missing and someone calls the police. The immediate problem is how much time was lost before someone realized the child was missing and how much time was spent looking for the child before the police were called. The research indicates that the younger the victim the sooner the report is made. Older children are reported later than younger ones, as parents seem less concerned about a missing teenage child than a younger one. There will usually be some delay in reporting the missing child because parents, family and others are often looking for the child.  

This must be taken into consideration at the time of the police report. For example, how much time did the offender have to leave the area and how far could the offender have traveled with the child. The time it takes to report a child missing will vary from immediately to within 24 hours.

Delays in reporting missing children become critical. Consider the fact that a little under half of the children are murdered within one hour of being abducted, three quarters are dead within three hours, and nine out of 10 are often killed within 24 hours. Any delay can make a difference in whether the victim is found alive. Parents and care providers need to be educated to report missing children immediately. The police need to put as much effort as possible into those cases of suspected foul play, by deploying all their investigative resources on any witnessed abduction.

Polly Klass Case

Polly Klass was a 12-year-old junior high school student when she was taken from her home, kidnapped and murdered by a serial sex offender named Richard Allen Davis. Polly lived with her mother and younger sister. Polly Klass was having a slumber party with her two best friends. Her mother and sister were in the house at the time of the abduction. Where could your daughter be safer than at a sleep over party in your own home? 

The knife-wielding assailant confronted Polly and immediately ordered her and her friend not to scream or he would cut their throats. Davis tied the girl’s hands behind their backs and placed hoods over their heads. He then carried Polly out of the house. The other girls freed themselves and wakened Polly’s mother, who called 911. 

The police responded immediately and canvassed the neighborhood as detectives questioned the frightened young girls and Polly’s mother. Several people in the area remembered seeing a thickly built, bearded male with bushy gray hair loitering on a sidewalk near the Klass house. The police broadcast a description of a tall, bearded, white, male wearing dark clothing throughout Sonoma County. 

However, this alarm was not sent to every station. This omission proved to be disastrous. Today, this would not have occurred. However, it is an excellent example of how the law enforcement community is constantly striving to do better and how we do learn from past events not to make the same errors.

Around midnight on that same evening, in an area 25 miles away from Polly Klass’s house, a woman called the police to complain about a trespasser on her property. Two deputies were sent to check on this report. They encountered Richard Allen Davis, whose white Pinto had gotten stuck in a ditch on this private property. The police questioned this large man, who was dirty and had twigs in his thick hair and was sweating quite profusely. According to the police, he did not seem nervous. When the deputies asked what he was doing out in this rural area, he stated he was sightseeing. The area was rather desolate and it was dark so the officers were rather skeptical. They ran a check for outstanding warrants and it came back clean. 

However, they did not run a background check. If they had they would have discovered that Richard Allen Davis had convictions for robbery, burglary, assault, kidnapping and an extensive history of violence against females. His presence on this private property as well as his criminal record certainly would have been enough for further investigation. But the deputies hadn’t initiated a background check. 

The deputies asked the female complainant if she wanted this man arrested for trespassing. She told the police she only wanted him off her property. Davis said he would be glad to leave but his car was stuck. So the deputies borrowed a chain from a homeowner and helped him get his car out of the ditch.

In retrospect, the authorities had made a major error. The deputies were not aware of the kidnapping or the description of the kidnapper, which had been broadcast. Richard Allen Davis would have been caught at the disposal site. Davis had obviously just disposed of Polly Klass’ body under dark in this desolate area and as a result got his vehicle stuck in the ditch.

Richard Allen Davis was identified as a suspect after crime scene and forensic experts identified a palm print found in Polly’s room. However, Polly Klass’s body was not discovered for two months. The woman who had originally called the police about a trespasser on her property was hiking around her property when she stumbled upon the crime scene. The badly decomposed body was identified as that of Polly Klass.

A review of the woman’s trespassing complaint led police to the identity of Richard Allen Davis, the same man whose palm print was in Polly’s room. Davis was arrested two days later. Richard Allen Davis was eventually convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to death. It was the Polly Klass case along with other child abduction cases that led to the AMBER Plan. 

The AMBER Alert Plan

The AMBER Plan was created in 1996 as a powerful legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, a bright little girl who was kidnapped and brutally murdered while riding her bicycle in Arlington, TX. The tragedy shocked and outraged the entire community. Residents contacted radio stations in the Dallas area and suggested they broadcast special “alerts” over the airwaves so that they could help prevent such incidents in the future. The AMBER Alert Plan is a voluntary partnership between law enforcement agencies and broadcasters to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases. 

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a non-profit advocacy group based in Alexandria, VA, estimates that 20 children in the country have been saved because broadcasters use the Emergency Alert System (EAS), formerly called the Emergency Broadcast System, to air a description of the missing child and suspected abductor. This is the same concept used during severe weather emergencies. The goal of the AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and safe return of the child.

Once law enforcement has been notified about an abducted child, they must first determine if the case meets the AMBER Plan’s criteria for triggering an alert.

Each program establishes its own AMBER Plan criteria; however, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children suggests three criteria that should be met before law enforcement confirms a child has been abducted: 1) the Alert is activated; 2) law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death; and 3) there is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor and / or suspect’s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help. 

If these criteria are met, alert information must be put together for public distribution. This information can include descriptions and pictures of the missing child, the suspected abductor, a suspected vehicle, and any other information available and valuable to identifying the child and suspect. The information is then faxed to radio stations designated as primary stations under the Emergency Alert System (EAS). 

The primary stations send the same information to area radio and television stations and cable systems via the EAS, and it is immediately broadcast by participating stations to millions of listeners. Radio stations interrupt programming to announce the Alert, and television stations and cable systems run a “crawl” on the screen along with a picture of the child. For more information about the AMBER Plan, call 1-800-THE-LOST.

The Samantha Runnion Case

Little 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was playing with her 6-year-old friend Sarah about 150 feet from her home in Stanton, CA. As the girls were playing, a man drove up in a light green car and told the girls he had lost his dog and asked them if they could help him find his Chihuahua. This classic “Help me find my dog” approach is typical of the pedophile predator. As the suspect got closer to little Samantha, he suddenly snatched her up and headed for his car as she yelled to her 6-year-old friend for help. 

The composite sketch based on the young witness’s description was broadcast nationwide. The media coverage of this event coupled with the excellent description of the offender by Samantha’s 6-year-old playmate resulted in more than 2,000 tips. Sadly, the next day a pair of hang glider enthusiasts discovered the little girl’s nude body in the open off a mountain road in a wooded region approximately 50 miles from where she had been abducted. 

These witnesses, however, were alert to the kidnapping due to the extensive media coverage. The launching of a special alert and the publicity surrounding this case led to hundreds of tips. In fact, early on in the investigation the police received several calls advising them to check out the suspect, who was subsequently arrested. 

Samantha had been sexually assaulted and her body had been positioned with her arms and legs spread apart. Police reportedly found a substantial amount of evidence from around the area where Samantha’s body was found, including DNA samples and tire tracks and fibers. Because the body was found so quickly, there was significant forensic evidence found at the scene along with the DNA evidence recovered from the little girl’s body. Authorities arrested 27-year-old Alejandro Avila, who had a prior arrest for child molestation. DNA taken from the body of slain 5-year-old Samantha Runnion matched Avila.

Danielle Van Dam Case

Little 7-year-old Danielle van Dam had disappeared from her family home in the middle of the night. She had been taken from her bedroom. In the Danielle van Dam case the 7-year-old’s body was discovered three weeks later 25–30 miles away from her home in a rural trash strewn area east of San Diego. Within two days of the abduction, a neighbor of the van Dam family, named David Westerfield, 50, who lived two doors away from the van Dams, became the prime suspect in the case. 

The authorities were able to secure a search warrant for the suspect’s RV. The suspect was eventually arrested based on evidence retrieved from his motor home. The police found the little girl’s fingerprints and traces of Danielle’s blood and strands of hair in Westerfield’s motor home as well as the little girl’s blood on Westerfield’s jacket, which he had taken to a dry cleaner. 

The authorities also seized thousands of computer files filled with child pornography from Westerfield’s computer including a cartoon video of the rape of a young girl. The prosecution had introduced this video as a visual representation of Westerfield’s sexual fantasies that inspired the abduction, rape and murder of Danielle. Westerfield was found guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping. The same jury recommended that David Westerfield be given the death sentence.

The Neighborhood Canvass

An important police procedure in obtaining information is the neighborhood canvass in which witnesses are located. As in most crimes, you need to get information quickly and find those witnesses, who may have it. Witnesses, who observed some aspect of a crime, without realizing what they have seen is a crime, are known as unknowing witnesses. You have to find them and typically this is done through a canvass of various sites. You need to interview all potential witnesses in the area of the victim’s last known location, the victim / killer contact site, the body recovery site, and any other site determined to be important to the investigation. 

The Search

Another important procedure is the search for the victim. When searching for missing children keep in mind they may be dead already and you are not looking for a live victim. Professionally speaking, this would never be shared with the victim’s family. Many times children have been recovered alive after being abducted. However, sex-related stranger abductions usually prove to be fatal. Over half the time the victim’s body will be concealed as compared to very few in most murders.

A child’s body can be hidden in very small places therefore a thorough search needs to be conducted of all areas of possible concealment. Since the victim’s body is the most important source of physical evidence linking the suspect to the victim, a well-planned thorough search is paramount to the investigation.

Victims

Any child under the age of 18 is a potential victim. The majority of victims are victims of opportunity as opposed to those who are targeted due to some physical characteristic. Older teenage females and younger males are more likely victims than others. The primary motivation for child abduction murder is sexual assault.  As victims, their lifestyles are typically low-risk and are different than a lot of murder victims, who are often engaged in high-risk activities, like drug dealing, prostitution, gangs and other criminal activity. Most victims of child abduction murder are normal “average” kids, living normal lives with their families. They are typically engaging in children’s social activities, playing, going to and from school. 

Suspects

The majority of suspects in these cases are white males averaging 27 years old, single, living with someone else, unemployed or under employed if working, considered strange by others, with a history of past violent crimes against children. Usually they are not under any formal custody status. They are considered to be socially marginal individuals by others. Their inadequate personalities make it difficult for them to establish or maintain a relationship with adult females.

Important Sites

Child abduction murders are different in general from most murder investigations in that there are a number of important sites and crime scenes associated with them.  In the majority of murder cases all events occur in one location, the victim and suspect come into contact with each other, there is an assault causing death, and the victim’s body is left where it falls. This is not true in child abduction cases. 

A number of different sites have to be located for those unknowing witnesses and evidence linking the suspect to the victim. Each site is a potential crime scene and needs to be treated as such. The area needs to be sealed off and protected until it can be processed as a crime scene for evidence.

The last seen or known location site is where the victim was last known to be or seen. It is typically not their residences, however most were last seen within a one-fourth mile of their front doors. Keep in mind the younger the victim the closer to home this location will be.

Initial Contact Site

The initial contact site is where the killer makes contact with the victim. This site can be quite close to the last known location and enhances the reasons for a thorough canvass and search. This is the one location where the suspect has to expose himself to the potential of being seen by others. It may be momentary but it is the one location the suspect has no control over. 

As the victim is often one of opportunity for the suspect, he has no control over where he will make contact with the victim. This location provides the potential for those unknowing witnesses, who may have a description of the suspect and / or his vehicle. This site is usually within one-fourth mile or three city blocks of the victim’s last known location and a third of the time within a quarter mile of the suspect’s residence. Hence the importance of determining the victim’s last known location and then canvassing and searching out in a minimum of one-half mile radius for the location the suspect and victim came into contact with each other.

Murder Site

The location where the suspect kills the victim, often under his control, is not always as circumstances may dictate. Due to their size children are least able to withstand physical assault and control by adults. The importance in finding this site is that it is second only to the body recovery site in yielding physical evidence, which links the suspect to the victim. As the majority of child victims are killed within 200 feet of the body recovery site it is important to initially tape off an area at least 200 feet out from the victim’s body. You can always make a crime scene smaller, however it is almost impossible to enlarge one.

Body Recovery Site

The body recovery site is that location where the victim’s body is recovered. This site is important for locating evidence linking the suspect to the victim. This is not an easy site to find since over half of the victims’ bodies are concealed. The suspect wants to separate the distance between himself and the victim. Keep this in mind when searching for victims; they may be concealed and unfortunately due to their small size can be placed in small areas.

All sites need to be secured until properly processed by crime scene technicians or skilled and experienced investigators. And for older victims the distances are usually greater than that for younger ones.

Child abduction cases affect not only the immediate family of the victim, but entire communities and our society as a whole as media coverage of the event is nationally broadcast. The names of Polly Klass, Samantha Runnion, Amber Hagerman and Danielle van Dam are all too familiar, remind us of the horrors of child abduction, and the realization that law enforcement alone cannot adequately deal with the potential threat posed by the child abductor.

 

Vernon Geberth, M.S, M.P.S., retired from NYPD Homicide Division with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He may be reached through www.practicalhomicide.com.

These copyrighted materials have been excerpted with permission of the author from Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigations: Practical and Clinical Perspectives (CRC Press). 

 


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2004

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AMBER Alert PlanEmergency Alert System (EAS)Emergency Broadcast SystemNational Center for MIssing and Exploited ChildrenSonoma County
 

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