In panel vans and rusted sports sedans, the men trolled Chicago alleys and placid suburban cul-de-sacs, offering children rides and tempting them with candy bars, juice boxes, even cash. Some made plaintive appeals about finding a lost puppy. Others bellowed orders, trying to trap the kids or physically force them into vehicles or buildings.
The would-be abductors didn't roam far and wide in search of their victims, the Tribune found in an unprecedented analysis of attempted child abductions by strangers in
. Instead, they mostly struck in or near their own neighborhoods, and roughly 80 percent of the offenders chose a victim of their own race.
In Chicago, perpetrators on average traveled just 2 miles from their residence before targeting their victims, according to court records in cases that led to convictions. Only two perpetrators strayed more than 10 miles from their homes, the Tribune found.
That is just one of the surprising findings from the Tribune's analysis of 530 Chicago and suburban police reports since 2008, as well as scores of additional court files from the last decade — data that could help parents, educators and communities protect youths. Interviews with dozens of perpetrators, psychologists and experts also shed light on who commits these crimes, and how best to coach kids on protecting themselves.
The newspaper found that more than three-quarters of the 407 alleged stranger abduction attempts in Chicago since March 2008 took place within 1,000 feet of a school, and 5 percent occurred on school grounds. The attempts clustered between 7 and 9 a.m. and from 2 to 5 p.m. as kids, often alone, walked to and from school.
Experts suggest that concerned parents map out a safe route and walk it with their children, introducing them to crossing guards, neighbors and store employees. Children traveling without an adult should be encouraged to use the buddy system and to avoid shortcuts through alleys or other secluded places.
Parents of preteen and early teen girls should be especially attentive, the Tribune's analysis indicates. Girls age 12 to 15 comprised more than half of the victims in Chicago stranger abduction attempts that have resulted in convictions since 2000 — rather than toddlers, as many parents suspect. Only three of the 75 victims were 5 or younger. Eighty percent of the victims were girls.
Perhaps the best protection a child can have is a cohesive community where adults quickly call police or intervene when a youth is in danger, the records and interviews show. More than half of the successful prosecutions were secured because a parent, neighbor or bystander stopped the abduction attempt or immediately reported suspicious activity to authorities, case files show.
In July 2008, a neighbor spotted Marvin Nurse approach a 7-year-old girl on the street in front of her Riverdale home. After talking briefly to the child, Nurse walked her into his house. Nurse, then 56, had previous felony convictions for rape, attempted rape and home invasion.
The alarmed neighbor ran to the girl's house and alerted her mother, and the two women hurried back to Nurse's house. They opened Nurse's screen door to see the girl with her pants down. Nurse was convicted of kidnapping and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Lessons in safety
In 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh disappeared from a
, Fla., mall, and later was found decapitated. In response to his terrifying death and a series of others, some child-safety groups touted wildly inflated statistics suggesting tens of thousands of youngsters disappeared every year after being abducted by strangers.
But journalists and law enforcement officials debunked the inflated statistics and revealed that only a fraction of missing children are likely stranger abductions.
The Tribune identified at least a dozen completed abductions of a Chicago child younger than 16 by a stranger since 2000.
In one recent case, police in November arrested South Side plumber Marshall Smith in the April rape of a 13-year-old
girl he allegedly befriended as she walked alone, then later took to a basement and assaulted. Police also charged Smith, 44, with the 1996 rape of a teenager and said he was being investigated for two other 1996 abductions and sexual assaults.
The heavyset father of 14 allegedly lured three of his young victims into his car by saying they shouldn't be out alone on the West or South Sides, police said. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
"This reinforces what you and I were told as kids: Don't get into a car with a stranger," said Chicago police Cmdr. Anthony Riccio. "It's a message that never gets old: no good adult will ask a kid for directions or ask for help finding a puppy."
Child-safety experts say parents should teach young people to shout or draw attention, and to immediately move away from any adult who makes them feel scared or tries to take them someplace.
Some recommend that children carry cell phones and learn how to call 911. Several Chicago children thwarted abductions by calling family on phones, the Tribune found, and one police report describes how a girl scared off a man trailing her in a van when she pulled out her phone to photograph him.
But experts differ on whether children should be taught how to resist a would-be assailant. Some believe that raising the unlikely scenario of an abduction will cause unnecessary fear — and they point out that a startled predator could seriously hurt a child simply in order to subdue him or her.
Ed Smart — the father of
, who as a 14-year-old was snatched from her Salt Lake City bedroom and kept by an abductor for nine months in 2002 and 2003 — encouraged families to check out the growing number of online and community child-safety programs that teach effective strategies for reacting to all sorts of danger.
"I hear parents say, 'I don't want to scare my children.' I don't want to scare my children either. But I believe we absolutely have to give them the tools and options to deal with what's out there," he told the Tribune.
In the 530 Cook County cases since 2008 examined by the Tribune, many children avoided potential abductors by being smart and acting fast.
At a small playground in the
community on the Northwest Side, 9-year-old Krystal Sperandio was saved last year when her 12-year-old brother Frank helped her break free from a 44-year-old mentally disabled man who allegedly grabbed the girl by her pants and shoulder and tried to carry her off, according to police and court records.
"I was thinking, 'Please, please let me go. I thought I wasn't going to see my parents ever again,'" Krystal told the Tribune.
Anthony Correa awaits trial on felony child abduction and kidnapping charges. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney Robert Schrimple called him innocent and harmless. "There was no evil intent here," Schrimple said. With the mind of an 11-year-old in an adult's body, Correa "plays with kids as a child plays with other children."
In May, while Correa was out on bond, he was arrested again when he was allegedly caught in a female bathroom stall at a nearby community center with a 13-year-old girl. Prosecutors dropped charges when a community center representative failed twice to appear in court and the girl's mother declined to pursue charges.
Krystal said she still has frequent nightmares about Correa breaking into her house and taking her, and family members have thought about leaving their neighborhood because they no longer feel protected.
"This has been my house for 35 years and I don't feel safe here," said Krystal's mother, Heidi Sperandio. "If Frank wasn't there, who knows what would have happened."
How offenders operate
Dennis Veronica was in many ways typical of the convicted abductors — a loner who cruised his own neighborhood in a car and selected a young teenager when she was alone.
He also was like many other sex offenders who try to justify their behavior by blaming the victim, characterize sexual aggression as "consensual," or minimize the harm caused, according to Tribune interviews with convicted abductors, along with court records and medical studies.
In two rambling interviews outside his west suburban home, Veronica slid from contrition to denial, then contended that young girls targeted him.
For several months, Veronica said, he watched as a 15-year-old did things that he interpreted as provocative, such as staring at him as he waited to pick up a family member at a Chicago bus stop.
"She's supposed to be Miss Innocent," said Veronica, 59. "Even though she was 15 or 16, she was looking for a mark. The guy doesn't have a chance."
The girl, Cassandra Edick, who is now 24, called Veronica's account bewildering and "creepy." She told the Tribune she never saw Veronica before the day he briefly abducted her. "That is so weird that he was watching me."
Many would-be abductors are social misfits who strike where they blend in and feel the most comfortable, said former
Behavioral Science Unit agent Kenneth Lanning.
While some of the attempts are frightening but inept, Lanning said, "a guy may go out and try this five, six or 20 times before he's eventually successful."
"The main reason they abduct is because they lack the interpersonal skills to befriend and manipulate the child into having sexual activity," Lanning said. "Some of them may have tried to abduct an adult, but that's more difficult than overpowering a child. They go down in age to victims who are smaller, physically weaker and naive."
Veronica was out on bail after attempting to pull a petite 40-year-old Northwest Side woman into his car when he approached Edick outside her Catholic high school in April 2001. Veronica pulled up in his Pontiac Sunbird and asked if she needed a ride, court records show.
"I said, 'I don't know you.' I was really hesitant," Edick recalled in an interview. But the rumpled-looking man seemed harmless and friendly. "I made the mistake of getting in."
Veronica told her, "You could be a model," and began masturbating, according to police and court records. From the back seat, Edick froze in fear.
When the car finally came to a stop, she jumped out and ran.
Just over a month later, Veronica again approached Edick near her school, court records and interviews show. "Hey, remember me?" He called from his car. "Do you need a ride?"
This time, Edick tricked him. "Sure," she said, before slipping behind the Sunbird to get his license plate number. Police later picked up Veronica, and Edick positively identified him in a lineup.
A twice-divorced loner who dreamed of hosting his own TV talk show, Veronica pleaded guilty to child abduction in the Edick case as well as unlawful restraint for trying to force the other woman into his car. Both are felonies. He was sentenced to a year in prison and 30 months' probation on the two cases.
"I was wrong for approaching her," he said of Edick, while also asserting that police exaggerated his crime. He said he looks forward to 2012, when he hopes to complete his 10-year term of sex offender registration and the Illinois State Police will no longer post his mug shot online.
"I really don't care what people believe. I'm proud of who I am," Veronica said.
Edick said Veronica's short prison sentence shows that authorities consider attempted child abduction a minor crime.
"It's definitely not," she said. "For the longest time it made me feel depressed, sad, weak, vulnerable, scared to leave my house."
Tips and resources
Advice from experts for families and communities seeking to protect children from abduction attempts:
•Instill confidence, not fear.
•Plan routes to and from home.
•Teach kids to trust their instincts.
•Have children carry a cell phone.
Sources of child-safety tools, tips and resources:
•State education officials and Child Lures Prevention have videos and guides for teachers, parents and children, at childluresprevention.com.
•The FBI urges parents to keep an ID kit with the child's recent photo; date of birth; height and weight; and a list of identifiers from birthmarks to braces. The FBI also recommends fingerprint and DNA swab kits from the National Child Identification Program, 972-934-2211 or childidprogram.com.