Over the last century, dozens of highly publicized child kidnappings—including Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. in 1932, Steven Stayner in 1972, Etan Patz in 1979, Jaycee Dugard in 1991 and Elizabeth Smart in 2002—have shocked the nation and ignited a public effort to prevent them.
Today, child abductions by non-relatives have become rare. Even rarer are abduction cases that result in the victim’s murder. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported assisting families and law enforcement with 27,000 missing-child cases in 2017. Of those, about 90 percent were runaways (one in seven of whom were likely victims of child sex trafficking). Roughly five percent were abducted by a family member, while three percent were classified as “critically missing young adults” ages 18 to 20.
Missing-child awareness campaigns now leverage media and technology to help spread the word more widely and quickly.
AMBER Alerts, mobile-phone pop-up notifications providing key details about a recent child abduction, have led to the rescue of 924 children in the roughly five years they’ve been in use, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Investigators and family members have also used clues posted on social-media platforms to track down possible suspects or the whereabouts of children who may have run away and weren’t, in fact, kidnapped. TV shows, like America’s Most Wanted and, more recently, Live PD, where missing-children segments are featured, have also helped raise awareness about local cases.
But one of the biggest obstacles to successful awareness campaigns is simply getting the public to care enough, says Jeff Tiegs, an expert on child abductions and sex trafficking. “People don’t [always] bother paying attention to AMBER alerts, or calling in that small detail they’re sure is probably nothing,” he says. “Each time a child is rescued through these efforts, it’s because someone, somewhere noticed something and decided to follow through on their suspicion,” says Tiegs, founder of Guardian Group, a nonprofit that fights against child sex trafficking in the U.S.
A&E Real Crime looks at four cases of children who went missing, but were rescued by everyday heroes who saw the news and acted.
A Texas girl, Mariah Martinez, who had been missing for more than a year, was rescued after a viewer saw a segment detailing her abduction on an episode of A&E’s Live PD that aired on March 23, 2018.
Mariah and her two younger siblings disappeared in October 2016 after their mother, Amanda Martinez, lost custody of them to Child Protective Services in connection with a child-abuse incident at the hands of Martinez’s boyfriend.
Mariah’s two siblings, Jeremiah and Leimiah, were found safe with family members in January 2017. Their mother was then arrested and taken into custody by police. Mariah, however, was nowhere to be found.
The New Mexico viewer who saw the girl on Live PD tipped off authorities by pointing them to the apartment where Mariah was living with “extended family.”
Police used surveillance to confirm the information provided by the viewer, and on March 26, 2018, Mariah was recovered. She has been brought back home to Texas.
Bella Martinez was in her father’s black SUV outside a Utah convenience store on February 4, 2015, when a strange woman, who had earlier approached her father for a cigarette, suddenly jumped into the vehicle and drove away with the 3-year-old still inside.
A few blocks away, a cupcake shop owner, Leslie Fiet, was getting ready to wrap up at work when her phone buzzed with an AMBER alert, indicating a statewide search for the toddler. It included the make and model of the stolen SUV.
Moments later, Fiet noticed a vehicle in the parking lot of her shop that matched the license-plate number and description from the AMBER alert. She dove in through the passenger-side window of the vehicle to grab the child.
“My initial thought was just to call 911,” Fiet later told ABC News. “But then I looked closer and saw Bella was in a tremendous amount of stress, hyperventilating and crying. I just dropped my phone and ran out the door.”
After Fiet pulled the girl from the vehicle, she noticed the SUV had been abandoned by the thief. She carried Bella into her bakery, locked the door and called police. Bella was soon reunited with her parents.
Kaitlyn Brown was taking a lunch break during her shift at a Tennessee hospital, leisurely looking through Facebook when she came across a post about a missing child, Rebecca Lewis.
Moments later, she spotted the 4-year-old missing girl walking down a hallway inside the hospital, holding the hand of her alleged male abductor.
Brown, immediately recognizing Rebecca, hurried to tell her father, another hospital employee, to call the police. The alleged abductor was captured in the hospital parking lot. Rebecca was reunited with her family the following day. Her alleged abductor was charged with kidnapping and is currently awaiting trial.
Unnamed 8-year-old Sexual Assault Victim in Fresno, California
In October 2010, an 8-year-old girl was rescued after being abducted as she played in her front yard with friends.
Her alleged kidnapper, a 24-year-old man, had pulled up beside the girls as they played and tried to lure her into his pickup before two adults noticed and began shouting for the girls to run away. He then snatched the girl up and drove off while witnesses, including the girl’s mother, chased after them unsuccessfully.
An AMBER Alert was issued and the victim was featured on the local news, which is how her hero, Victor Perez, first became aware the girl had been abducted.
Perez was later standing outside his house when he saw a vehicle matching the description from the news report pass by.
“I had a split-second decision to decide to call 9-1-1 or go after it,” Perez later said in an interview with ABC News.
He decided to hop into his Ford truck and chase after the vehicle. During the pursuit, he saw the girl’s head appear in the window while her captor tried to push her back out of view.
Perez eventually managed to overtake the suspect’s truck, forcing him to stop. The suspect opened the door, pushed the little girl out and sped away.
The young girl reportedly ran to Perez and told him she was scared. He stayed there with her until police arrived to take her to an area hospital, where it was determined that she had been sexually assaulted.
The suspect, a gang member out on parole, was arrested shortly after the incident. Although he was charged with kidnapping and sexual assault and has been in jail for the past 10 years, the case still hasn’t gone to trial.