Mysterious scare: No leads in alleged abduction
The news horrified Charlottesville: A man allegedly tried to snatch an eight-year-old boy at Fashion Square mall July 10, only to be foiled by the intervention of a mysterious rescuer.
Television station NBC 29 and WINA radio repeatedly broadcast the tale. The Daily Progress carried the story July 11.
But since then? The media updates on a scenario that's every parent's worst nightmare? Nada.
What happened to the alleged predator in our midst? Why no follow-up stories, no front-page composite sketches? No breathless features on, say, a "community gripped by fear"?
And where is this Good Samaritan who supposedly saved the boy from being dragged to the abductor's "silver or dark-colored pickup truck," according to an Albemarle County police officer quoted in the Progress? Surely that person would stick around– if not for the accolades, then to make sure the boy was safely reunited with his family.
"There's nobody that's been identified," says Sgt. Shawn Schwertfeger.
According to the Progress, the incident began when a Greene County boy became separated from his parents while shopping at J.C. Penney around 6:30pm. A "dark-skinned black man," the report continues, thin, about six-feet tall, in his teens to 20s, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, grabbed the boy by the arm, walked him through the store and outside. He ran away when another man approached him.
Apart from the Samaritan (a man supposedly wearing dark gray) who allegedly intervened, there were no other witnesses.
What about mall security cameras? Fashion Square officials declined to comment, and referred The Hook to the Albemarle police. So far, the tapes have turned up nothing. "We're still reviewing those," says Schwertfeger.
Nor is there a composite drawing. Says Schwertfeger, "If we had a good description or any other public safety information, we would get it out."
A week later, on July 19, police had nothing new to report. Schwertfeger says the incident is still an active investigation, and "We're still looking for any information."
Some initially concerned citizens are now wondering whether there even was an abduction attempt, given the absence of the Good Samaritan and the stereotypical description of a black abductor. A similar description was used by Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman who drowned her two children in 1984. Five years earlier, Charles Stuart murdered his wife in Boston, then claimed a black man had attacked the couple in their car.
And what about members of the media who report an incident that terrifies the community, and then don't follow up?
"If it's true a boy was threatened with abduction, you need to let the public know," says Wendell Cochran, professor of journalism ethics at American University. "If it's not true, you need to let the public know that, too."
Cochran understands the need to report an incident like this. But he also says reporters should come back to ask more questions.
He warns of the hazards of questioning the veracity of a child's account. "As soon as you say it might be a hoax, people will call in saying, 'How dare you accuse this kid of being a liar?' Or then you discover, 'Oh, heck, it was true.'
"It's a messy situation," Cochran continues. "That's the nature of the news."
Cochran has one other piece of advice for reporters: "You've got to be skeptical about your sources."
"If law enforcement released to the public a serious event they've proven to be false, the public has a right to know to reduce fear," says a local police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Police declined comment when asked if they believe there was an abduction attempt. And a request to interview the boy's family was referred to the case officer, who is on vacation.
Scene of an attempted abduction of an eight-year-old boy? No witnesses, including the man who allegedly saved the boy from his alleged kidnaper, have come forth.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO