Past nightmare underlines fears of today

WASHINGTON — I hadn't thought of her name in years: Jaycee Lee Dugard.

Her walk to the bus stop in 1991 changed my tiny California home town of South Lake Tahoe forever, after she was snatched by strangers who shoved the 11-year-old into a car and sped off, right before her stepfather's eyes.

Her reappearance in August at age 29 generated headlines nationwide — a chilling reminder to me and millions of other parents that it can happen anywhere, to anyone.

My brother broke the news to me that Jaycee and her two children had been discovered living in a tent compound in a weed-choked back yard in central California. She'd been held captive there for almost two decades.

"They found Jaycee!" Michael's voice mail exclaimed. "I can't believe it."

Stunned, I called up the case on my BlackBerry, finding the story and the photo of the man charged with the kidnapping: a convicted sex offender named Phillip Garrido. Garrido, 58, didn't appear especially creepy at first glance. He could've been anybody. Same for his wife, Nancy, who is also under arrest.

Jaycee's abduction changed my brother's childhood. I was already at college when Jaycee disappeared, but Michael, now 31, was in junior high. He was just beginning to assert his independence, which in that town meant long bike rides to neighboring lakes with friends and backpacking or fishing trips without Mom or Dad.

Suddenly, all these trips and each walk to the bus stop — excursions that were routine during my own adolescence — were reevaluated by my parents.

"We were put on lockdown. It was ridiculous," Michael remembered. "For me growing up, that was the biggest event in Tahoe. Parents, everybody was freaking out for a good year. I couldn't even go and look at the meadow near our house without the stupid buddy system."

Across the country, Jaycee's disappearance helped kill stickball games in empty lots, races on banana-seat bikes until dinnertime and expeditions to score five-cent watermelon candies at the convenience store.

"I'm never going to let him out of my sight," Laura Sleat said recently, tracking the movements of her 4-year-old at a pool in Annapolis, Md. "How can I? We just know too much today."

The specter of Phil Garrido hung in the chlorine-scented air 3,000 miles away and 18 years after he allegedly took Jaycee from the streets where I used to ride my bike.

Such names as Jaycee and Adam Walsh and Elizabeth Smart and Polly Klass and Etan Patz are the reasons I don't let my 5-year-old use the bathroom at that very nice gated pool by himself. Or why I nearly have a heart attack whenever I lose sight of my 2-year-old, hiding in a forest of hanging pants at Target.

Our kids are little, so it makes sense to keep constant tabs on them. But the real dilemmas will come when our boys want some independence to learn how to function alone in the world. I want that freedom for them. And I know I shouldn't let the dread of someone like Garrido determine the course of their childhood.

But I also understand why so many parents walk their children to bus stops or school doors every step of the way, whether the distance is two blocks or two miles.

Kristina Williams lives near her two sons' elementary school in suburban Takoma Park, Md. But she has arranged her schedule so she can drop them off.

"I grew up in (nearby) Silver Spring, and we walked to school starting in first grade," said Williams, a podiatrist. "But the world has changed. It's a different place from when I was growing up."

It's impossible to know, statistically, whether this world of child kidnappings really has changed.

Until the 1990s, law enforcement agencies had databases to track stolen cars, but not stolen children, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

Given what he knows, we're not in an epidemic. "The tracking we do now, those numbers are remarkably constant. We basically see about 100 to 120 a year, the most serious stranger abductions," Allen said.

But that number is enough for just about any parent to give in to our worst fears.

I suspect that Garrido's receding hairline and vacant look will haunt me when my boys begin to ask if they can walk to school, play ball in the park or go take a bike ride for some 25-cent watermelon candy.

Dvorak is a reporter for The Washington Post.

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