The abduction and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in California has refocused attention on the threat of violent sexual predators who prey on children.
Child safety experts say there are concrete things parents can teach their children to make them more aware of the dangers of walking away with a stranger.
According to Ken Wooden, a child safety expert who has interviewed more than 1,000 sex offenders and abductors, the biggest mistake parents make is to think it's enough to tell children, "Don't talk to strangers."
"In the eyes of a kid, a stranger is some character who's very scary and a monster type," said Wooden. In reality, though, molesters can look like ordinary, friendly, engaging adults, Wooden warned.
The 'Pet Lure'
As part of his research, Wooden studied the tactics that predators use to lure children. He identified 16 "lures" commonly used by child molesters and abductors.
John Wayne Gacy, who killed more than 30 boys near Chicago in the 1970s, used something Wooden calls the "job lure." Gacy would ask his victims to run errands for him and then come to his house to get paid.
Serial killer Ted Bundy is believed to have lured one of his victims, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, by using an "emergency lure." He tricked the girl by telling the girl her house was on fire and she should follow him.
Predators often win a child's trust by asking for their assistance, such as asking directions, or, in what Wooden says is a common ploy, the "pet lure." That was the tactic apparently used by the abductor in the Runnion case. Runnion's 5-year-old friend, who witnessed her abduction, told police the man approached the girls by asking if they had seen his Chihuahua.
Lures Shown to Be Effective
Wooden demonstrated the effectiveness of such lures for a Primetime segment in 1993. With permission from the children's parents, he played the role of a predator using his "lures" to try to persuade children to leave an Arlington, Va., playground.
Before going to the playground, 7-year-old Patrick Beard told his mother, as she had taught him, that he would "kick and scream and run in the other direction" if a stranger asked him to go somewhere.
But when Wooden approached him in the playground and asked his name, he immediately answered, "Patrick."
Then Wooden continued, using a lure an Oklahoma molester had used to win the trust of a child he assaulted in 1990. Showing Patrick a photograph of a dog, Wooden said: "Here, Patrick, my little puppy. His name is Shorty, and we're looking for him. He answers to the voice of little girls and little boys. And we're offering a reward of $10. Could you help look for him?"
Patrick took the picture, looked around and yelled Shorty's name, then followed Wooden out of the park. Patrick's mother Debbie Beard, who was watching via a video link-up, was horrified. "This is something I'll have to discuss with him much more thoroughly than I ever thought I would have to do," she said.
The same trick worked with four other children, including 5-year-old Mika Netherton. Afterward, when her mother asked her sternly what she was supposed to do if a stranger approached her, Mika knew the right answer — run away — but didn't seem to think it applied to the man with the dog. "He wanted me to find Shorty," she said.
Wooden, who runs a program called Child Lures Prevention that is taught in schools, said children should be drilled on the common lures the way they are taught an academic subject.