June 21, 2002 -- A month before the entire nation first learned about Elizabeth Smart, a 7-year-old African-American Milwaukee girl disappeared on her way to school — and her vanishing remains a mystery without much fanfare.
Alexis Patterson has not been seen since May 3, when her stepfather said he walked her across the street — less than a block away — from their home to the corner of her school and dropped her off. Alexis apparently never made it to class. Teachers at Hi-Mount Community School in Milwaukee said they never saw her or her stepfather near or on school grounds that day.
Students told police they saw Alexis in the school playground before and after school but not in class. Alexis's parents reported her missing after she failed to return home from school that afternoon.
Despite the search efforts of investigators and local volunteers, Milwaukee police have been unable to find any meaningful clues and leads in Alexis's disappearance. Her parents have been interviewed extensively, and teachers and family friends and acquaintances have been questioned, but Alexis's whereabouts remain a mystery.
Still, Alexis's case has received little publicity outside Wisconsin. She has been featured on America's Most Wanted, but Alexis's story has not attracted the throng of national coverage or received the daily media updates that the Elizabeth Smart case has had on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABCNEWS.com, and other news organizations. The June 5 disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth from her Utah home, apparently at gunpoint as her 9-year-old sister looked on, attracted almost immediate national attention.
Both the disappearances of Elizabeth and Alexis are tragic and illustrate parents' worst nightmare. One child was taken out of her own home while another child vanished less than a block from her residence. Yet, Elizabeth's kidnapping generated national headlines right away while Alexis has largely been overlooked.
"It [the missing case] has to be something other than your all-in-the family type kidnapping," said Robert Thompson, professor of public communications at Syracuse University. "If there is a potential murder involved, something other than a disgruntled parent case, it may stand a chance of being elevated to something other than local level news."
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A Tale of Two Sets of Parents
Media attention may also depend on the affluence of the parents and the image they project — or the image the media projects on them. The amount of sympathy parents and family members are able to generate can influence the amount of coverage a missing child's case may receive.
"This has a lot to do with the circumstances surrounding the grieving family — whether they are rich or poor, black or white, whether they have the resources to attract media attention," said Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
"A lot of it has to do with how they look on camera, how articulate they are, whether they seem to be trying to get attention or whether they seem to be shying away from the camera."
Elizabeth Smart is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, seemingly All-American girl whose parents live in a luxurious home in a community where children ride their bicycles in front of their houses and lawns. Alexis Patterson is an African-American girl with braided hair from a less-affluent part of Milwaukee — no less American, but like Elizabeth, a fellow missing child.
Elizabeth's parents, Lois and Edward Smart, and relatives appear eloquent, passionately pleading for Elizabeth's return and addressing the media every day.They did not seem intimidated by the idea of police questioning, even after reports that some members of her family had not done well on polygraph tests. The Smarts said they saw police interrogations as part of standard investigative procedure.
However, the relationship between Alexis's parents and the media and police has not been as smooth. When police focused on Ayanna and LaRon Bourgeois in their initial questions, family relatives complained in reports that investigators were concentrating too much on the parents and not devoting enough time to finding Alexis.
Then reports revealed that stepfather LaRon Bourgeois had a criminal record, once serving a two-year prison term for selling drugs and being a getaway driver in a 1994 bank robbery that left one officer dead. Milwaukee police say they have found no connection between the stepfather's criminal past and Alexis's disappearance.
The Nation of Islam began to counsel Alexis's family through their ordeal and scolded the media for focusing on LaRon's past. LaRon Bourgeois has also had to deal with reports he failed a polygraph test.
"To focus media attention on LaRon Bourgeois' past life misdirects the attention on the real issue, which is the urgent and safe return of Alexis Patterson," Nation of Islam Minister William Muhammad told ABCNEWS affiliate WISN in Milwaukee at the time.
Alexis's parents attribute their lack of wealth and resources compared to the Smart family for the lack of broad media coverage on their daughter's disappearance.
"Her [Elizabeth Smart's] family has money, we don't. The community she lives in is very supportive of the family and the father. And she went worldwide. Yeah, she went everywhere," LaRon Bourgeois told WISN.
Desperately Seeking New Leads
Media exposure or not, the search for Alexis continues. Milwaukee police in the department's Sensitive Crimes division refused to comment on the investigation and public information officials failed to return multiple phone calls from ABCNEWS.com.
Police have searched the streets and area surrounding Alexis's home and school and searched abandoned warehouses. They recently released a surveillance video from a drugstore showing Alexis the evening before she disappeared, hoping it would generate new leads.
Hundreds of volunteers have helped, looking for clues in local shopping centers. Horseback riders have expanded their search to outside the city in the nearby Menomonee Valley. However, community help reportedly has begun to dwindle as only eight full-time volunteers are now helping with the search.
The FBI is monitoring the case, but Milwaukee police remain the primary investigators. Last month, a reputed local racist was arrested for vandalizing a flier for Alexis. The alleged vandal, police said, wrote that there was no reason for white people to be concerned about the whereabouts of an African-American girl. However, police said there was no evidence that he was involved in Alexis's disappearance.
Police also have acknowledged the possibility that Alexis ran away. On the day of her disappearance, Alexis was angry at her parents for not letting her bring cupcakes to school because her homework was not done properly. Alexis's parents have said she had never run away previously. One parent believes she purposely may not have gone to class and that someone abducted her.
"I feel that maybe she walked off," LaRon Bourgeois has said. "She was mad because we didn't let her take her cupcakes to school for her snack day because her homework wasn't done properly and that was her punishment. … Maybe she walked off and somebody may have picked her up."
Alexis is described as 3 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 42 pounds. She was last seen wearing a red hooded jacket with a gray stripe down the sleeve and had her hair in two French braids pulled back in a pony tail. She was carrying a pink Barbie doll book bag and was wearing white Nike high-top tennis shoes, a purple blouse and blue jeans, and according to police, "cluster-type" diamond, yellow gold post earrings that resemble sunflowers.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading directly to Alexis's whereabouts. Anyone with information should contact the Milwaukee Police Department's Sensitive Crimes Division at (414) 935-7401 or (414) 935-7302 or the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department at (414) 278-4788. ABCNEWS affiliate WISN-TV in Milwaukee contributed to this report.