May 13, 1997 - Olympia State Attorney General Christine Gregoire today released a first-of-its-kind research study that could significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of how law enforcement agencies investigate and solve child abduction murder cases. The study also gives parents and other child guardians valuable information to better protect children from becoming victims of these violent crimes.
"Although some of the study findings may be alarming, the more we know about the nature of these crimes, the more effective we will be at preventing, investi gating and solving them," said Gregoire. "The study uncovers some striking patterns that shatter commonly-held beliefs which, in the past, have worked against police, parents and the victims."
For example, in 60 percent of the cases, there were delays of more than two hours between the time the victims were known to be missing and the police were notified. In 74 percent of the cases, the victims were dead within three hours after abduction.
"Timing in reporting a missing child and the police response to those reports is absolutely critical," said Gregoire. "Quick action on both counts may save a child's life and will certainly improve the probability of apprehending the kidnapper."
There are an average of 100 of child abduction-murder cases in the United States each year. The study examined more than 600 child abduction-murder cases from 44 states.
Other key findings of the study include:
In 53 percent of the cases the victim and abductor were strangers. This relationship, where the murderer is a stranger to the victim, "defines" this particular type of murder.
In 58 percent of the cases, the initial contact site between victim and abductor was within a quarter mile of the victim's home. In 33 percent, first contact was less than 200 feet from the victim's home.
The typical victims were white females, about 11 years old, often described as a "normal kids" from middle class neighborhoods with stable family relationships.
The typical abductors were white males, about 27 years old, unmarried, with prior arrests for violence in 60 percent of the cases, and, in 53 percent of the cases, with prior crimes against children.
The need for a neighborhood canvass may be among the biggest issues uncovered in this research. When police did not know the initial contact site, the solvability rate dropped 40 percent below average. When the initial contact site was known, the solvability rate increased 13 percent above average.
Law enforcement should also ask, "What did you see that was usual?" In the study cases, the killer was in the area of initial contact two-thirds of the time because he belonged there. He either lived in the area, was there for some normal social activity, or worked nearby.
The three-year project was conducted by the AG's Criminal and Justice Division including Chief Criminal Investigator Robert Keppel, project director; Violent Crime Investigations Supervisor Ken Hanfland, project coordinator; and University of Washington Sociology Professor Dr. Joseph G. Weis, research manager.
The AG's Office was asked to conduct the study by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. "We are proud to have worked with the Washington State Attorney General's office to gain a better understanding of how and when child homicides are committed and who commits these crimes," said OJJDP Administrator Shay Blichik. "It is my hope that by sharing these findings with law enforcement at the federal, state and local level, we will help save children's lives."
The study request and $500,000 OJJDP grant was inspired by a Washington Homicide Investigation Tracking System presentation which Keppel made at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. HITS is a statewide, computerized information system designed to collect, collate and analyze data from murders and predatory sexual offenses. It was decided the same data collection concept would be extremely useful to local law enforcement nationwide in helping to solve cases of abducted and murdered children.
The study will be used to train police and detectives throughout Washington and the nation. "This gives detectives a more accurate picture and sense of how often or how rarely a characteristic or circumstance can be expected in these types of cases," said Keppel. "It will help them make better, quicker decisions in responding to reports of missing children and in prioritizing their investigative actions and resources."
The Justice Department is talking to the AG's Office about providing additional money to continue the research. "We only looked at a snapshot of time and the advantage of continuing this research is that we may discover other important consistencies or changes that will keep giving police and parents the upper hand in investigating and preventing these crimes," said Gregoire.
A more complete summary of the report's findings
Background info on research team