Officials hail courage of kidnapped girl, 7

Bound in dark basement, she gnawed her way free

July 25, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA - There was a dirty mattress. A small container of juice. A bag of potato chips. And a bucket that the men who kidnapped 7-year- old Erica Pratt told her she should consider a toilet.

Then they left the little girl - her eyes, hands and feet bound with duct tape - in the dark basement of an abandoned house 12 miles from her home. But Erica's abductors left the child with something besides her meager provisions: her irrepressible will and determination.

As detectives continued to search yesterday for Erica's kidnappers, the second-grader with ponytails and an easy smile was being hailed by the authorities for the poise, courage and intelligence she displayed in escaping Tuesday.

Less than 24 hours after two men snatched her from the street in front of her home and demanded $150,000 ransom, Erica slowly gnawed through the duct tape that held her and fled her basement prison.

As detectives retold the story of her escape, which has captivated the Philadelphia area, authorities redoubled efforts to find the men who took her.

Police said yesterday afternoon that an arrest warrant had been issued for Edward Johnson, 23, in Erica's abduction. Johnson faces at least a half-dozen charges, including kidnapping, false imprisonment and endangerment.

Authorities said a similar warrant was being prepared for James Burns, 29.

Before Erica's escape, police had said they were seeking the men for questioning.

"Our No. 1 concern was bringing Erica home safe," said Inspector William Colarulo, a spokesman for the Philadelphia police. "Now we can start putting the pieces of the puzzle together."

After Erica was taken from outside her Southwest Philadelphia home around 9:20 p.m. Monday, her captors took her to an abandoned house a dozen miles away in North Philadelphia.

Once there, they restrained the girl with duct tape and left her with the bucket to use as a bathroom.

"She couldn't even use that because her hands and feet were taped together," said Officer Andrew Skaziak.

The police said Erica's captors did not tape her mouth.

"She is able, during the course of this ordeal, to chew or gnaw her way through the tape on her wrists," said Lt. Michael Chitwood of the Philadelphia police. "She gnawed her way through the tape, removes the tape from her eyes, legs and arms, and starts the process of getting out."

It was unclear how long it took Erica to chew through her restraints. But once she did, she climbed the basement stairs and found the door locked. She kicked out a panel in the door and wriggled through the narrow opening. But she was not free yet. The front door to the house was also locked.

Detectives said Erica punched out a window screen, crawled through and began screaming for help. A boy and a girl who had been playing in the street helped her out the window and ran to get Skaziak and his partner, Officer Michael Harvey.

"Erica did all the work," Harvey said. "She deserves all the praise. She freed herself."

Joseph Moore Jr., Erica's uncle, thanked those who had offered support to the family.

"It was an empty and hollow feeling to have one of ours taken from the nest," Moore said yesterday. "But we have her back."

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