A 7-year-old from S.W. Philly

July 29, 2002

DANIELLE VAN Dam, Alexis Patterson, Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runnion. Erica Pratt.

On the day last week that thousands gathered in a Los Angeles suburb to eulogize slain kidnap victim Samantha Runnion, Erica Pratt sat in a vermin-infested basement in Philadelphia, her eyes, hands and feet bound with duct tape. As 5-year-old Samantha lay in a tiny brown coffin draped with pink roses, 7-year-old Erica chewed through the silver tape until she could free herself.

Danielle van Dam's body was dumped along a road near San Diego on Feb. 27.

Samantha's kidnapper lured her to his side July 15 with a plea to help find a lost puppy. He grabbed her, kicking and screaming, as she cried for help. Found dead the next day off a Californian highway, the little girl with the curls had been sexually molested.

On July 22, Erica's kidnappers snatched her from in front of the family rowhouse and later demanded $150,000 for her return. Two days later, two teen-agers heard Erica's screams for help and pulled her through a broken window of her boarded-up prison. She arrived home with a swollen eye and duct tape stuck to her hair.

Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old from Milwaukee, vanished on her way to school in May. Neither her body nor her kidnapper has been found.

At the end of Samantha's burial service, thousands of mourners applauded her parents and family as they escorted the small coffin out of the church.

At home once again, Erica returned to her summer pastime of playing outside with her dolls and making beaded necklaces.

Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year-old from Salt Lake City who was kidnapped at gunpoint from her bedroom June 5, remains missing.

The summer began with reports of the brazen, almost unbelievable, abduction of Elizabeth Smart - as her younger sister lay in a nearby bed. Television broadcasts kept the smiling, blond teenager's face before American audiences for days on end. The fate of other youngsters, among them Jahi Turner, 2, of San Diego, Alexis Patterson and Laura Ayala, 13, of Houston, entered the national conversation - still missing. Then came word of young Samantha's abduction and death.

For parents, summer - and its embrace of the outdoors - suddenly became a season to be feared. Federal authorities and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tried to assuage those fears. In a country of 59 million children, kidnappings by strangers are a rare occurrence and becoming rarer. The FBI investigated 93 reported kidnappings last year, compared with 134 in 1999. The national center put its total number of annual cases at 100.

Parents should focus on that reality and not lose sight of the strength they can impart to their children: a sense of confidence and power in themselves. Surely, Erica Pratt understood that about herself. She lived in a tough neighborhood of southwest Philadelphia. Her abductors, now under arrest, were known to her family. And yet the pig-tailed imp managed to foil their plan. Her street smarts probably saved her.

Erica Pratt will be remembered because she's the one who got away.

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