Neighbors become heroes in kidnap try

June 21, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Emily Tuzzolo was riding her bike one warm summer night last year when a man in a dark sedan pulled up alongside her.

"Do you want to get some ice cream with me? Do you want to get in my car?" he asked the 6-year-old, according to court records. Emily spun around, hopped back on her pink bicycle and pedaled away.

Neighbors watching nearby, however, didn't let the incident go so easily. They took note of the man and his car. They called the police. And when Emily's mother produced a police-like photo array of men living within two miles of their Dundalk neighborhood from the state's Sex Offender Registry, two neighbors and Emily all picked out Irvine G. Oelke Sr.

The 73-year-old man was convicted of attempted child kidnapping and is scheduled to be sentenced next week in a case in which police and prosecutors say the neighborhood did everything right.

"This is kind of a little bit like a modern, urban version of 'it takes a village to raise a child," said Bill Toohey, a Baltimore County police spokesman. "One of the contrasts we have here is all the high-profile witness intimidation cases that make' observers think that we don't care about one another anymore. This shows that we do."

Community associations, neighborhood groups and other activist organizations often use the online registry - a searchable database of the convicted sex offenders living in Maryland that includes the individuals' photographs, addresses and information about their crimes - to learn about and then track offenders living nearby.

Many people set up alerts that notify them when an offender moves into the area or when one already living there moves or does not comply with the program's reporting requirements.

In Maryland and across the country, some offenders have complained that community groups also use the registries to harass them.

But that didn't happen in the Oelke case.

What happened in the Dundalk neighborhood "is an ideal scenario," said Kristen Anderson, deputy director of a unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that includes its sex offender tracking team.

"It illustrates what the public registries were intended for, which is to make the public aware of the potential risks in their communities and maybe make them more prepared to deal with them."

Although she said that some communities focus too much on sex offender registries, which account for only people who have already been convicted of a crime, the technique worked for the Dundalk neighborhood.

"It sounds like they were very responsible in the way they went about it, very reasonable in their approach and, obviously, it worked," Anderson said. "I hope that's what is happening most of the time - although this is first time I ever heard a story work out that way."

Now 7 years old, Emily has a sweet, sing-songy voice and dark eyes that peek out from a thick fringe of eyelashes and bangs. She wears a lot of pink and purple but says that she likes "the whole rainbow."

She talks excitedly about starting second grade at Dundalk Elementary School. She swims in her family's backyard pool and tumbles her way through weekly gymnastics classes. And she has a pet cat named Tigger and a white rat named Lizzie. (Her mother discourages her inclination to let them play together.)

It was nearly dusk Aug. 15 of last year when Emily climbed out of the pool and changed clothes.

"My hair was kind of wet, so I thought maybe if I rode my bike, it would dry," she said recently as she sat at her parents' feet, playing on the family's living room floor.

The little girl set off down the street on her new bicycle - which had just recently shed its training wheels - to find a friend who lives at the end of her block.

There, at the corner of Patapsco and West Dundalk avenues, the friend's father, Frank Cosentino, was watching his brood of nine children.

He had just scolded his youngest daughters, ages 3 and 1 1/2 , for wandering around the corner where he couldn't see them when a man in a dark car pulled up to the stop sign.

The man - who Emily would later tell police had a "wrinkled-looking face," small ears, round glasses and a dark baseball cap - started talking to her. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the door, he asked if she had a brother, according to court records.

And he offered ice cream if she got into his car.

"I said nothing to him," Emily recalled. "I was thinking of what I was going to say. I was kind of frozen-like. I rode my bike away. 'Just don't talk to him,' I thought in my head, 'and maybe he'd leave me alone.' "

Cosentino stood watch the whole while.

When Emily "turned around real slow and started coming back this way," the neighbor said, he asked whether she knew the man and what he had said.

Emily's answer prompted him to call 911 and walk the child home.

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