They don't happen often, but when they do, child abductions by strangers can capture Americans' attention like few other crimes. A look at notorious kidnappings over the past century and a half shows how attitudes have changed.
The stereotypical kidnapping of a child by a stranger is vanishingly rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of all missing child cases. When the crimes do happen, they make an impact, tapping into some of the public's greatest fears and insecurities.
They also reveal society's prejudices. The cases that rise to prominence tend to involve white children, often from wealthy families, although the FBI estimates that more than a third of missing kids are black. The imbalance in attention is so pronounced that in 2008 a former police officer and her sister-in-law launched a foundation called Black & Missing.
High-profile abductions also, to some degree, trace social mores. In the 1950s, for example, the motivations largely shifted from the collection of ransom money to the satisfaction of sexual desires. Cases of pedophilia existed previously, of course, but society may have been too prim to acknowledge or publicize them before the liberating 1960s.
These are the cases in the past century and a half that made headlines and sometimes led to significant changes in law.Charley Ross
Playing in the front yard of his family home, Charley was kidnapped by two men in a horse-drawn carriage who promised to buy firecrackers for him and his brother. The apparent kidnappers demanded a ransom of $20,000, but the boy's father was advised by the police not to pay. Bill Mosher and Joe Douglas were both shot during a subsequent burglary. Mosher died immediately and Douglas confessed before dying, stating: "The boy will get home all right." But Charley was never found. This was one of the first kidnappings for ransom in the United States and was the most prominent until the Lindbergh case.Marion Parker
The daughter of a prominent banker, Marion was abducted from her school by a man posing as a bank employee who told the school secretary that the girl's father had been injured. The man, William Hickman, demanded a $1,500 ransom. When the father delivered the money, he saw Marion in the car next to Hickman. But she was already dead. He had cut off her arms and legs and disemboweled her, stuffing her with rags and sewing her eyes open. A huge manhunt ensued, and eventually Hickman was caught. He was one of the first to invoke a new California law allowing pleas of not guilty due to insanity. A jury nonetheless sentenced him to hang, and he went to the gallows in October 1928.Charles Lindbergh Jr.
Charles was kidnapped from his crib in the family home. His parents, including the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, paid a ransom of $50,000, but the boy was found dead a few months later. Bruno Hauptmann, an unemployed carpenter, was convicted and executed, although he claimed innocence. Called the "crime of the century," the kidnapping brought about the Federal Kidnapping Act in 1932, also known as the "Lindbergh Law," which made it a federal crime to transport kidnapping victims across state lines. Lloyd's of London also introduced "kidnap insurance."Robert Greenlease Jr.
A woman retrieved Robert from school by claiming to be a relative taking him to his sick mother. The boy, the son of a wealthy auto dealer, was trusting and compliant. The kidnapping led to what is thought to be the largest ransom payment in American history up to that time, $600,000. But Robert was already dead by the time the demand was made, killed by Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady. Both were convicted and executed in Missouri's gas chamber in Jefferson City.Steven Stayner
Steven was approached on his way home from school by Ervin Murphy, who claimed to be a minister but who was actually working on behalf of a convicted child molester, Kenneth Parnell. Steven was abducted and held for seven years, during which time he was sexually assaulted and renamed Dennis Parnell. When Kenneth Parnell kidnapped a younger boy named Timothy White, Steven decided to save the boy, and the two escaped. Parnell and Murphy were convicted and served time in prison. Steven died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, the same year as the release of a movie based on his life, "I Know My First Name is Steven."Etan Patz
Etan was abducted on his way to a school bus stop in Manhattan. The kidnapping resulted in a massive search and hundreds of tips, but he was never found. Years later, the family won a wrongful death lawsuit against a friend of one of Etan's babysitters, but the man was never criminally charged. Finally, in 2012, a store clerk named Pedro Hernandez was charged after confessing to strangling Etan, but the jury failed to reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. Etan was among the first children to be featured on a milk carton. His disappearance helped spark the modern missing children's movement, highlighting pedophilia as a motive. May 25, the day he disappeared, is National Missing Children's Day.Adam Walsh
Adam disappeared from a shopping mall after being separated from his mother. A few weeks later, his severed head was found in Vero Beach, 120 miles away. A serial killer named Ottis Toole confessed, but he later recanted and was never tried. Toole died in prison in 1996 and the police closed the case in the belief that Toole was responsible. Adam's parents lobbied for the Missing Children's Act of 1982, which created a national database of information on missing children, and helped found the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, established by Congress in 1984. Adam's murder also led to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006, which placed more comprehensive registration requirements on sex offenders. Adam's father, John, launched and became the host of "America's Most Wanted."Johnny Gosch
Johnny disappeared while delivering newspapers. Witnesses saw a man in a car talking to him and perhaps speeding away around the time of his disappearance. His parents discovered he was missing when they received calls from unhappy newspaper delivery customers. They reported the incident, but the police said Johnny had to be gone for 72 hours before he could be considered missing, a requirement his mother, Noreen, later worked to change. Johnny, one of the first children to appear on a milk carton, was never found, and Noreen believes he was kidnapped as part of a child trafficking ring, an issue on which she has become outspoken.Jacob Wetterling
Jacob was abducted while on his way home from the local Tom Thumb store with his brother and best friend. The abductor, recently identified as Danny Heinrich, carried a gun and wore a mask, disappearing with Jacob. He led investigators to Jacob's remains at the end of August 2016. Jacob's disappearance led to one of the widest manhunts in U.S. history and brought about the first federal law requiring states to register sex offenders, in 1994, called the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. His mother, Patty, became an advocate for missing children and ran for the U.S. House twice.Jaycee Dugard
Jaycee was abducted while walking to a school bus stop. She was missing for 18 years before her rescue in 2009. A convicted sex offender, Phillip Garrido, and his wife, Nancy, had kept her captive, during which time she had given birth to two daughters. Finally, thanks to alert security officers at the University of California, Berkeley, the two were arrested and convicted of rape and false imprisonment. The case gave hope to families of other abductees, who wanted desperately to believe their children were still alive.Polly Klaas
Polly was hosting a slumber party with friends when a man wielding a knife entered her bedroom, tied up the girls and placed pillow cases over their heads. He abducted Polly, who was later found dead. Richard Davis, who had a violent criminal past, was convicted. The case fueled support for California's "three strikes" law, which passed in 1994, and was one of the first to use digital technology in the search, enabling Polly's digitized photo to be widely distributed on the internet.Megan Kanka
Megan was raped and murdered by her neighbor, a convicted sex offender named Jesse Timmendequas, who lured her into his house with the promise of seeing a new puppy. He dumped her body in a nearby park. Timmendequas confessed and was sentenced to death, but in 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, so his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Her murder led to a federal Megan's Law in 1996, which provided for the public dissemination of information from sex offender registries, such as when an offender moves into a community.