Three attempted child abductions have been reported in the metro-east over the last week, keeping parents on edge and police officers busy.
But officers don't think they have a wave of attempted abductions on their hands. While they're urging parents to remain vigilant and to talk to their kids about stranger danger, some police leaders believe that hype and paranoia might be behind some of the reports.
"You have to treat every case like it's the real thing because you just never know and you have to err on the side of caution," Madison County Sheriff's Department Capt. T. Mike Dixon said. "Sometimes you can't find the person and you never know what really happened. And sometimes you work those cases, you make contact with the person and find out that it was a misunderstanding, that they were just trying to ask for directions or something like that. But every one of them has to be investigated and taken seriously."
Waterloo Police Chief Jim Trantham said that in August 2012 his department took multiple calls about someone who was driving a white pick-up with a tool box across the bed while allegedly trying to pick up kids. Police never found the suspect, although reports of a suspect and truck matching the Waterloo case surfaced in Missouri. Trantham doesn't know if the person gave up, disappeared or if the matching claims were a coincidence.
Later that month, police in nearby Columbia received a report that someone driving a red minivan tried to lure a child into the vehicle. After police canvassed the neighborhood where the reported abduction attempt took place and interviewed dozens of people, the child who made the allegations admitted that the story was untrue.
"I don't think we can ever be too careful," Trantham said. "We take every report as a real report. I don't know what would motivate one to make something like that up.
"But every kid is different, so there is no plan that works with every one of them," Trantham said. "You have to know your own kid and talk to them on an individual basis about how to protect themselves. I hate to say that we over-caution too much. But you don't want to make them paranoid. You don't want them to be afraid to go outside. You want them to be safe."
Trantham said he has approached kids in school in his unmarked patrol car to make sure that they're all right and seen the fear in their eyes before they noticed his badge and uniform.
The latest reports are:
* On Aug. 29, four kids aged 9-14 told Belleville Police a man who was drinking beer under the Pleasant Hill Park pavilion chased them on foot.
* On Tuesday, a 17-year-old girl from Brooklyn told police a man in a green Ford that looked like a taxi followed her and repeatedly asked her to get in the car.
* Also on Tuesday, Wood River police fielded a call about an attempted abduction of a 12-year-old boy that involved a small dark blue or purple car near Sixth Street and Halloran Avenue.
Police have made no progress in any of the three cases.
Belleville Capt. Don Sax said that, if you never catch the adult, there's no way of telling whether the case had any merit.
"It's one of those things that's impossible to say because you don't know what the person's true intention is," Sax said, when asked if he thought the cases local police are handling are truly abduction attempts or something less sinister. "In our case, the person might have just been intoxicated and using bad judgment. Or he might have just wanted to scare the hell out of the kids. But it's impossible to say.
"It could be a completely legitimate reason to stop and ask a kid a question,'' he said. "But in these times adults should have more sense than that. There's no reason they should be approaching kids they don't know."
Trantham said when kids sense danger and run, they often don't have a good description of the suspect or something like a license plate number that could help lead police to the person they are looking for. But it's best that the kids just concern themselves with getting away.
"They should always worry about being safe first," Trantham said. "Run to a safe place and try to find another adult. That's the important thing.
"They should never put themselves in danger by trying to get a license plate number or other details. It's difficult interviewing kids anyway because when they're a child, you can end up with multiple stories. It's not that they're trying to be deceptive, they're just kids."
While police were frustrated by the wasted time invested in the false report out of Columbia, they said they don't want people to be reluctant to call them if they think a crime might have happened.
"It's a delicate thing," Sax said. "But always play it safe and don't take any chances. I always have told people at neighborhood watch meetings, if your gut feeling is that it doesn't feel right, call us. We're happy to check it out. That's what we're paid to do."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.