Year later, Carlie's abduction a warning

Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 1:42 a.m.
SARASOTA - Maybe the man in the dark mechanic's shirt looked like so many of the men from Carlie Brucia's working class neighborhood.
Or maybe the man startled her and she didn't think to pull away, no matter how hard her heart was pounding.
Carlie Brucia froze, and in that instant he grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her out of our sight and beyond our darkest fears.
Carlie's abduction a year ago, immortalized on a few seconds of videotape, and her violent death afterward cut deep into the community's psyche.
"She hasn't left us," said Tammy Ruben, who lives a few blocks from the home where Carlie lived.
One year later, as images from the videotape are replayed on television and printed in newspapers, parents and teachers will question whether they are doing enough to protect their children.
Remembering what happened to Carlie is important, says Bob Stuber, a nationally known child safety expert and former Los Angeles police detective.
But it shouldn't frame our perception of the world.
To this day, when asked to talk about Carlie, many of those who knew her begin by taking a deep breath, summoning the strength to relive the events. Few get through the conversation without choking back tears.
But at the same time, on any given afternoon, the sidewalks are busy with children walking home from school, their backpacks slung over a shoulder. Kids still take the shortcut behind Evie's Car Wash, the site of Carlie's abduction.
"That's not unusual," Stuber said. "The results of an incident like this should never be for people to be afraid."
It seems impossible to overstate the power of the videotape, that haunting image of a child being led to her death.
"It's very upsetting," Stuber said. "The entire world, for the very first time, saw that type of crime happening."
The immediate response was one of vigilance.
Parents, schools and other child-care providers wrestled with how to instill a sense of caution in children without smothering them in fear.
Children attended child safety classes and enrollment surged in after-school care programs.
"It led to a closer community, a bond between parents and kids," said Ron Cutsinger, an elder at the Central Church of Christ, where Carlie's body was found.
From the moment the videotape was released, people wanted to believe the man must have known Carlie, and that some unspoken motive lay behind the brutality.
But no evidence would emerge to show anything other than what appeared on that videotape: a stranger happening upon an 11-year-old girl as she walked home from a sleepover barely a mile from her home.
It was dusk on a Sunday and the kickoff for the Super Bowl was minutes away. Businesses lining the road were closed, few people were at a nearby driving range and traffic on Bee Ridge Road was sparse.
The only protective gaze cast upon Carlie at that moment belonged to a surveillance camera mounted at the back of the car wash to deter crime.
Escape School At Wilkinson Elementary School, a few miles from where Carlie was abducted, 100 students settled into tiny cafeteria chairs on a recent afternoon for a child safety program called Escape School.
Most had heard of Carlie, but none knew quite what to expect from the man standing before them.
"What does Escape School teach?" asked Pieter Visser, a funeral home employee trained to present the program.
"How to escape from school?" one boy asked.
"No, how to escape from when someone grabs you," said another student.
Children stopped giggling and quieted down for a video about techniques that can be used to stay out of dangerous situations.
In one scene, children on a playground explain the differences between a good stranger and a bad stranger. A bad stranger, one child says, has tattoos, doesn't shave and wears raggedy clothes. A good stranger carries a briefcase and looks like mom or dad.
In another scene, the detective explains how to escape from a car by yelling and honking the horn and jumping in the driver's lap, anything to get attention.
And in a poignant scene for anyone aware of Carlie's fate, a stranger grabs a little girl's arm. Stuber then explains the "windmill technique," in which the child swings her arm backward and around, hoping to twist free.
Kathy Horton, the mother of 13- and 12-year-old daughters and a 9-year-old son, hasn't let her children wait alone at the bus stop in the year since Carlie's death. Even if she did drop them off, her children wouldn't want to wait alone.
"They're still scared about it," she said. "They bring it up quite often. It's something that's not left their minds at all."
Visser, the Sarasota instructor, knows that the children sometimes lose concentration during the Escape School presentation. But he's hoping even a little information might make a difference.
Seeing the videotape of Carlie's abduction a year ago remains with him to this day. "The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Windmill! Windmill! Why didn't she have the windmill?' "
Children shaken, but durable Carl Wise, a neighborhood flower shop owner, said the weeks after Carlie's death were comparable to the time after Sept. 11, 2001.
Customers were kinder, nicer. Many wanted to talk about Carlie. But months later, people returned to their normal routines.
"We're that kind of society," he said. "It's good to go on. At the same time, you need to realize some of the dangers that occur out there and be aware of them."
Wise is especially aware of the dangers. The back door of his shop, Bee Ridge Florist, opens up to McIntosh Lane, the quiet shortcut Carlie would have taken home that night.
Because of Carlie's kidnapping, he does not let his 7- and 4-year-old daughters go out the back door without him knowing about it.
In a well-traveled hallway of McIntosh Middle School, where Carlie was a sixth-grader, is a scarlet wall illuminated by a small light. A quote, posted after Carlie's death, reads: "Every Child, Every Day, Whatever It Takes."
Principal Robert Hagemann makes a point of visiting the wall at least once a week.
In explaining the tragedy to students, Hagemann and guidance counselors steered away from the horrific facts of the crime, instead telling them to remember Carlie's friendship and her bravery, virtues written on stone tiles in a memorial garden behind the school.
Still, some of Carlie's friends began to miss classes. Others struggled with grades.
"It was tough to get through the year," said Noel Gilliland, a sixth-grade teacher at McIntosh. "It just really took an emotional toll."
Soon the children became children again.
"It wasn't long before kids were high-fiving again," Hagemann said. "This didn't make them mini-adults suddenly."
Local educators who knew Carlie began to rethink what they taught children, and how they could make them aware of some of the dangers.
For years, Principal Sandra Russell of Brentwood Elementary and her staff told students this guiding principle: "Be kinder than you have to be." After Carlie's death, "we're putting qualifiers on who it is a child can really help," Russell said.
The children are taught that many strangers have no business approaching them, even to ask for directions. "I make sure that whole premise of escape school is to quit indicting strangers," he said. "Most people are good people, and kids need to know that not all adults are bad people."
With the anniversary approaching, there is some concern about how it will affect children, particularly those who knew Carlie.
"It's important for us to have as much normalcy as possible and move through the day," said Peggy Ohman, a McIntosh Middle School guidance counselor who consoled dozens students after Carlie's death. "It's important to be able to move forward."
As the sun set one day last week a car pulled up to the memorial garden behind the Central Church of Christ on Proctor Road, where Carlie's body was discovered.
Tracey Lerew had heard about the memorial from a friend, and had come to pay her respects.
Wiping away tears, she said she intends to put her daughter in a safety school next year, after she turns 5. "This is a very safe place to live," she said. "And look what happened."

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