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Girl, 7, Found Safe After Escaping From Abductors

Crime: Erica Pratt, seized outside grandmother's home in Philadelphia, frees herself and is helped by children playing nearby.

July 24, 2002|DAVID ZUCCHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — It is by now a familiar story: A little girl is abducted outside her house, kicking and screaming, by a man in a car. A 5-year-old playmate tells the girl's grandmother, then provides crucial information to police.

But unlike the July 15 sexual assault and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, Philadelphia police said Tuesday, 7-year-old Erica Pratt was abducted outside her grandmother's Southwest Philadelphia home Monday night by kidnappers who demanded a $150,000 ransom.

And unlike the Southern California case, this abduction ended fortuitously Tuesday night with Erica's safe return after an excruciating day for her family. Her mouth taped and her hands bound, Erica managed to free herself about 8 p.m. after her abductors left her alone in an abandoned house in North Philadelphia, police said.

The girl made her way to a first-floor window, smashed it and yelled to two children playing outside, police said. The children helped her through the window, then summoned two police officers on patrol in the neighborhood.

As relatives and neighbors whooped and cheered in the rain outside Erica's rowhouse in a tumbledown neighborhood nine miles away Tuesday night, the girl was taken to a hospital for observation--and to have coils of duct tape removed from her hair.

Police continued to search Tuesday night for two heavyset men, based on detailed descriptions provided by Erica's playmate and a 9-year-old who also witnessed the abduction. Police had earlier released the names and photos of two men, both with arrest records, who were sought for questioning.

This was no random abduction by a sexual predator, police said, but rather a targeted kidnapping by men who apparently knew Erica and her family. Twenty minutes after Erica was snatched off the street by a passenger of a passing car while she walked with her 5-year-old friend, police said, a man telephoned her grandmother and threatened to kill the girl if the ransom was not paid. At least four more calls followed, police said.

Her grandmother, Barbara Pratt, was allowed to speak briefly early Tuesday morning to Erica, who was described as frightened but unharmed, said Philadelphia Police Inspector William Colarulo.

Colarulo said police believed the kidnappers' motive was money. "Thank God, we don't believe there is any kind of sexual assault involved," Colarulo said.

Based on the account of the 5-year-old girl, police said, Erica was grabbed by a man who jumped from the front passenger seat of a white car and called her by name. The girl resisted and kicked at the man. The abductor was described as a heavy man "with a big belly," wearing a white T-shirt and baseball cap, Colarulo said.

Erica clung to the hand of her friend but was forced into the car and held on the lap of the man in the passenger seat, police said. The 5-year-old ran and screamed: "He took Erica! A man took Erica!"

The two girls were returning from a block party two blocks away and were just a few steps from Erica's house on Kingsessing Street when she was abducted, police said.

It was the fourth reported abduction since February of a young girl from her home. In addition to the Samantha Runnion murder, 14-year-old Elizabeth A. Smart was reported abducted by an intruder from her bedroom in Salt Lake City on June 5. The girl has not been seen since.

In February, Danielle van Dam, 7, was abducted from her home in San Diego and murdered. A neighbor has been charged with the crime.

The abduction of children by strangers is rare, according to child welfare groups, particularly when compared with the number of children seized by a parent in custody disputes. The FBI investigated 93 abductions of children by strangers last year, a slight decline over previous years.

Justice Department statistics indicate that about three-quarters of children abducted by strangers are killed within three hours of their abduction.

Police identified the two men sought for questioning in Erica's abduction as James Burns, 29, and Edward Johnson, 23. Both men know Erica's family, police said. Court records show that Burns has been arrested on gun charges and Johnson, who is on probation, has been arrested for drug violations.

Colarulo said police had impounded a car believed to have been used in the kidnapping.

Police said Erica's kidnappers might have believed false rumors in the neighborhood that Erica's family had received a $150,000 insurance payment in the shooting death of her uncle, Joseph Pratt, 25, whose March 23 slaying is still unsolved.

Pratt, who was facing attempted murder charges, was killed in a hail of bullets as he sat in a car in West Philadelphia.

Vikki Price, 54, who lives next door to Erica's grandmother, said Barbara Pratt owns a corner grocery and two houses and is known in the neighborhood "as a lady who has a little bit of money."

Two hours before Erica was found, her mother pleaded for her safe return at a candlelight prayer service held a half-block from her home by neighbors who had spent Monday night searching for the girl.

"I beg you, whoever has Erica, please, please bring her home," said Sarina Gillis, Erica's mother, who held up a photo of her daughter. "I love you, baby. Please come home."

Gillis, who lives one street behind the rowhouse where Erica lives with her guardian grandmother, described the girl as "a sweet and loving child."

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