Mourners arrive at a memorial service for slain schoolgirl Jessica Ridgeway… (Chris Schneider, Associated…)
WESTMINSTER, Colo. — Across Denver's northwestern suburbs, where the foothills loom and one small town melts into the next, danger has pulled up a chair.
"Everybody is scared. You can just feel it," said Destiny Gonzalez as she dropped off her 9-year-old daughter at Westminster Elementary School. Instead of driving away, she lingered, watching to make sure her little girl safely made the few steps to the door.
"The kids who I used to see walking by themselves now have a parent with them," said Casey McCabe, giving her 10-year-old son a quick goodbye hug. She too stayed outside the school until he stepped inside.
On Oct. 5, just six miles away, 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, a fifth-grader with a sweet smile and eyeglasses in her favorite color, purple, set off for the short walk to a park to meet friends so they could go together to Witt Elementary School. She never arrived, touching off a sweeping search that made headlines nationally and tapped into the kind of fear that can bring parents to their knees.
Three days later, her backpack was found tossed onto a sidewalk in the nearby suburb of Superior. Then, on Oct. 12, police called a news conference to announce that a mutilated body found in a remote park was indeed Jessica's.
Despite thousands of tips pouring in and long hours logged by FBI and local law enforcement officers, no suspect has been caught. On Thursday, Westminster police acknowledged they were looking into a link between Jessica's kidnapping and murder and an attempted abduction in May of a female jogger in the same area.
The idea that whoever did it remains on the loose multiplies the dread spreading across a region that has been battered with heartbreak and violence, most recently the Aurora movie theater massacre in July.
It can be seen in the clusters of parents who escort their kids to bus stops instead of letting them walk to the end of the street; in a hastily implemented policy at one school, where teachers must sign children out to parents at afternoon pickup; in the fear of letting kids walk a dog around the block; in the empty playgrounds and cul-de-sacs as children are kept indoors.
"I used to see kids riding scooters and playing outside. Now there's no one. It's like a ghost town," says Kaci Wilson, a single mother in Broomfield whose 5-year-old son goes to school about four miles from where Jessica disappeared. Wilson's uncle is a Westminster police commander who has been tight-lipped about the investigation but suggested she be on her guard.
It's advice that no one has to give twice these days.
In reality, the kind of abduction by a stranger that appears to have happened in Jessica's case — her parents have been cleared as suspects — is rare.
According to U.S. Justice Department statistics for 2002, the last year available, about 115 children a year are kidnapped by strangers who keep them for days, ask for ransom, or kill them. "Part of the fear parents feel is that it is so incredibly rare," said Lanae Holmes, a family services liaison for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "There is this feeling that if it could happen to Jessica, it could happen to my child."
Since Oct. 5, Jessica's school district has sent out letters to parents five times about attempted child abductions or reports of suspicious behavior near schools, said Lynn Setzer, a Jefferson County Public Schools spokeswoman. It is unclear how valid those reports were, but she said everything is being taken seriously.
"We're living in a world that feels out of control right now in Jefferson County," she said.
Amber Johnson, an Arvada mother who runs a parenting blog called Mile High Mamas, knows that feeling well. Last weekend, she took her two children to a popular lake between where Jessica lived and where her body was found. When Johnson's 8-year-old daughter took off chasing a prairie dog and nearly slipped from view, the panic kicked in.
"Normally it wouldn't have bothered me," she said. "I would've encouraged it because we love exploring the outdoors. But I freaked out. I think a lot of parents are trying not to breed fear in their children because it's been such a safe place for so long. But now it's different."
On Friday, the modest neighborhood where Jessica lived was awash in purple, including ribbons tied on trees and lampposts and mounds of flowers and teddy bears forming a makeshift shrine in Chelsea Park where she was supposed to have met her friends the day she disappeared. Police cars slowly circle the blocks, and sheets hang from fences with the spray-painted words: "Justice for Jessica."
Yet with the grief comes connection amid the suburban sprawl. Lyane Johnson Carr's 12-year-old daughter, Simone, is the first one picked up and the last one dropped off on her school bus route in Arvada. On Monday, when the bus driver did not see Carr waiting for her daughter, she turned to Simone and said, "I'll make sure you get home safe."
Instead of letting her off alone, the driver drove the bus toward the seventh-grader's house. When Simone spotted her mother and said she could get off at the corner, the driver did not leave until the girl slipped into her mother's car.
Carr sent a thank-you note to the school district. She was moved, she said, by the act of kindness during such a terrible time. "All I know is one person made sure one child was safe that night," she said.