Holly Piirainen was your typical preteen. She had a slumber party on her 10th birthday, thought "The Simpsons" was cool and loved puppies.
It was the prospect of seeing a litter of newborn pups at a nearby cottage that lured Holly away from her grandparents' summer home in Sturbridge, Mass., in 1993. She never reached her destination. Instead, she vanished, leaving behind only a single, bright-red sneaker.
With her disappearance, Holly became the typical abducted child.
Hers is among 59 unsolved cases of possible abduction in New England over the last 30 years, each resulting in a death or disappearance that wracked a community and left police frustrated.
To find out under what circumstances they occurred -- and what parents can do to better protect children from this uncommon but devastating crime -- The Courant drew upon police records, news accounts and interviews to compile a database of cases.
What emerged is a portrait of the average victim: a girl about 11 years old, white, from a rural area and abducted close to home while on an errand, walking to school or playing.
That runs contrary to the popular belief that young children are more at risk in crowded areas, like a shopping mall or city street.
It is a misconception Maureen Lemieux once held.
She thought the serene, wooded setting of her summer cottage in Sturbridge was surely safe enough to let her granddaughter, Holly, walk to a neighbor's place to look at the puppies.
She was wrong.
"We just couldn't believe anything like this could happen out there," Lemieux said.
Rural Areas Riskier
To be sure, strangers are not responsible for most child abductions.
Nationally, only 62 non-family abduction cases were reported last year to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. By comparison, the NCMEC reported 1,417 abductions by family members last year and 3,824 cases classified as runaways.
But abductions by strangers are the ones that can paralyze communities and leave parents wondering if their child could be next. Even though these cases are rare, arrests are rarer still, mostly because there is little evidence.
The Courant's review, however, found some common elements that could be useful to parents and guardians looking for ways to keep children from being victimized.
For instance, none of the children was abducted at a shopping mall and only three were taken in a busy downtown area. To the contrary, the vast majority were in rural or suburban areas, where they had been walking or riding bicycles in their neighborhood, playing near their homes or walking to or from a nearby school.
Those findings are similar to the results of a national study by the Washington state attorney general in 1997, which concluded that ``the greatest single thing we can do as parents is to be certain that our children are supervised, even if they are in their own front yard.''
``It is probably not a good idea to send an unescorted 10-year-old girl to the grocery store for a quart of milk,'' the study's authors wrote.
On the other hand, the likelihood of an abduction depends, to some extent, on whether the grocery store is on a city street or down a country lane.
Only 10 of the children were abducted from cities. A child is more likely to disappear from New Boston, N.H., than Boston, Mass., or from a Connecticut suburb like Monroe rather than Hartford.
``The amount of predators in a city is probably more than in a small town, but there are also more chances you'll get caught,'' Vermont State Police Lt. Miles Hefferin said. ``The availability of children is still there in rural areas and you can pick a location where you're least likely to get caught.''
Children in some rural areas have been known to disappear within view of their house. Three-year-old Douglas Chapman was playing in a dirt pile in his front yard on a country road in Alfred, Maine, in June 1971 when he just ``vanished off the face of the earth,'' according to Maine State Police Lt. Brian McDonough.
For 29 years, Gary Chapman has wondered what happened to his son. Did a serial killer take him, or a neighborhood pervert? Could he still be alive somewhere?
Chapman thinks police missed a valuable lead when the first police dog on the scene followed the little boy's scent through a field, past an apple orchard onto a farm and down the driveway to a main road where the trail stopped.
Chapman believes the dog might have gone to the spot where someone placed his abducted son into a car. But, he said, police at the time seemed convinced the boy had wandered away and would turn up later.
``Back then, nobody wanted to consider that a crime had occurred,'' Chapman said. ``The conclusion to the search was that the body would be found during the hunting season, and that never happened. My son is still gone.''
``People want to believe that these things don't happen and kids just don't disappear,'' he said. ``Well, kids disappear way too often.''
When children are abducted, they usually are not taken very far. Of the 28 cases reviewed by The Courant in which a body was found, 18 of them were discovered within 5 miles of where the victim was last seen.
For two months after Holly Piirainen vanished, her smiling face was posted all over New England. But when her body was finally found -- by two hunters walking in a forest -- it was just a few miles from where she had been abducted.
Although the crimes take place close to the children's last known locations, detectives say child abductions by strangers are among the most difficult cases to solve. There rarely are witnesses and little forensic evidence is found, and because strangers are involved, there is no prior connection between the suspect and victim.
Seven-year-old Michelle Norris was playing with her brother and sister at a school playground in Central Falls, R.I., in June 1988 when their grandmother called them home for dinner. Michelle stayed behind, and disappeared.
Her body was found three days later in a wooded area about 2 miles from the playground. She had been suffocated.
``We've tried everything, even staking out her grave every anniversary to see if the killer would visit, but there was nothing,'' Central Falls police Capt. John Demaris said. ``We're at a standstill right now.''
To better understand these often-frustrating crimes, some police departments are compiling computer databases of solved and unsolved homicides that can be used for research and as investigative tools. But progress is slow.
Massachusetts is the only state in New England currently keeping its own statewide records of unsolved homicides. Connecticut is in the process of starting one.
But just as at the federal level, a regional databank will be only as good as the data reported to it, said Sgt. Steve McCarthy, who oversees the Massachusetts unit. And, he said, although abduction cases involving children should be a priority, police departments don't always treat them that way.
``Shouldn't every law enforcement agency trying to find out about other child abductions be able to get the same information?'' McCarthy asked.
What little research has been done on child abductions confirms The Courant's findings that girls tend to be at greatest risk.
The Washington attorney general's study found that girls accounted for 76 percent of the 600 cases it examined, and concluded that ``the typical child victim of an abduction murder is a white female who is about 11 years old.''
For Lemieux, Holly's grandmother, the increased threat to girls hit close to home not once, but twice.
Already reeling from the disappearance of her granddaughter in 1993, Lemieux heard last summer that Molly Bish, 16, had disappeared from her lifeguard's job in nearby Warren, Mass. The teenager's name rang a bell, and prompted Lemieux to rummage through Holly's things, long since packed in boxes in her family's attic.
She soon found what she was looking for: a letter, one of hundreds written seven years earlier to Holly's family after news spread of her disappearance.
``Hi, my name is Molly Ann Bish,'' the letter began. ``Someday I would like to come see you. I am very sorry. I wish I could make it up to you. Holly is a very pretty girl. She is almost as tall as me. I hope they found her.''
Like Holly's case, the abduction of Molly remains unsolved. Meanwhile, a grieving Lemieux struggles to find some solace in the writings of one 10-year-old girl to the family of another, and what it might mean for the two missing girls.
``I just couldn't believe it,'' Lemieux said, fighting back tears. ``I found that letter right away, like it was meant to be. It seems like a sign to me that they are together now.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun