Looking out for each other

Ramiro Landa is extremely protective of his daughter Crystal, who was 11 when she was pursued by convicted child abductor Jeffrey Jewitt. Jewitt used his car to chase her down an alley behind her Chicago home. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / October 6, 2010)

Jeffrey Jewitt's red Nissan Altima slid through the side streets of Chicago's Northwest Side until he spotted his quarry: 11-year-old Crystal Landa walking home alone from St. Constance elementary school.

The tree-lined street was empty. Her pink backpack bobbed behind her, and her nose was buried in a book.

Jewitt quietly nudged his sedan into an alley a block away, slipped the car back a few feet until it was hidden, and waited.

When Crystal reached the alley, his Nissan lurched forward to block her path.

"Come over here, I want to show you something," Jewitt said through the open passenger-side window, according to a police report.

The slender girl stared at the hulking 27-year-old. She could see he had his pants off and was fondling himself.

Crystal froze momentarily. When Jewitt unlocked the car doors, she bolted down the alley. Jewitt threw his car in reverse and barreled back after her.

"Help me! Someone is trying to get me!" Crystal recalls screaming. Spotting an open garage where an elderly couple were starting their car, she waved her arms at them.

Jewitt's car screeched to a halt, then sped away.

Crystal's brief but harrowing October 2008 encounter — captured by a neighbor's security surveillance camera and told through police reports and interviews with the young victim — was just one episode in Jewitt's troubled, years-long history of crimes targeting children.

Light punishment and lack of treatment allowed the repeat offender to stay on the streets as his behavior grew more aggressive and his criminal record escalated, from luring a 5-year-old day camper into a storage room to a six-month jail stint last year for the attempted abduction of Crystal and for the sexual exploitation of another child.

Jewitt's story is emblematic of the many child predators who fall through the cracks in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs, leaving victims' families feeling frustrated and unprotected. A Tribune investigation documented 530 police reports of attempted child abduction by a stranger since 2008, but only 30 prosecutions.

The Tribune is identifying those youths who, along with their families, wanted to tell their stories.

Crystal's father, factory quality assurance technician Ramiro Landa, said he was outraged to learn of Jewitt's rap sheet from reporters — and disappointed with the way authorities handled his daughter's case.

"He got out of jail after five or six months — that's not enough for a person who has a history of doing these things," Landa said. "He should be locked up."

Jewitt, now 29, told the Tribune that he is in treatment and hopes for a second chance in a life that began with dreams of being a hockey star or lawyer.

"What I did is horrible and wrong," he said from behind the screen door of his parents' northwest suburban home.

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Jewitt was asked whether his deviant behavior might have been stopped if a court had forced him to undergo intensive sex offender treatment after his first conviction, in 2003.

"Maybe if they would have come down a little bit harder on me the first time around —" he began, before pausing and saying: "That's woulda, coulda, shoulda, and there's no way to know."