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.
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.
2001: Holly Piirainen One Of Dozens Of Unsolved Cases
'We Just Couldn't Believe This Could Happen Out Here'
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