Last night, an 8-year-old girl was sitting in a homeless shelter in Memphis, Tenn. Her mom and stepdad had gone to bed for the night, and she was up with some church sponsors watching TV. At 9:48 p.m. she saw a picture of herself on the screen. She ran in to where her parents were sleeping and excitedly let them know that she had just seen her picture on the TV. What show? America’s Most Wanted. The parents bolted out of bed, grabbed the 8-year-old girl and her 6-month-old brother, and ran. No direction. No plan. They just ran. Right into the hands of Memphis cops. Now the parents are sitting in jail, and hopefully they will be there for the rest of their lives. More on those two later.
Should I back up? I probably should. I am a free-lance producer for the television show America’s Most Wanted, and last night I got what we call in the office a “Capture.” Actually, it was a double. Not that I’m keeping track. OK … so I am keeping track, but with damn good reason! The captures of Mom and Dad bring our capture count close to 600, and with everyone griping about the “filth that’s on TV today …”, I beg to differ. Sure, we air filth … but we also put it behind bars.
The “Capture” is the desired result of all the hard work you put in to get the story on the air. First it starts with the pitch. As a producer, I sift through the wires, the newspapers, and the Internet looking for a good story. Basically what we are looking for are unsolved cases, fugitives on the run, missing children, and every other variation of crime and violence. Half the time we don’t even need to look for the stories. Law enforcement from all over the country call us constantly, hoping to get their cases on the air. It’s a great partnership. We love to help them, and they love to help us. If my story gets approved, then I hit the road with a camera crew and interview the cops, the witnesses, the victims, and the victims’ families. It really depends on the story. Then it’s back to the home office in D.C. to write a script and edit a piece for air. It sounds so cut and dried, but it never is.
Last Tuesday my managing editor threw me a child-abuse case: the story of a 10-year old boy out of Dayton, Ohio, who escaped from his abusive stepfather and mother, was picked up by a woman who saw him wandering the streets–bloodied and battered–and was rushed to the hospital. I say it’s an abuse case, but I’m not comfortable using that word. “Abuse.” It sounds too … tame. His stepfather allegedly blacked his eyes with beer bottles. Stood on his kneecaps–just for the fun of it. Scalded his tiny, 10-year-old body with boiling water. His mother allegedly never lifted a finger to defend her poor son. Get the picture? This child was ruined, and if you feel sick or if you feel angry, you should. The little boy finally escaped a little over a week ago. It was after one especially horrible beating. According to police reports, the boy’s stepfather beat him over the head with a hammer “again and again and again and again and again.” Try taking a nail, a piece of wood, and a hammer. Give it a couple of whacks, and that nail drives straight through, doesn’t it? Now imagine a 10-year-old skull. Graphic, yes. But these kinds of things occur … all the time. I’m not trying to sensationalize the story. I’m just telling you what happened. The boy escaped with three fractures to the skull. I am surprised he escaped with his life.
When detectives arrived at the boy’s apartment to question the stepfather and mother, they discovered that the couple had run. The bad news (as if it could get any worse?) was that they had bolted with their 8-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son. One child was safe and the other two were missing.
The manhunt started locally in Dayton, but when detectives realized that the stepfather had similar abuse charges against him in Little Rock, Ark., he knew he needed more help. That’s when he called America’s Most Wanted. That’s when I got the case.
When it first came across my desk, I figured it was just another story in the in-box. You have to understand, we do this stuff everyday. Dead bodies, missing children, heinous violent crimes. We can deal with it all with amazing detachment. Not that we don’t care. We care. I care. But if I let every story affect me, I would be rendered completely ineffective. No one needs a crying mess in the cubicle next to them. Believe me, I cry enough when I’m not at the office. You show me a Hallmark Card. I’ll show you a blubbering fool.
I was that blubbering fool all last week. I could barely get through the police report. Everyone who asked me what story I was working on, I could just squeak out the words “child abuse” before I choked up. My co-worker Kathleen kept on telling me to get mad not sad. And I was angry, but more than anything I was just … well, I was just frantic. I couldn’t sleep thinking about these two kids. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but this 10-year-old and his hammer wounds. I couldn’t even imagine hammer wounds. WHO BEATS A CHILD OVER THE HEAD WITH A HAMMER?! I wish you could hear me screaming. Tears and all.
The episode taped on Friday and aired on Saturday. On Saturday nights it’s our policy to fly in law enforcement so they can take calls on the hotline as the show airs across the country. I met Detective Dave Wolford on Saturday afternoon and there was a big dinner with all the cops before we headed over to the studio. Usually the dinners are fun and boisterous, but this one was different. Granted, it wasn’t a downer, but being around Detective Wolford upset me. Here is a man who has dealt with this kind of stuff for years and years. He could handle it. He could get through a meal without crying. I wondered why I couldn’t. I didn’t even bother to ask the customary ice-breaker, the “What’s the worst case you’ve ever worked on?” question. Usually we can get a few lowbrow yuks out of that line of questioning. But I didn’t dare ask. Even the possibility of there being a worse case made me sick to my stomach.
We made it to the studio at 8:30. The show started at 9:00. The calls started trickling in, but nothing promising on our case. There is nothing worse than a low volume of calls on a case that means the world to the detective working it. The phones were just ringing and ringing, and it seemed like every call that came in was for somebody else’s story.
We always hope for that magic call. Once in a while we get it. Last night we did.
The call came in around 10:12. Memphis cops were on the line wanting to talk to the person in charge of the child-abuse case. Detective Wolford was ushered to the phone. I think I was either getting a Diet Coke or flirting with one of the U.S. Marshals when the call came in, but one of the operators came up to me and said, “They’re in custody.” Who? Who’s in custody? Where was I? Who was I? All I remember is a lot of hugs, a lot of clapping, and a lot of tears. I guess I felt like I was under water. Does that make sense? I just started weeping as I was ushered over to Detective Wolford on the phone. Sure enough, Memphis cops cornered the mother and stepfather running down the street 10 minutes after their little 8-year-old daughter saw her and her mom and dad’s picture on America’s Most Wanted. The parents were sent to jail, and the two kids are safe. If they could all be that easy.
The rest of the night passed in a blur. Quite frankly, the last 24 hours have passed by in a blur. It was another sleepless night last night, but as I told my mom and dad this morning, I’ve never had a better sleepless night in my entire life. I got up and my bosses called and told me to get on a plane to Dayton, Ohio, so I could do the capture report. Quite frankly, I would have walked to Dayton if they had asked me to. I would have done anything. Anything. Anything. Anything.
So, here I am in Dayton. Where it all started. Tomorrow I think I will get to meet the 10-year-old boy. Perhaps I will get to hug him. CAN I TELL YOU HOW HAPPY I AM TO KNOW THAT THERE IS STILL A TEN YEAR OLD BOY THERE TO HUG?! I wish you could hear me yelling. Tears and all.