Black 'N' Whyte
Why the delay in reporting the attempted kidnapping?Tim Whyte · June 15, 1997
Blanca the baby sitter is 53 years old, a hair over 5 feet tall and doesn't speak English. When the strange young man asked her if the two boys were "her babies," the correct answer would have been no.
But she defended them like they were.
Blanca and the boys, ages 2½ and 4, were on a routine walk in the Valencia Summit. The man, driving a white pickup truck, had stopped and ordered Blanca and the boys into the truck.
She told her young charges to run, and as the man with black gums and buck teeth grabbed her, she delivered a swift kick to his groin and bit him on the arm. Blanca and the two boys -- sons of a Los Angeles Police officer -- escaped uninjured.
Blanca's story is at once an inspiring tale of heroism and a frightening story of treachery toward children in a town that's ranked among the nation's safest.
Nine days later, you finally got to read about it in your community newspaper.
And even then, it was a short, bare-bones story, buried on an inside page of the Sunday Signal. Some residents were angry. And you can't blame them.
"I'm furious that the community is not able to get this information on the day, or the day after, it happened," Lisa Brewster told a Signal reporter. "We have the right to know. We have to know because we have to look out for our children.
"Nine days this took for this to get in the newspaper. You can't tell me there's anything more important than this."
You're right. We can't. And there's a simple explanation for why this story took nine days to break:
We screwed up.
So did the cops.
Here's what happened.
Due to the language barrier, the alleged kidnapping attempt was originally dispatched as a possible domestic disturbance. Since those happen often, and usually don't precipitate news stories, it wouldn't have gotten much attention from reporters listening to police radio traffic.
Then, once Sheriff's deputies began to piece the story together and realize it was a bona fide kidnapping attempt, they failed to correctly pass the information along to the public and the media.
That accounts for about half the delay.
Only after receiving a tip from a concerned resident in the middle of last week, about four or five days after the incident, did The Signal become aware of it.
Our crime reporter put together a short story based on the limited information that was available, and it was added to the news budget -- our daily list of stories that are available for publication. It sat there for several days, somehow not generating much excitement among the various editors who are responsible, on a daily basis, for putting the "A" section together.
That includes me. I was out of the office quite a bit last week, but I know that I perused the news budget at least once during the time the story was sitting here, waiting to be chosen for a morning edition of the paper, and for whatever reason, it didn't jump out at me. I even added assignments to the budget and discussed them with reporters but never noticed that the story about the kidnapping attempt hadn't run. I may have even stared straight at it.
We had a busy news week. It's no excuse, but that's what happened: The copy desk was very busy and ended up holding the story for several days. No one on the staff took action that was consistent with the story's urgency.
For that, I extend my deepest apologies. I live down the street from the scene of the alleged kidnapping attempt, and I know how those parents feel. I, too, was angry that it took nine days to publicize something that could affect the safety of my family and neighborhood. I was angry at the police, our newspaper and myself.
The story finally ran on Sunday, and again on Monday, but on neither occasion did it make the front page, as it should have. On Monday, my phone was ringing off the hook: A few calls from TV reporters who wanted to pick up our story -- ironically, we were still the ones to break the story, even though we were late on it -- but most of the calls were from residents who were, rightly, peeved that it took nine days for the story to be available for public consumption.
When we first realized this story had taken so long to become known, we speculated that the Sheriff's Department was sitting on it to protect the safety of a fellow law enforcement officer, the boys' mother. Sheriff's officials say that's not the case. I hope not. It's the Sheriff's Department's job to serve and protect all of us, not just fellow officers, and the fact that a would-be kidnapper may be trolling the streets of Valencia is an important piece of information for all concerned parents.
Sheriff's officials say it was simply an error, that this sort of thing should have, as a matter of routine procedure, prompted an alert to the public much more quickly. This week, Sheriff's Lt. Tim Peters told Signal reporter Carol Chambers: "We have reviewed the way this incident was initially reported and processed at the Sheriff's station. We have discovered an administrative error wherein a person of responsibility did not properly report the incident up the chain, causing a delay of several days.
"Since we have discovered it, we have taken steps to correct it."
Fair enough. A lesson has been learned. People make mistakes, and it doesn't appear as if there was any malicious intent on the part of the folks at the SCV Sheriff's Station, who generally do a good job.
Once we realized what happened, we tried to atone for it by tracking down Blanca, the boys and their mother for their accounts of what happened, then publishing that information and the police sketch of the suspect on the front page. This doesn't excuse the previous mistakes, but in a business where your mistakes are printed for all the world to see, you can do nothing but apologize and try to make the next effort better.
In an instance like this, there are two entities responsible for making sure the public has the information it needs, information that could have an effect on the safety of your children. One of those entities is the Sheriff's Department, and the other is this newspaper. Local law enforcement, for whatever reason, didn't make the community or the local media aware of the story, and later, the newspaper didn't promptly give it the attention, detail and prominence it deserved.
We hope there won't be a next time, but if there is, I'm confident both entities will be more vigilant.
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Tim Whyte is the magaging editor of The Signal. His commentary appears on Sundays.
© 1997, THE SIGNAL -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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