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Recent kidnapping, death puts parents on high alert

By Ed Brock

If children in general are in danger in today's world, 10-year-old Austin Sauls is doubly so.

Sauls suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that means he doesn't respond well to social situations, said his mother Heather Sauls of Jonesboro. That makes Sauls twice as concerned about what her son would do if someone tried to abduct him.

"He can't see a situation all the way through," Sauls said. "We have to rehearse with him situations, like a play."

In that play Sauls teaches Austin what to do when approached by a stranger. It also worries her that Austin has a habit of wandering off.

"It doesn't register with him that if he's not where Mom wants him to be she's going to get worried," Sauls said.

Last week's kidnap-slaying of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota, Fla. has been a major topic of concern for Sauls and other parents she knows.

Investigators say unemployed mechanic Joseph P. Smith, 37, was caught on a surveillance camera at a car wash Feb. 1 leading Brucia away by the arm. He was arrested two days later after acquaintances recognized him from photos repeatedly broadcast on television.

The sixth-grader's body was found February 6 on church property about three miles from the car wash. Investigators have not said how she was killed.

"We've been talking about it at the office," Sauls said.

Sauls also has a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old, and she's concerned about them as well.

"It is a standing rule in our house to call when you get (to a destination like a friend's house) and call when you leave," Sauls said.

The Brucia case also caused a stir in the home of Tracy Ward of Riverdale who says she teaches her children not to talk to strangers and to walk away from them.

"My little girl, she's 6, when she saw (the videotape of Brucia's abduction) she said ?If anybody tries to grab me I'll kick and scream and runaway,'" Ward said.

That's exactly how a child should react, Clayton County police Capt. Jeff Turner said.

"Make as much noise as possible to get attention," Turner said. "Anything that will give the child time enough to get away."

In fact, Turner said he was surprised by Brucia's apparent passivity during the incident. The video shows the man believed to be Smith approaching Brucia, apparently saying something and then grabbing the girl's arm and leading her away without a struggle.

"I don't think that's very typical of her age group," Turner said. "He may have just intimidated or threatened her that much."

Turner also recommends that parents know where their children are at all times.

"If he's supposed to be over at Billy's house, have him call and check in," Turner said.

And hold hands with or keep a very close eye on young children in crowded, public places.

"It doesn't take but a second for a small child to get lost in a crowd," Turner said. "Nowadays if a child gets abducted there's no guarantee that they're going to survive."

The office of the Clayton County Solicitor General Keith Martin publishes a handbook called "The Real Homeland Security. Protecting our Children in the 21st Century."

Along with statistics and information on when and where children are most likely to be victimized, the booklet provides tips for parents.

Parents should watch the school bus stops for strangers and non-students, know their child's friends and their parents and use the Internet to learn if a sexual predator lives in their neighborhood. The booklet also recommends forming a network of concerned parents that will watch for danger signs and pass them on to others.

Clayton County Sheriff Stanley Tuggle, inspired by Brucia's story, wants the public to be aware of a program called "A Child is Missing" that the Georgia Sheriff's Association is bringing to Georgia.

Essentially "A Child is Missing" is a service that law enforcement agencies can call after determining that a child, or adult, is missing and they need help in finding them. They provide the service with information such as the location from which the person is missing (school, home, or neighborhood), the time frame of the disappearance, a description of the missing person and a number to call to provide information.

"Once they get that information they pinpoint where the child is missing, get a radius and put out thousands of phone calls in that area with the information," Tuggle said.

The calls are automated and do not violate the Federal Communications Commission's "Do Not Call List" protecting consumers against unwanted phone solicitations because it is an emergency call and not a solicitation, "A Child is Missing" founder Sherry Friedlander said.

"A Child is Missing" has assisted in 53 safe recoveries in the past month, Friedlander said, the last being of a 4-year-old girl in Jessup, Ga.

Friedlander said the system can make 1,000 calls in one minute and the average time between the initiation of the system and the discovery of the missing persons (if they are found) is one hour and 40 minutes.

Time is of the essence in these cases, Tuggle said.

"Our chances of recovering the missing person alive are greater if we can do it as quickly as possible," Tuggle said.

Tuggle said he used money from drug seizures to pay for the $100 a year donation requested from each agency that participates in "A Child is Missing." The money is used for operational expenses.

"Once you determine you need these people (other law enforcement agencies participating) to help, all you have to do is make a phone call," Tuggle said.

Unlike the Florida case in which Brucia apparently did not know her abductor, a majority of the abductions that occur in Clayton County are parental or acquaintance abductions, said Capt. Chris Butler, head of the Clayton County Police Department's Crimes Against Persons Unit. Neither Butler nor Capt. Alton Anderson, head of the department's Crimes Against Children Unit, could recall the last stranger abduction that occurred in the county.

Abductions by parents who are in a custody battle can be just as dangerous as abductions by strangers, Butler said.

"Whenever someone's involved in a heated domestic situation it's always possible that they will turn their anger from their ex-spouse or significant other to the children," Butler said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.