The moment, caught on a car-wash security camera and repeated endlessly on TV news, was every parent's darkest fear brought to life. Walking home at dusk in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 1 after a sleepover at a friend's house, Carlie Brucia, 11, was approached by a stranger, who spoke a few words, took her by the arm and quickly led her out of view. Five days later Brucia's body was found in the bushes behind a neighborhood church. "My emotions go from very difficult to control to feeling actual pain to being able to take a break from it for a while," says her heartbroken father, Joe Brucia Jr., 39. "But then it comes back."

Indeed the sense of horror was difficult to shake, and not just for Carlie's immediate circle. As one indication of the nerve that had been struck, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that in the five days after the kidnapping the organization's Web site had recorded more than 2 million hits, five times the normal traffic. Even the arrest of petty criminal Joseph Smith, 37, who was charged in the murder, couldn't seem to erase the nightmare that the nation had witnessed. "It just hit that I'm never going to hold her again," says Carlie's mother, Susan, 34, tearfully.

There was widespread outrage to go along with that pain. Just a month earlier Florida circuit court judge Harry Rapkin had been asked by corrections officials to issue a warrant to arrest Smith for violating his probation because Smith had failed to pay $170 in court costs for an earlier drug bust. Rapkin did not issue the warrant, pointing out that authorities had never followed through with the necessary paperwork. Rapkin, who received death threats following Carlie's murder, says that if judges had to put away everyone who was guilty of such a technical violation, "we wouldn't have enough prisons or jails to hold them."

That was little comfort to Carlie's loved ones. She was born on Long Island, where her parents split up when she was an infant. Her dad, a supervisor for a construction company, remained on Long Island, while Carlie and her mom moved to Sarasota, to be near Susan's parents. In recent years Carlie had spent two weeks each Christmas and three weeks in the summer at her dad's home in Bellmore, where her bedroom was adorned with posters of J.Lo, Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne. "She sent me a piece of paper of the color—a sky blue—she wanted for the room," says Joe. "She has about 200 stuffed animals covering every square inch of the room."

Last year, in fifth grade, Carlie had been voted Most Popular and Math Whiz by her classmates. This year, at Sarasota's McIntosh Middle School, she continued to excel academically. But it was her kindness others often noticed the most. Classmate Rebecca Magarry, 11, who had transferred to the school district recently, recalls how Carlie was one of the first students to befriend her and make her feel welcome. "Everyone loved her," says Rebecca, who attended the Feb. 6 memorial. "It's hard looking back at her seat and thinking she's not there."

Carlie had been attending a sleep-over with two friends at a home about a mile away from her own on Saturday, Jan. 31. The next day around 6 p.m. she set off for home. She told her friend's mother, Connie Arnold, that she was allowed to walk on her own. After Carlie had left, however, Arnold called Susan Schorpen to double-check. Schorpen told her Carlie didn't have permission to travel by herself and sent her husband, Steve Kansler, out to look for her. For the next hour he and Schorpen combed the area. Schorpen then called police. "I knew something was wrong," says Schorpen. "In my heart, in my mind, I knew."

Police searched that night without success. The next day the manager of Evie's Car Wash, which lay on a shortcut to Carlie's home, reviewed his security tape, saw what looked to be an abduction, and contacted police. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this is the first time that a predator has been so vividly shown snatching a victim. Within hours the video was being played continuously on national television. It was probably already too late.

Within 36 hours of Carlie's disappearance, police received numerous tips pointing to Smith, an unemployed auto mechanic. He was picked up for violating probation on Feb. 3. Two days later an unnamed witness told police that Smith had admitted to killing Carlie; the source then gave authorities information that led them to her body, which had been hidden in bushes behind a church about three miles from her home.

Police declined to say how she had been killed or whether she had been sexually assaulted. The car allegedly used in the crime was found to have scuff marks on the upholstery and smudges on the windows, suggesting a struggle. But the larger issue was how Smith, who is married and has three young daughters of his own, ranging in age from 3 to 6, had managed to stay on the street despite an arrest record dating back 10 years. Though most of his busts were for drug offenses, two involved violent attacks on women. In 1993 he was arrested for striking a 21-year-old woman in the face with a motorcycle helmet. He received a sentence of 60 days. More troubling, in 1997 he was accused of attempting to drag a 20-year-old woman, Teri Jo Stinson, from the side of a road in Bradenton, Fla., and into a vacant lot. Even though Stinson identified Smith as her attacker and two eyewitnesses backed up her story, a jury acquitted Smith, who claimed that he had been trying to prevent the woman from running in front of a car. "It was the most surprising verdict we've ever seen," prosecutor Dawn Buff told The Bradenton Herald. "I'm as convinced of his guilt today as I was then."

In recent months, Smith had shown signs of instability, according to one friend. Ed Dinyes, 44, who had briefly worked in a car-repair business with Smith last year, describes how in August Smith called him for help after Smith had been on a cocaine binge. Dinyes says he took him to a hospital, where Smith told a nurse, "I'm suicidal." Smith's neighbors say they knew of his drug problems but didn't find him menacing in any way. When it came to his children, says neighbor Linda Thompson, "he was attentive, he was protective, and he was affectionate."

Now he is facing a murder charge and the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted. In the wake of the tragedy some parents have voiced an understandable desire to keep a far tighter rein on their children's movements. But 14-year-old Kim Bucci, a seventh grader at Carlie's school, echoes what many experts say is a more measured response, which is to be vigilant but not scared. "You just have to have this in the back of your head," says Kim. "It could happen. It did happen."

Bill Hewitt. Jeff Truesdell and Lori Rozsa in Sarasota, Diane Herbst on Long Island and Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Truesdell,
  • Lori Rozsa,
  • Diane Herbst,
  • Jane Sims.