09/02/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
In May 2001 a stranger snatched Leah Henry off the street near her home in Houston and held her bound and gagged for four days. Despite her frightening situation, the 11-year-old kept her wits about her. When her abductor—convicted sex offender Gary Dale Cox, 48—left her unattended in a remote cabin near Kerrville, Texas, she managed to free a hand and scribble notes describing her situation and to photograph the cabin's interior with a camera from her knapsack. On May 4 Cox was bundling her into his car, when Kerr County Sheriff's Department Sgt. David Billeiter pulled up to investigate a report of suspicious activity. As Cox walked toward Leah's side of the car with his gun drawn, she bolted out of the driver's side and into the cop's arms. "Leah knew the danger, and she seized the opportunity," says Billeiter, 56, who drove Leah away to safety—moments before Cox fatally shot himself.
You only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV to know that not all child abductions end quite so well. During this summer of what seems like continuous kidnappings, millions of parents are deeply troubled by the story of Samantha Runnion, the 5-year-old California girl abducted while playing in her front yard, then sexually assaulted and murdered. But for every Samantha, child safety experts tell us, there are actually many more victims who survive, like Henry, or Philadelphia's Erica Pratt, the plucky 7-year-old who gnawed through the duct tape used to bind her and escaped to safety.
According to Department of Justice figures, only about 100 U.S. children will be kidnapped for sex or ransom this year; of those close to two-thirds will be returned to their families. So while the problem of kidnapping is real, it is also relatively rare. "I don't want to minimize [the risk]," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "but our message to families is: Don't live in fear—just be prepared."
The best way to start, Allen suggests, is to discuss the problem calmly with your children (for more ideas on keeping kids safe, see box at left). As for Leah Henry, she has faced her recovery from the kidnapping and assault with the same resilience she displayed during her captivity. "She will not talk about it, ever," says her mom, Linda Henry, 50. Although Leah still sees a therapist, the emotional impact of her ordeal is receding.
In the end, says Linda Henry, even the most resourceful child can only do so much; nothing but highly effective law enforcement will halt a determined abductor. "The focus has to be on the criminals," she says, "because you can't make your child kidnap-proof."
Kevin Brass in Houston, John Hannah in Los Angeles and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.