McAdams On: AMBER Alerts

Some things work out like they’re supposed to. It happened that way recently in Fresno, Calif., where an eight-year-old child was rescued after being abducted from her family’s front yard.

Local press reports said little Elisa Cardenas was playing with friends when a strange man pulled up in a pick-up, offering to buy the children candy and toys. The girls ran, but the man snatched Elisa, forced her into his truck and drove away. Neighbors pursued on foot, and Elisa’s mom raced to the car to try to follow the man. He evaded her.

Elisa, who was playing with friends just moments before, seemed lost to the ones who loved her. They notified police, who put out an AMBER Alert.

AMBER Alerts arose from legislation directing the use the broadcast Emergency Alert System infrastructure to issue immediate bulletins on abducted children. Last year, 207 AMBER Alerts were issued in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands involving 263 children, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Of the 207, 166 cases resulted in a recovery, 45 of which were attributed directly to AMBER Alerts.

In a neighborhood not too distant from the Cardenas household, the family of Victor Perez was watching TV when the AMBER Alert about Elisa was broadcast. Police by this time had captured footage of the pick-up on a red-light surveillance camera. The AMBER Alert included a description of the truck, which was spotted by a cousin of Victor’s driving by the Perez house. Mr. Perez hesitated long enough to consider either calling 911 or chasing the man in his own vehicle. Perez jumped into his pick-up while his cousin called police.

Perez followed the pick-up, eventually pulling up alongside. He said he shouted to the man to pull over, that he needed to ask him something. The man refused and sped away.

“I decided to go after him anyway,” Perez told ABC News. “The second time I caught up to him, he got very upset, and the little girl had like a second to show her face. That’s when I knew this is the guy we’re looking for.”

The man took off. Perez gave chase, pulled in front of the fleeing vehicle and cut it off. Elisa’s abductor then pushed her out of the vehicle, badly shaken but unharmed.

Victor Perez very likely saved Elisa’s life. The man arrested for her abduction was a known gang member on felony probation who had exposed himself to two other young girls that same day.

The only thing more sickening than a child abduction is when the child is found dead, or not at all. Too many abductions end in such agony. The news stories play out like extended horror scripts, with parents wearing matching T-shirts bearing the face of a lost child. Imaginations are boggled with loathing for the perpetrators still at large. Behaviors change subconsciously in the interest of self-protection.

But not this time, in Fresno. This time, the terrorist did not win. He was tracked down, confronted and eventually apprehended. And Elisa Cardenas, while traumatized and possibly scarred, at least went home.