Significant Child Abduction Cases: Understanding Their Impact and Lessons Learned

Significant Child Abduction Cases: Understanding Their Impact and Lessons Learned

The innocence of children is heartwarming to anyone with a conscience, but there are psychopathic monsters out there who delight in destroying that innocence. They’re not few and far between, either. In the U.S. alone, approximately 800,000 children go missing each year. The number of families who have to deal with the pain of losing a child is astronomical.

Some of the most famous child abductions have grisly details that haunt dreams. While some children are kept captive for short periods and later returned after a ransom is paid, others spend years and become adults within the confines of their abductor’s homes under disgusting conditions. While there are a few rescue stories, many child abduction cases turn into murder cases. Sometimes, justice is served. But a handful of these child abduction cases remain cold to this day.

To compile this list of the most famous child abductions, 24/7 Tempo reviewed several news sources, including ABC7, FOX, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Additionally, several government sites were reviewed, including the FBI database on kidnappings.

Polly Klaas

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Richard Allen Davis kidnapped and murdered Polly Klaas.

Unlike other child abduction cases, in which children are kidnapped when they’re away from the safety of their homes, Polly Klaas was taken from inside her home during a slumber party in Petaluma, CA. The kidnapping occurred on October 1, 1993, when Klaas was only 12 years old. Search efforts went into effect immediately and they ceased after two months when her body was found 50 miles away. The man who kidnapped her, Richard Allen Davis, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1996 and placed on death row at the San Quentin State Prison, where he remains as of the time of this article.

Charley Ross

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Though Charley Ross’ kidnappers were killed, the little boy was never seen again.

Parents to this day teach their children not to accept sweets from people they don’t know. Charley Ross, a four-year-old boy, was lured this way by kidnappers in the summer of 1874. They visited Ross and his older brother for five days straight, each time winning them over with candy.

His older brother, Walter, was let go but Charley was taken. Several days later, ransom letters arrived demanding $20,000. The kidnappers were killed after a botched robbery and the knowledge of Ross’ whereabouts was lost with them. A third conspirator, William Westervelt, was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. The Ross family went on to spend $60,000 over several decades in search of their son but only met with imposters who claimed to be Charley Ross.

Jaycee Dugard

Source: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 09: Jaycee Lee Dugard speaks onstage at the 3rd annual Diane Von Furstenberg awards at the United Nations on March 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping is one of the most famous child abduction cases of all time.

The kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard occurred on June 10, 1991, in Lake Tahoe, when she was only 11 years old. Her kidnappers were Phillip and Nancy Garrido, who moved her into a shack in the backyard of their home. Dugard was brainwashed, raped and impregnated twice during her 18 years in captivity (once when she was 14 and then again when she was 17). She was found in 2009 and given $20M by a victim compensation fund. She wrote a book and went on to live her life with her two daughters. Her kidnappers and abusers were sent to prison.

John Paul Getty III

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John Getty Paul Getty III was kidnapped and had his ear severed.

At 16 years old, John Paul Getty III was kidnapped. Two days later on July 10, 1973, a ransom note arrived at his mother’s home. The demand was for $17M. She didn’t have the funds and though his grandfather did, he refused to pay the ransom. Getty III was kept for months and had his ear severed by the kidnappers. Eventually, his grandfather relented and offered $3M. He loaned Getty III’s father, John Paul II, the rest of the money with 4% interest. Getty III was released in December of that same year. He went on to marry and have children of his own.

Elisabeth Fritzl

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Josef Fritzl imprisoned and raped his own daughter Elisabeth Fritzl for 24 years.

In August of 1984, Elisabeth Fritzl helped her father, Josef Fritzl, install a door in his newly created cellar. Before she had a chance to leave after offering her assistance, he used a cloth soaked in ether to incapacitate her and lock her away. He was calculated with an intent to use her as a sex slave.

He went on to rape her for 24 years, keeping her underground in deplorable conditions. Elisabeth had seven children (one perished after birth) throughout this period, some of whom were forced to watch her father’s continued abuse. Josef was sentenced to life in prison in Austria. Elisabeth went on to live with her children in the northern region of the country, where they could start their recovery in a therapeutic facility.

Eddie Cudahy


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Eddie Cudahy was held for ransom when he was 16 years old.

Sixteen-year-old Eddie Cudahy was kidnapped on December 18, 1990. He had left home to run an errand and on the way back, he was taken. He was targeted because of his prominent family and soon after his kidnapping, the Cudahy family received a ransom note demanding $25,000 in gold. Cudahy’s father paid the ransom and his son was returned unscathed within a couple of hours. The man who kidnapped him was no stranger to unlawful acts and was acquitted of several of his crimes, including the kidnapping.

Marion Parker

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William Edward Hickman kidnapped and killed Marion Parker, his employer’s daughter.

Twelve-year-old Marion Parker was abducted by her father’s employee, William Edward Hickman, in 1927. Hickman started his life of crime when he was still a child himself. By the time he became employed at the bank where Perry Parker worked, he had already committed murder. He abducted Parker, a twin, at her school, under the ruse that her father had been in an auto accident and he wanted to see her. The secretary at the school released her to Hickman.

Hickman demanded a ransom of $1,500 and when Parker went to pay it, Hickman noticed police presence and left. Before the second attempt, Hickman killed and mutilated the girl. He delivered her limbless torso to her father and spread her limbs throughout Elysian Park in Los Angeles, CA. He was sentenced to death and died by strangulation after his neck failed to break during his execution.

Dorothy Ann Distelhurst

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Dorothy Ann Distelhurst’s remains were discovered near a hospital in Nashville, TN.

In September of 1934, Dorothy Ann Distelhurst was only five years old. She was on her way home from school in Nashville, TN, when she was taken. Ransom letters poured in, demanding that the Distelhurst family pay a ransom of $6,000. The letters were filled with threats of what they would do to their daughter. The kidnapper(s) followed through with those threats and Distelhurst’s body was found near a hospital. Her skull was crushed and her face was unrecognizable (it had been liquefied by acid). The case remains cold.

Natascha Kampusch

Inside the basement of an old creepy, empty house.  The door to this room had the words "Dark Room" painted on the door.  The room was dimly lit and there was a lot of mold.
Source: JoshStewart78 / Shutterstock.com
Wolfgang Priklopil held Natascha Kampusch captive in a cellar for eight years.

On March 2, 1998, Natascha Kampusch was making her way home from school in Vienna, Austria, when she was abducted. She was only 10 years old. Her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, held her in captivity inside a cellar with no windows for eight years. Kampusch managed to escape in 2006 after suffering sexual and physical abuse.

During her time spent in captivity, she was required to clean and cook. At first, she didn’t have access to the rest of the home but with time, Priklopil allowed entry to other rooms. On August 23, 2006, Kampusch was allowed outside to vacuum Priklopil’s vehicle. When he got a call, he went inside and Kampusch made a run for it. She has since authored two books and works as an activist. Priklopil died by suicide on the same day of her escape.

Robert “Bobby” Franks

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Richard Loeb and Nathan J. Leopold kidnapped and murdered Robert “Bobby” Franks in 1924.

In 1924, Robert “Bobby” Franks, the son of a millionaire, was kidnapped. He was only 14 years old. Franks’ family received a ransom note but it was a guise as the boy was brutally murdered immediately following his kidnapping. The culprits were cousins from distinguished families, Richard Loeb and Nathan J. Leopold.

Franks’ naked body was found the day following his kidnapping just outside of Chicago, IL. He had been stuffed into a drainage pipe. His face and genitals had been burned with acid and he had been bludgeoned and suffocated with a rag. Loeb and Leopold confessed to the heinous crime, offering up the motive as “an experiment in sensation.” Both went to prison as convicted murderers. Loeb died in prison following a prison fight and Leopold was released after serving 34 years. He died at age 66 in 1971.

Elizabeth Smart

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Following her now-famous abduction as a child, Elizabeth Smart became a child safety advocate.

In June of 2002, Elizabeth Smart was in bed inside her Salt Lake City, UT, home when she was abducted at knifepoint. She was only 14 years old. Her abductors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee (his wife) held Smart captive for nine months.

While she was in captivity, Mitchell and Barzee abused her. Smart was raped, forced to watch pornography and forced to drink alcohol. Her parents, Ed and Lois Smart were persistent during the time she was missing, which helped with her recovery. She was rescued on March 12, 2003. Smart became a child safety advocate and launched the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and Wholehearted Consent. Barzee was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mitchell was sentenced to life.

Charles Lindbergh Jr.

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The famous child abduction of Charles Lindbergh Jr. became known as the“crime of the century.”

On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh Jr. was kidnapped in his home in Hopewell, NJ. He was only 20 months old. He was in his nursery around 9 PM and about an hour later, Betty Gow, his nurse, discovered him missing. The family found a ransom note demanding $50,000 and later as police searched for the boy, another ransom note came through. Only this time, the demand was for $70,000.

Many more ransom notes later, a sum of $50,000 was agreed upon and the man, believed to be “John,” revealed the location of Lindbergh Jr. However, the boy was not found where he was supposed to be. Instead, on May 12, 1932, the decomposed body of the boy was found near Mount Rose, NJ. He had a hole in his skull and his head was crushed. The kidnapper, “John,” turned out to be Bruno Richard Hauptmann. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He was electrocuted on April 3, 1936.

June Robles

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After her kidnapping, June Robles was discovered alive in the Arizona desert.

Like many child abductions, June Robles, a six-year-old girl, was taken while walking home from school. This occurred in Tuscon, AZ during the spring of 1934. Witnesses to her kidnapping described the kidnapper as dirty and scrawny. Robles was held in captivity for a total of 19 days while the community spiraled in their efforts to find her. She was found in the desert after a mysterious tip alerted police of her whereabouts. She returned to her family filthy, with bruises and sunburned. Still, she was alive. Her captor was never found.

Amber Hagerman

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The child abduction case of Amber Hagerman became so famous that it led to the creation of the AMBER Alert System.

You know those alerts you get on your phone when there’s been a child abduction? It’s Amber Hagerman’s famous child abduction case that led to that system’s creation, which has helped with the rescue of over 1,000 children. Hagerman was nine years old when she was out riding her bicycle in a Texas parking lot on January 13, 1996. An eyewitness told police that he watched the abduction happen in real-time. She was kicking and screaming when she was shoved into a black pickup truck. Four days after her abduction, her body was found about four miles down the road. Her killer has yet to be found.

Adam Walsh

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Ottis Toole kidnapped and murdered Adam Walsh.

On July 27, 1981, Adam Walsh was kidnapped in a department store when his mother looked away for a moment. He was only six years old. The boy’s body would never be found but two weeks later, his decapitated head was recovered. The murder of Walsh led to his father, John Walsh, starting the TV show, “America’s Most Wanted.” He also founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Through his grief, he managed to help countless other children and families who have experienced similar events. The man who murdered Walsh was serial killer, Ottis Toole, who died in prison in 1996 while serving time for his other murder convictions.

Shawn Hornbeck

abandoned bicycle
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Mike Devlin abducted Shawn Hornbeck while the young boy was riding his bike.

On October 6, 2002, 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bicycle, on his way to his friend’s home, when he was abducted in Richwoods, MO. The man who abducted him, Mike Devlin, bumped him with his truck, feigned concern and forced him into the truck bed. Horneck was kept in captivity until 2007 when he was rescued and returned to his family (along with another boy Devlin had abducted). Devlin pled guilty to 80 counts of sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder. He was sentenced to prison for 72 life terms.

Elsie Paroubek

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The famous child abduction and murder of Elsie Paroubek remains a cold case to this day.

On April 8, 1911, Elsie Paroubek, five years old at the time, told her mother she was going to visit her aunt around the corner. Several hours later, her mother arrived at her sister’s home only to realize Paroubek was missing. Not thinking much of it at the time considering she had many friends in the area, the report to police wasn’t made until Paroubek’s father found out she was missing. A month later, Paroubek’s body was found in a drainage canal. The murder case has remained cold.

Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapping

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Three men kidnapped a school bus full of children in 1976.

This kidnapping case included an entire busload of kids between the ages of five and 14 along with the school bus driver, Ed Ray. It occurred on July 15, 1976. They were transferred to two vans and later buried inside a truck trailer in a rock quarry located in Livermore, CA. The bus driver and all 26 children survived the ordeal. Fred Newhall Woods IV, James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. However, in 2022, they were all paroled.

Cynthia Ann Parker

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Cynthia Ann Parker lived as a Comanche woman for many years after her capture in 1836.

On May 19, 1836, Cynthia Ann Parker, born in Crawford County, IL, was captured during a Comanche Raid. She was held captive for a total of 25 years, during which she lived as a Comanche woman. She married a Comanche warrior and together, they created a family of five. On December 19, 1860, she was recaptured by Texas Rangers. She was forced at that time to leave her husband and two sons. Her daughter was recaptured along with her and Parker died without knowing that her only surviving son was exalted as the “last great Comanche chief.”

Etan Patz

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Pedro Hernandez confessed to killing Etan Patz.

Six-year-old Etan Patz was abducted on May 25, 1979. He was walking alone to his bus stop when he disappeared. Although nationwide search efforts were immediately underway, Patz wasn’t found following his abduction. The case remained cold for decades until it reopened in 2010. Pedro Hernandez, who was 18 at the time of the kidnapping, confessed to the murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 2017.

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