The case of 4-year-old Alisa Maier (photos left here and below), recently snatched from the front yard of her Missouri home while her young brother stood helplessly nearby is similar to one that went down in Vista, California, in 1992. The earlier case had a miraculous outcome.
And now, as all the world knows, so did Alisa's story end happily too.
In 1992, I was a reporter covering the crime beat for the The Vista Press, a since-closed daily newspaper in San Diego County. The police scanner was on in the newsroom and I heard the all-points bulletin when it came across. Staff photographer Jay Roberts heard it as well. We ran out of the newsroom, jumped in Jay's car and headed to the girl's neighborhood.
The case came on the heels of the 1989 disappearance of Leticia Hernandez (photo right), 7, who was snatched while playing in front of her home in nearby Oceanside, also in San Diego County. Two years later, her skull was found on a ranch 70 miles from her home. Leticia was dead, and law enforcement didn't want a repeat ending. They wanted to see the second little girl come home alive.
The Vista case I'm referring to went down like this: A 5-year-old girl and her brother, 4, were playing in the front yard of their small apartment complex. Their grandmother was washing dishes and could see the children from the window. They were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk when a man in a compact car drove up to the curb, opened the passenger door, grabbed the little girl as she approached his car, and then fled.
One moment the child was there, and the next she was gone. The little boy ran screaming into the apartment that a man had taken his sister. This was well before the Amber Alert program. Immediately, the grandmother called 911. And here is the crucial piece of information that saved this little girl. Her little brother told police, "The man was in a green car."
"A green car?" they asked. "What color of green?"
"The color of a lime," the boy told them.
The bulletin that ran across the county alerted officers to be on the lookout for a lime-green compact car driven by a man with a 5-year-old passenger.
Driving on a winding back road that eventually leads to Highway 76 and Interstate 15, was a San Diego County sheriff's deputy. In the opposite lane, headed toward him a few minutes earlier was a car that fit that description. The deputy rushed to make a U-turn, flipped on his lights and siren and headed in the direction of the lime-green car he had just seen. The officer radioed for backup.
After the call for backup went across loud and clear on the scanner, my photographer, Jay, and I headed in that direction too. Fifteen minutes later, as we got closer, a third and final call was sent: the car had been located, the driver was in custody, and, best of all, the little girl was frightened but unharmed. Every deputy available in the county was on that call.
We can only imagine what would have happened to that little girl had her brother not passed on the information and had the deputy not been traveling that road. When I learned about Alisa's case, I immediately thought of the girl in Vista and was hopeful that details from Alisa's brother would help. And it did. In Alisa's case, she was found wandering a car wash, apparently freed by the abductor. But it was the description the brother gave police, of a dark-colored, four-door sedan with a loud muffler, which helped lead authorities to the house of Paul Sterling Smith, the main suspect in the case, a registered sex offender who fatally shot himself in the head as officers surrounded his house.
Back in California in '92, the scene that afternoon on a rural road was one of relief. As Jay and I arrived, the lime-green car -- a small hatchback of some type -- was on the side of the road, where the officer had pulled over the driver.
The little girl was in the arms of a female deputy, waiting for family members to arrive. It was quite a sight, and one I won't soon forget. Uniformed deputies had tears in their eyes, this from veteran officers who had seen it all. When I saw a uniformed officer on TV carrying Alisa Maier in a parking lot after retrieving her from the car wash, it was like watching that scene all over again.
Both cases could have had tragic endings if not for the detailed descriptions their brothers gave to police and the quick responses from law enforcement. Both boys are heroes. And both cases offer hope.
Photos courtesy of The Associated Press