The Foiled Abduction
By David Emery
ANOTHER FAMILIAR urban legend hit the forwarded email circuit in 1999 as warnings appeared describing the attempted abduction of a child in the restroom of a discount store called Sam's Club (a U.S. chain owned by Walmart). At least three different versions are circulating.
Purportedly written by a witness who saw the events unfold, all three variants tell the story of the mother of a 4-year-old who looks up from the meat counter and discovers her daughter has vanished. The management of the store is notified, all the building exits are locked, and employees begin searching for the child. She is found minutes later in the restroom, unharmed apart from her hair being dyed and/or partially shaven and articles of her clothing removed in an apparent attempt to disguise her appearance.
The moral of the story is bluntly stated: "Please keep an eye out for your kids when going to these shopping places."
Story dates from the 1970s
The narrative itself dates back to the late 1970s and did not originate at Sam's Club. It's a staple of contemporary legendry, with versions set in amusement parks, shopping malls, and department stores located in virtually every metropolitan area in the U.S.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand catalogued several of these in his 1986 collection of urban legends, The Mexican Pet. This version, for example, was told by a teenager in Fairfax, Virginia:
My mom's friend told her about a little boy around 7 years old. It seems that the boy and his mother were shopping in the "Toys R Us" store and the boy wandered a little bit away from his mother to go look at something. A few minutes later, this mother started looking for the boy. She couldn't find him. Crying, she rushed up and told a clerk, who immediately locked the doors. Everyone searched. They found the boy, with two men. Only his hair was cut and his shirt was changed so he would look different.
The Mexican Pet, W.W. Norton & Co. (1986), p. 153
The legend became so popular in the early '80s that it turned up repeatedly in the press as hard news, only to be retracted soon afterward when no substantiation could be found. Even Ann Landers fell for it, admitting later she'd mistaken folklore for fact.
The Beloit Daily News ran a localized variant of the story in 1983, correctly identifying it as apocryphal:
A woman was shopping with her child at a Beloit (Wisconsin) department store when she turned her back for a moment. The next thing she knew, her child was gone. Store officials blocked off exits and searched the store.
The child was found in the bathroom with two women who had cut her hair and put different clothes on her. The two women supposedly were released so the store could avoid "bad publicity."
There's just one catch. Not a word of the story is true, according to the Beloit Police Department, which investigated the persistent rumor.
Beloit Daily News, 1 December 1983
The Internet version
As Brunvand observes, the poignant moral for parents combined with public awareness of real-life child abductions have kept the legend alive across the decades. It first appeared in email form in mid-August 1999:
Subject: Remain Alert at All Times
Please Take Notice!!! FW: Important Info!! Please Read!!!!!
Hi guys! Please take the time and forward this to any friend who has children! Thanks!
They found the little girl 5 min. later crunched in a bathroom stall, her head was half shaved, and she was dressed in her underwear with a bag of clothes, a razor, and wig sitting on the floor right besides her. Whoever this person was, took the little girl, brought her into the bathroom, shaved half her head intending to shave it all, undressed her in less than 10 min. It makes me shake to no end.
Please keep an eye out for your kids when going to these shopping places. It only took a few minutes to do all of this, another 5 min and she would have been out the door...I am still in shock that some sick person could do this, let alone in a matter of minutes... The little girl is fine...thank God for fast workers who didn't take any chances. Thanks for reading.
A less widely circulated variant (see email #2) specifies Austin, Texas as the setting, but employees I spoke with at both of the Austin area Sam's Clubs told me they knew of no such incidents actually occurring.
Still another forwarded version (see email #3) contains information about the Code Adam program alluded to in the the story. Code Adam is a special alert sent over the public address system in Walmart and Sam's Club stores alerting employees of a missing child. The program has been credited with stopping at least one abduction (in a Walmart store in Crawfordsville, Indiana in 1993) and inspired other retailers to institute similar measures.
A cautionary tale
While no exact matches for the incidents described in these stories have ever been documented, they obviously contain a grain of truth. Child abductions do occur and they're every parent's worst nightmare. The legend is a cautionary tale.
Does the usefulness of a story justify passing along false information? People should consult their consciences before doing so, because the net effect is spreading fear based on an incident that never happened. As one reader complained to Ann Landers after she published the story as "true" in 1985, "Reminding people to watch their kids is one thing. Scaring the pants off them is another."
Safety matters, but so do the facts.