My first few months’ experience in professional journalism was the summer of 1979 as an intern at the Dallas Morning News.
Leading up to the 4th of July holiday that year, a young girl named Tyra Heath had been kidnapped and was missing for several days. The afternoon of the 4th, I was working (while real reporters had the day off), and the call came in that Tyra’s body had been found.
I wasn’t the first choice to write the story, but another reporter and photographer had already been threatened near the crime scene by the dead girl’s grandfather, and I guess the editor needed someone who didn’t know any better to try again at the grandparents’ home.
Anyway, about 60 minutes later, I found myself talking with the girl’s grandmother through a screen door. Teary-eyed and upset and hopelessly sad, she sized up who we were and what we wanted; for some reason, she still let us into her home. And for the next few minutes, she showed us pictures of her granddaughter and reminisced about a sweet little girl she would never see again.
As we concluded the interview and walked to the door, the grandmother said something I’ve never forgotten: “Tyra, she’s in a better place now.”
Her words made great copy, and I did a pretty good job with the story. But as an unmarried college student, what happened to Tyra didn’t really resonate with me personally. I had no children, and the chance of anyone I knew being kidnapped seemed pretty remote back then.
Instinctively, I was right. As our cover story in this month’s magazine tells us, there’s about a 1 in 626,000 chance that any child who lives in Dallas County will be kidnapped by someone he or she doesn’t know this year.
Tyra Heath, as it turns out, was the “1” in 1979.
These days, we all know the media has created a virtual cottage industry out of tracking kidnappings and broadcasting and rebroadcasting and rebroadcasting yet again the stories of those unlucky few. Today I’m a parent, and even though I’m almost magnetically drawn to the “news” about kidnappings nationwide, I know the odds make it almost not worth worrying about.
But every time I think about loosening the leash on my children, I think back on those few minutes I spent with Tyra Heath’s grandmother.
Statistically, I know it probably won’t happen to anyone we know. But all the same, when I think about how to handle our children’s freedom, I can’t forget the day someone else told me how it felt when it happened to them.