Published July 24, 2002
PHILADELPHIA – The kidnapping of 7-year-old Erica Pratt came to a happy ending Tuesday night, as the little Philadelphia girl was reunited with her mother and grandmother after a dramatic escape from captivity.
Blindfolded, bound and apparently abandoned in the basement of a deserted rowhouse for nearly a day, with only a can of water to drink, Erica was able to gnaw through the duct tape around her arms, legs and eyes, then break through the basement door to the first floor.
"Nobody came back to let her go; I don't think they were coming back," Chief Inspector Robert M. Davis said.
Finding the building's door locked, she smashed a window and called out to other children playing outside. They pulled her out the window and one rode a bicycle to get police.
"At seven years old, to have the composure to gnaw her way out of duct tape to free herself and work her way up the stairs and to have the fortitude to kick a panel in the door out and then work her way to the window," said Davis. "She's an amazing little girl."
Police said Erica was taken to a hospital but was found to have suffered only minor injuries — mainly a corneal abrasion, possibly from the duct tape.
Held in an officer's arms, she waved to TV cameras and beamed as she was returned to her grandmother's home late Tuesday.
Authorities were searching for James Burns, 29, and Edward Johnson, 23, who are considered suspects in the abduction. Police said the men were known to the girl's family and that their names had been provided by two witnesses.
"Our biggest concern is that the baby come back to us in good health and this is what she did," said the girl's great-grandmother, Geraldine Tate.
Erica was playing Monday with her 5-year-old sister in front of their grandmother's rowhouse in southwest Philadelphia when two men drove up, called her by name and dragged her into their car as she screamed and resisted, witnesses told police.
Residents said many adults in the neighborhood were down the street at a block party at the time of the abduction. The area is pockmarked with abandoned buildings and roamed at night by drug dealers.
The news of Erica's escape comes a day after a factory worker was charged with murder in the abduction and slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion from Santa Ana, Calif.
Her slaying followed the high-profile abductions of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Salt Lake City, 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego and 2-year-old Jahi Turner, also in San Diego.
Danielle' body was found and a neighbor is on trial. Elizabeth and Jahi remain missing.
Less than 20 minutes after Erica was abducted, the girl's grandmother, Barbara Pratt, with whom Erica and her sister live, received the first of at least six calls from a man who threatened to kill the girl unless he received a $150,000 ransom, police said.
During one of the calls, shortly before midnight, the kidnappers put Erica on the phone and allowed her to speak briefly with her grandmother, police said.
Police launched a feverish search in the hours after the abduction and canvassed the neighborhood Tuesday with the help of FBI agents.
Pratt's mother pleaded for her daughter's safe return.
"She's only 7," Serena Gillis said. "She's just beginning her life."
Gillis said she had also talked with her daughter on the telephone, and that she had sounded frightened.
Many of the girl's neighbors stayed up all night with the family after word of the abduction spread and supporters gathered Tuesday at Pratt's home. In the evening, family friends lit candles in a grassy lot near the home.
The abduction is the second tragedy to strike the family this year. One of Barbara Pratt's adult sons was murdered in March, neighbors said.
Police were investigating whether a neighborhood rumor that the family had gotten a large insurance payment after the murder may have motivated the ransom demand. The family told police that the rumor was untrue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.