This story is part of Boulder Weekly's Jessica Ridgeway package.
Killer's 'awareness space' might lead to clues, by Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge
Sketches of a killer, by David Accomazzo and Elizabeth Miller
Local schools respond to Jessica's death, by Elizabeth Miller
Boulder County sheriff: trick or treat with your kids this year, by Jefferson Dodge
Westminster Police: Ketner Lake attempted abductions may be linked to Jessica Ridgeway, by Boulder Weekly staff
Boulder County authorities have responded to the abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway on a variety of fronts, from organizing search parties to issuing advisories to parents with children in local school districts.
After all, while some local residents may view the tragedy as removed from Boulder County, or as a Denver suburb story, it is actually closer to home than many realize, and not just because Jessica’s backpack was found in our county.
“Broomfield, Westminster and Arvada are our neighbors, it’s our backyard,” says Chief Deputy District Attorney Katharina Booth. “I do think you have to have that heightened awareness and alert, even within our community in Boulder County.”
According to Cmdr. Rick Brough of the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, when Ridgeway’s backpack was found in a Superior subdivision on Oct. 7, local deputies were mobilized to search that area. The next day, a 144-member task force assembled by the sheriff’s office participated in the search, according to Brough. He said that group included horse-mounted searchers, search and rescue dogs and representatives from 16 different local agencies. The Denver Police Department lent its helicopter to the effort, and a private company provided a remote-control helicopter equipped with a camera and infrared imaging equipment to aid in the search.
Brough added that about a dozen Boulder County deputies assisted in sweeps of open fields after Ridgeway’s body was discovered on Oct. 10.
Sheriff Joe Pelle explained, “We’ve done a couple of large-scale searches, one in our county, and we assisted with one the day after they discovered part of her body.”
Brough and Pelle said their office is not currently involved in the investigation, although Pelle said the department is providing some “technical assistance” to the task force in Westminster. “That’s all I can say about that,” he said when asked about the nature of that assistance.
Pelle added that his deputies’ daily briefings include any materials sent out by Westminster and the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the case, including suspect descriptions from previous attempted assault cases in Jessica’s neighborhood.
“There are potentially other related cases having to do with attempted abductions,” he said. “All that information has been given to our deputies, but there’s no smoking gun or a particular description of a suspect in the case right now.”
Brough and Pelle said the sheriff’s office has stepped up its patrols around Boulder County schools, especially during times when students are en route to and from school, as much for parents’ peace of mind as anything else.
“I think it just makes people feel more comfortable,” Brough said. “Everybody’s on edge right now.”
Pelle added that the increased patrols are intended “primarily to help reassure parents.” But he and Brough advise Boulder County parents to pay special attention to their children, especially while the perpetrator is still at large.
“Keep your kids close, and keep an eye on them,” Pelle said. “Normally, we don’t say this, but there’s a predator out there. It’s critical that parents know where their kids are and have an eye on them. Keep them close.”
He added that his office has seen a spike in reports of unusual activity, indicating that the community is on high alert.
“We’ve had a marked increase in calls from residents about suspicious vehicles and suspicious people, which normally amounts just to someone they haven’t seen in their neighborhood before, particularly in the Superior area,” Pelle said. “So we’re getting right on those and treating them as serious, because they’re serious to the people who are calling.”
Brough said that since 2003, there have been only six reports of child enticement received by the sheriff’s office, and half of those turned out to be unfounded. He added that the last case he remembers being even remotely similar to the Ridgeway abduction and murder was when the body of 7-year-old Thornton resident Tracy Neef was found near Barker Reservoir in Nederland in 1984.
Booth, supervisor of the sexual assault and domestic violence unit in the Boulder County DA’s office, says abductions are relatively rare at the local level, and child enticement cases are sometimes challenging to prove, since the prosecution has to demonstrate that the perpetrator had the “intent to commit sexual assault or unlawful sexual contact” when inviting a child into a car or other enclosed space. Unless the perpetrator expressly says “I’d like to do X, Y and Z to you,” Booth explains, establishing intent is difficult.
She adds that when it comes to sexual and other physical abuse against children, as well as abductions, local trends mirror national ones: In the vast majority of cases, such acts are committed by relatives or acquaintances of the child.
In other words, while there is huge “stranger danger” awareness right now due to the Ridgeway case, non-strangers are a bigger problem.
“So when you contrast that with what we’ve seen in the media over the last two weeks, I think the strong message that needs to be sent is that this is a very important time to make sure we’re educating our children about community safety,” Booth says. “Right now, of course, it’s heightened, and everybody’s talking about the ‘stranger danger,’ but in conjunction with that, we should not do so at the exclusion of, or to minimize, the fact that a greater risk to our children and our community is by offenders known to that child.”
As a mother of four children ranging in age from 7 to 11, Booth says it is natural for parents to focus on the threat of random acts by strangers.
“As a mother and as a prosecutor, I’ve thought about it,” she says. “And even though I know all the statistics, I’m still on my high alert. My kids walk two and a half blocks to school. And I have the same concerns as any other mother and father out there. … I have to talk with all four of them about the strangers, but make sure I also, in conjunction with that, talk about other personal safety things and body safety.”