It started at 1:40 p.m. with a robocall from my first grader’s elementary school in Venice. It played a solemn, prerecorded message from the principal that a child had been taken from campus by someone who wasn’t the custodial parent, but that they were working with authorities to resolve the issue.
When I arrived at school to pick up my daughter and her friend for a playdate, though, it was eerily normal. It wasn’t on lockdown. My daughter and her friend mentioned nothing about the missing child, happily oblivious. But later, when her friend’s mother came to collect her child, and we journeyed to a nearby pizza place for dinner, the mother brought it up in hushed tones. “I’m so freaked out about the kidnapping,” she said quietly, leaning over, while the girls played with clay. “They still haven’t found the kid.”
I realized my mistake: The principal’s vague message hadn’t elicited that much fear in me — I somehow imagined that the custody dispute and robocall meant they knew everything and had simply alerted us after the fact for protocol. I hadn’t realized the child was still missing. She began filling me in on the details, stressing it was all secondhand, all speculation.
The child was a boy, a first grader in a different class than my daughter’s. His mother had been seen around campus the day before and had been asked to leave. The mother didn’t have custody. There was a restraining order against her; she’d had previous arrests for drugs and mental illness. She might have sometimes slept in her car — this is Venice, where rents have been pushing working people out of the neighborhood for decades.
The boy lived with his aunt, who had physical custody. The mother had shown up around 8:30 that morning after the bell but before campus is locked, slipped into class after her child had been dropped off by someone else and taken him in a flash. The staff had tried to stop her, but couldn’t. Prior to this moment, the woman hadn’t seen her son in months.
I took out my phone and started googling Amber Alerts for Los Angeles. Amber Alerts — regionally specific missing persons texts that go out to every mobile phone in the area set up to receive them — are a random, instantaneous reminder that a vulnerable child in your area is missing and possibly in great danger. They happen often enough in L.A., a city with 13 million people, but they’re usually so abstract and farflung as to be viewed more as a source of annoyance than anything else. (As evidenced by the endless guides online for how to turn these “disturbances” off.) That is, until one plays out right in front of you.
The system follows guidelines from the Department of Justice: The child in question has to be under 17, believed to have been abducted, in serious danger and with known details about the possible suspect that can be shared — in most cases, a car description and a license plate.
I located one piece of reporting online and began relaying the details in a whisper to the other mother — the suspect’s name was Nisha Burnett; she’d been spotted earlier in the day in nearby Palms — when our phones buzzed with the alert. A gold BMW, a license plate number and a 6-year-old we now understood could be in harm’s way.
We headed back home. The mother dropped us off at our apartment, wondering aloud why three helicopters were hovering high above the street, and as we waved goodbye and stepped inside, she called back, frantic. She was stuck on our street, unable to exit due to a line of traffic trying to cut through. “She’s on your street — it’s her, she’s right here, they’ve got her!” she yelled.
We stepped back outside on the sidewalk to fresh, total chaos: A gold BMW lurching by at what looked like under 5 mph, a frantic woman inside, a fleet of police coming up behind her and neighbors I recognized but rarely spoke to scuttling about trying to figure out what was happening. The guy I see walking a terrier across the street was steadying his shaking hand to get video on his phone, muttering, “Oh shit! Oh shit!” The woman who walks the two pit bulls every morning abruptly turned the corner to pass us. “Shit,” she said, her eyes darting around. “Shit.”
The helicopters were bearing down. There was a news van parked across the street angling for a shot. Half a dozen cops were cautiously approaching behind, telling Burnett to stop the car, telling the gawking residents to back up off the sidewalk. She was yelling something — “I’m scared! I’m scared!,” it sounded like — and I caught sight of a 6-year-old boy in the front seat. Remarkably, he didn’t look alarmed.
My daughter was clutching my hand asking, “What’s happening? What’s happening?,” still holding the TV remote control in her other hand. Her friend’s mom, now with a front seat to the unfolding action, looked back to mouth to me, SHIT. Her daughter squirmed excitedly in the backseat.
As Burnett moved up the street, she yelled something to the news van, which later I would discover, from ABC reporter Melissa McBride’s video capture, was a plea of innocence:
“Please, I didn’t kidnap him,” she insisted. The reporters advised her to stop the car. “No,” she says. “They’re going to arrest me.” I saw a cop grabbing spike strips from a trunk, crouching down to try to get in front of her and pierce her car’s tires.
Then, just as it seemed like it was all about to end with her arrest, Burnett peeled off, and the street traffic resumed as if nothing had happened.
In spite of every parent’s worst fear of a complete stranger stealing away with your child, only one-one hundredth of all missing children are kidnapped by strangers. When children go missing, it’s usually one of three reasons: 1) They’ve run away; 2) they’ve gotten lost; or 3) they’ve been kidnapped by a family member in a brutal custody dispute. Since the Amber Alert’s inception, the network of cops, citizens and broadcasters has helped rescue nearly 900 abducted children.
In this case, from the time of the buzzing alert to the time of Burnett’s capture — that effort took about an hour. She’d hauled ass down two different major streets and fled around six lanes of stalled traffic to cut into a Harley Davidson shop. She then fled on foot, grabbing her son and dashing into the store, where she was surrounded. The boy was safe.
We may never know whether she meant him any harm. I wondered most, though, how she spent the day with him. In hiding? At a park? Her actions don’t suggest that she intended to leave the state, given that she kept close to the neighborhood they both knew. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she must’ve known that this would be the last time she’d see her son. But I prefer to believe that she was sick enough with grief and sadness over losing him that she risked everything just to spend a day with him, a few stolen hours — that maybe for both of them, they were even nice hours. Walking out with police, the boy looked okay, happy, protected.
Back inside my apartment, I realized I would have to explain the world in a new way to my daughter — one I managed to avoid even when our same apartment was broken into by a drunk stranger on a hot prowl one brutally warm summer night (she remained, thankfully, asleep through the whole ordeal). I told her that mothers love their children, but that some of them aren’t always able to care for them as much as they should. That mental illness, especially untreated, can lead to some very bad choices. That this mother made a big mistake and broke the rules, but that she probably just missed her son very much. That the system worked perfectly, that the precision of what we had just seen was everyone coming together to make sure that just one boy was safe. That everyone would be talking at school tomorrow, and that this boy, when he returned to school, needed all the kindness in the world.
I believed most of what I said, except that the same system that was so easily able to coordinate her capture had probably failed this woman somewhere along the way, and that it was too late to do anything about it. What was scary and tragic and intense all at once for us was quickly over. For her son, it would likely be a lifetime of pain he might never sort out. There was no good system now to reunite her with her son after a mistake that big. The world would not forgive her.
“I feel bad for him,” my daughter said. “I feel bad for the mom, too. Maybe she could go to mom school?”