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Columnist Petula Dvorak on Jaycee Lee Dugard's Kidnapping

An El Dorado County sheriff's deputy holds a photograph of Jaycee Lee Dugard shortly after her 1991 kidnapping in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
An El Dorado County sheriff's deputy holds a photograph of Jaycee Lee Dugard shortly after her 1991 kidnapping in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (By Ivor Markman -- Associated Press)
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By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I hadn't thought of her name in years: Jaycee Lee Dugard.

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Her walk to the bus stop in 1991 changed my tiny California home town of South Lake Tahoe forever, after she was snatched by strangers who shoved the 11-year-old into a car and sped off, right before her stepfather's eyes.

Her reappearance last week at the age of 29 generated headlines across the country -- a chilling reminder to me and millions of other parents that it can happen anywhere, to anyone.

It was my brother who broke the news to me that Jaycee and her two children had been discovered living in a tent compound in a weed-choked back yard in central California. She'd been held captive there for almost two decades.

"They found Jaycee!" Michael's voice mail exclaimed. "I can't believe it."

Stunned, I called up the case on my BlackBerry, clicking away until I found the story and the photo of the man who has been charged with the kidnapping: a convicted sex offender named Phillip Garrido. Garrido, 58, didn't appear especially creepy at first glance. He could've been anybody. Same for his wife, Nancy, who is also under arrest.

Jaycee's abduction changed my brother's childhood. I was already away at college when Jaycee disappeared, but Michael, now 31, was in junior high. He was just beginning to assert his independence, which in that town meant long bike rides to neighboring lakes with friends and backpacking or fishing trips without Mom or Dad.

Suddenly, all of these trips and each walk to the bus stop -- excursions that were routine during my own adolescence -- were reevaluated by my parents.

"We were put on lockdown. It was ridiculous," Michael remembered. "For me growing up, that was the biggest event in Tahoe. Parents, everybody was freaking out for a good year. I couldn't even go and look at the meadow near our house without the stupid buddy system."

Across the country, Jaycee's disappearance helped kill stickball games in empty lots, races on banana-seat bikes until dinnertime and expeditions to score five-cent watermelon candies at the convenience store.

"Stuff like that. Wow, you hear about it," said Laura Sleat, whose eyes darted as she talked, tracking the movements of her 4-year-old son as dusk began to close in on summer's last day at an Annapolis pool this past weekend.

The specter of Phil Garrido hung in the chlorine-scented air 3,000 miles away and 18 years after he allegedly took Jaycee from the streets where I used to ride my bike.


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