The Eye of the Predator

When we think of people who engage in predatory behavior (that is, those criminally minded individuals who seek out weaker individuals who are incapable of defending themselves against a criminal attack), we tend to think of males anywhere 16 to 18 years of age or older. At least, this is what most adults consider to be the exemplar of the average human predator.

But what about predators who pose a threat to younger children? It is important to know that a predator who is a threat to a young child does not have to fall into the age range described above. In fact, predators of young children can be other children.

Take the case of convicted murderer Eric Smith. I frequently discussed his case in my college criminology classes because the facts were so disturbing. Smith, who is currently 38 years old and still serving a life sentence in prison, murdered a 4-year-old boy named Derrick Robie in Steuben County, New York, when he was only 13. In an extremely calculated move, Smith lured his 4-year-old victim into a wooded area near his home, promising the boy that it was a shortcut to the park to which he was headed. Once in the woods, he beat Derrick in the head with a large rock and then sodomized him with a stick. He eventually killed him. His only explanation for committing this horrendous act was that he “had to get his anger out on him” and that Derrick was “younger and practically helpless.” Smith was given a sentence of nine years to life in prison for his crime.

Smith also selected Derrick as his victim because of the child’s natural innocence. I firmly believe that child predators are attracted to the innocence of children and wish to stamp out that innocence by killing children or committing acts of sexual abuse against them, essentially ripping their innocence away forever.

Back in 1993, Smith’s young age shocked the nation, but deadly predatorial instincts can start at even younger ages than this. If you have young children, you really need to understand this because defending your family from harm does not begin and end with carrying a concealed firearm. There is so much more involved.

I have not thought about the Eric Smith case for a few years because I have not been teaching criminology courses lately. However, I had good reason to think of it while away on vacation recently.

My wife, my son and I were on vacation up in Michigan for two weeks. My son is 4 years old and radiates innocent, childhood joy. My wife and I both watch him very carefully when we are out in public. We had found a playground for him to play on in a town where we stay that I consider one of the safest places in the U.S. For the most part, it truly is what America was like 50 years ago. It is one of the very few places where I do not worry about locking my car or front door. I know that I am probably making a mistake, but it feels good to live like that again even if it is only for a couple of weeks.

An important point to make right now is that if your spider sense (or intuition) is telling you that a situation doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Too many people ignore their natural intuition and instincts, often with horrendous results. Sometimes, people ignore their intuition because they do not think what is happening to them can possibly be happening to them. Sometimes, they do not take action because of fear of judging another person’s actions as potentially threatening to them or a loved one and then being wrong about it. These are tendencies that we all need to get over.

While my son was climbing on the playground equipment, I noticed a boy (who later turned out to be 9 years old) eyeing my son. It is not normal for a 9-year-old boy to be interested in playing with a 4-year-old boy. The fact that he had never been around before should at least have raised an eyebrow. In addition to noticing that this 9-year-old seemed to be interested in my 4-year-old son as a playmate, I also thought it odd that the 9-year-old was clutching a stuffed red fox toy as he walked around the playground on an 85-degree day (again, not normal for a 9-year-old boy). I looked around for the boy’s parents and saw only a lone female who was likely his mother under a nearby shelter, not paying attention to what was going on.

As my son climbed up a ladder to enter an elevated crawl tube, the 9-year-old entered from the other side to block his way and hold him up inside the tube. Now more alarmed, I moved up close to the tube. As I did, my son backed out of the tube and came down the ladder. He said, “I don’t like that boy.” I may have said, “Me neither,” and we moved to another area of the playground.

The 9-year-old wandered away for a short time. My son started up the ladder of a free-standing slide, and the 9-year-old moved in to climb up right behind him. I told the 9-year-old, “Stop and let him go down the slide himself.” (Note that his mother was still not paying attention.) The 9-year-old gave me a very odd look as held his stuffed fox. I said, “Yeah, you, you need to wait.” He stopped, and my son went down the slide.

About that time, a number of other younger kids began playing on the playground, most of them in my son’s age range. He immediately began to play with them as one would expect. The 9-year-old disappeared for about 10 minutes and then reappeared carrying a second stuffed animal (it appeared to be a squirrel) in addition to the fox. As my son ran around with the other kids playing tag on the playground, the 9-year-old again tried a couple of times to intercept my son, who was not interested in playing with him. He even shook the stuffed animals at my son. It was clear that he was fixated on him. I moved around to keep a direct eye on him. I was not going to let him get my son alone.

The final “creep-out time” for me was when my son went into a toy log cabin that was part of the playground. He was playing there with the girls he had met and their brother. The 9-year-old entered the cabin, which was only partially enclosed. He sat on a bench next to my boy. He held up the stuffed squirrel to him and then put his finger to his lips in a shushing motion. My son had the sense to leave and went back to play with the girls. The 9-year-old’s mother finally called him to leave.

Could this have all been totally innocent? Maybe, but I doubt it. I was not going to take any chances, and instead of pretending that what I was seeing and sensing wasn’t going on, I stayed on top of the situation.

These days, you can never tell. Many kids have unfettered access to anything and everything on the internet as well as negative (if not evil) influences from parents and others in the home. If you think I was unduly alarmed, then that is your prerogative.

All I know is that I returned from the park with my son just as innocent and happy as he was when we arrived because I paid attention to my instincts and acted upon them. You owe it to your children to do the same.