The alleged abduction of a 38-year-old white mother and her nine-year-old daughter by two black men in suburban Philadelphia this week stunk on ice from the start. It took only 24 hours for that scenario to come crashing down on a local news media that covered the story with plenty of hankie wringing but nary a trace of skepticism. Sadly but predictably, it is a story that has been foisted on unsuspecting cops and reporters many times before.
Women and sometimes women and their children go missing much too often in and around a big city like Philadelphia, and it's a pretty good chance that they're black and get little or no news coverage.
But Bonnie Ann Sweeten is willowy tall and has blond hair, blue eyes and is attractive. Local media -- print and teevee -- treated the story as if it was Armageddon on wheels -- in this case the silver 2005 GMC Denali SUV that Sweeten was driving with daughter Julia Rakoczy as a passenger when, according to what she told police, she was rear ended by two black men in a black Cadillac sedan at a suburban Philadelphia intersection who then threw her into their trunk.
The circumstances of Sweeten's initial call and at least seven subsequent calls to police, including two during which they were able to talk to her at length, raised a number of . . . um, awkward questions that stopped me cold but were beyond the grasp of a gullible news media.
Sweeten told police that she was abducted near her home in Feasterville in suburban Bucks County about 2 p.m. Tuesday. But there was no sign of the Denali when police rushed to the scene. Her first 911 call was traced to a cell phone tower near 15th and Chestnut streets many miles away in Center City Philadelphia where the Denali, a parking ticket on its windshield left at 2:20 p.m., was found, an indication that the SUV might have been there the entire time.
Meanwhile, if Sweeten was abducted, why didn't her assailants take her cell phone? Why did they allow her the opportunity to repeatedly call police? Why did she tell police how to contact her husband but nothing about her abductors' descriptions beyond their blackness?
And if Sweeten is the wonderful mother that her husband described on NBC's "Today Show" on Wednesday morning, why did she withdraw Julia from school on May 1?
Because she planned to take her away. Far away.
It appears that police were far more skeptical than the hordes of reporters and camera crews that madly chased the story from Sweeten's home to police headquarters to the street where the Denali was found and towed.
A review of video surveillance camera tapes at Philadelphia International Airport revealed that Sweeten and Julia boarded a Tampa-bound flight as the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were throwing their full weight into rescuing them from those bad black men, an Amber Alert was issued for Julia and a crisis intervention team rushed to her school to counsel shocked classmates.
Sweeten's make-believe saga ended on Wednesday evening at the ultimate land of make-believe, Walt Disney World.
She was arrested at one of the resort's hotels and will be charged with making false reports and identity theft. It appears that the $12,000 in cash that she was carrying might have been stolen from one or more former employers.
Julia's biological father, Anthony Rakoczy, was to go to Florida on Thursday to pick her up.