Fort Worth citizens help police, outpace Amber Alert to save girl from kidnapper

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove the name of the girl who was kidnapped because of the nature of the allegations later added against the suspect.

Every parent’s worst nightmare — the abduction of a child by a stranger — ended mercifully in Fort Worth this weekend, thanks to every twisted evildoer’s nemesis: an engaged citizenry.

The little girl’s frightful snatching from her mother’s clasp by a brazen kidnapper on a peaceful Saturday stroll here swept the nation up in the horror of her mother’s desperate hours. It sent an icy shudder across the country, nowhere more so than in this city’s Ryan Place neighborhood.

But while piercing, the fear was anything but paralyzing. As quickly as the news traveled — in traditional media, law enforcement circles, in social media and on the street — neighbors were scouring the area for the suspect’s car. Which, notably, was captured on a neighbor’s doorbell camera and quickly disseminated.

Armed with that information and invaluable guidance from police about where to look, two searchers led authorities to a Forest Hill hotel room early Sunday where suspect Michael Webb, 51, was apprehended and his 8-year-old captive rescued.

The story of how quickly and fiercely Ryan Place and the larger Fort Worth community closed ranks and mobilized to liberate the girl — their communications outpacing both the police and the Amber Alert — is a majestic end to a horrific tale.

We often think to ourselves that “somebody should do something.” It would have been easy and natural for folks to leave the police work to the police. But that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. That’s why alerts are sent out, and why vigilant neighbors have become so connected on social media. This is how a 21st-century community is supposed to function — with good, old-fashioned neighborly watchfulness enhanced by attentive technology and unprecedented connectiveness.

Sometimes you wonder if the internet and social media are a net good, with all the sniping at each other that goes on — and unprecedented access to your life, and to your children’s lives, that bad actors the world over have obtained. Indeed, even with the family’s eight-hour terror we’ve all just shared, there’s infinitely more danger in cyberspace than Ryan Place.

Moreover, while it’s of utterly no consolation to the girl’s family and those nearby — and heightened parental vigilance is a good thing if not taken to unhealthy extremes — the fact remains that stranger abductions are, thankfully, exceedingly rare. Only about 1% of missing children in cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are taken by someone outside the child’s family.

That doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. Fact is, most neighborhoods likely need to get their guard up. The first step is to know each other and exchange contact information or set up a neighborhood meet-up site online. That can be followed by in-person meetings of the most interested parties, then periodic neighborhood-wide get-togethers. There are resources to help, including the national Safe Streets organization (safest.org).

It would be hard to outdo what Ryan Place and the larger Fort Worth community did in saving the girl. But that should be the goal.

In the midst of a dreadful crisis comes joyful news of a child’s rescue — and not-so-good news for the occasional passerby with a rotten, hollowed-out soul: We’re watching, and we’re acting in concert with law enforcement, as never before.