More than a dozen attempted child lurings in Bergen County over the past weeks have police on heightened alert less than a week before thousands of children will take to the streets on Halloween.
In New Milford, Police Chief Frank Papapietro has issued an 8 p.m. curfew on Halloween and the evening before, and he is calling on other police chiefs to follow suit.
The discovery of a missing South Jersey girl’s body early Tuesday morning shone an even brighter light on the seriousness of the luring attempts, which have occurred in at least 10 towns.
"Although no connection has been made between Autumn Pasquale's death and the recent incidents of luring in Bergen County, there is a concern among law enforcement — does the activity amp up from luring to grabbing to homicide?” Papapietro said. “The last thing a pedophile wants is to get caught and if he has to silence the evidence, he will.”
In addition to curfews, officers in many Bergen County communities have been on high alert for weeks, patrolling areas near schools, monitoring places where kids congregate and working in concert with local school districts to educate parents and children about stranger danger risks.
As local law enforcement authorities have investigated the rash of more than a dozen attempted child abductions over the past month — an amount Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin Fox said exceeds anything he’s ever seen in his 35 years as a police officer — a clearer picture of the alleged lurer has begun to emerge.
Most of the reported luring attempts identify a single middle-age or older white male as the perpetrator. The description of the individual and his vehicle varies, however.
Incidents in Westwood, Bergenfield and New Milford identify the lurer as a middle-aged man with short whitish-gray hair on the sides of his head and bald on top.
A 12-year-old Bergenfield victim picked out the man in a sketch developed from the Westwood luring incident, adding that the man he’d encountered also had cracked or missing teeth and was possibly wearing a fake white mustache. Two New Milford girls later told local police they believe the man who attempted to lure them weeks ago is the same man.
Victims in Westwood, Bergenfield and New Milford aren’t in agreement on the lurer’s vehicle, however, which has been reported as a gray hatchback, a red pickup truck and a Saab.
In Maywood, the lurer was described as a 5-foot-tall white, middle-age man with salt-and-pepper hair and a "scruffy" beard. He approached a girl and said he had puppies she could see, police said. He was reportedly wearing a button-down shirt and black pants, and driving a small gray car.
The physical description of the suspect in the Maywood luring attempt matches descriptions reported in both Oradell and Hackensack. However, the alleged lurer in Hackensack was said to be driving a white Jeep Wrangler.
In the most disturbing report, a 13-year-old girl in Hawthorne told police a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt grabbed her by the arm and attempted to abduct her while at a crowded soccer game. He was described as being 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, but a description of his features was not provided.
In Washington Township, police said a white male in his 50s made comments to a girl walking home from school.
The incident followed a report of two individuals – one, a female, described as being in her 50s or 60s with dyed hair – picking up kids.
Two separate luring attempts have also been reported in Ridgewood, although police do not believe either is connected to the spate of other luring attempts in the area.
In the first Ridgewood incident, a 13-year-old middle school student told police she was walking home when three black males in a black sedan made comments about her appearance and asked her to get in the car. After she rebuffed their offer, the driver circled around and approached her again. She ran home without incident, police said.
Ten days later, according to police, who described the man as a 6-foot-tall dark-skinned male with brown hair wearing a black buttoned-down shirt, blue jeans and gray work boots. He was driving a black motorcycle and carrying a black motorcycle helmet with a front visor when he approached the boy, police said.
In addition to the work of municipal police departments to apprehend the individual or individuals who have been attempting to lure children, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office is also working closely with local law enforcement authorities on the bevy of incidents, a spokeswoman told Patch.
While one reported luring incident in Lyndhurst has since been discredited and chalked up to the overactive imagination of a few kids. Nancy McBride, National Safety Director of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, said children and parents can read more into innocent situations and incorrectly report them as luring attempts.
McBride said that in 7,000 attempted abductions her organization has followed in the past seven years, all have been corroborated by law enforcement officials.
Girls between ages 10 and 14 are the most frequent abduction targets, McBride said, adding that most abductions occur when children are walking to or from school or a related activity.
Lurers often ask children questions, like whether they’d like candy or a ride home.
"The same tricks today are being used as they were 20 years ago,” McBride said.
Although McBride acknowledged that pedophiles don’t often stop until they’ve abducted a child, they are keenly aware of being caught by authorities and will not hesitate to move to another area if they feel law enforcement closing in.
"These people are very mobile,” McBride said. “They're not going to stick around an area where things are getting hot and media are heavily covering it.”
Ann Piccirillo and Joseph M. Gerace contributed reporting to this story.