“I have twenty-one years in the Police Department, and I have never seen this kind of heroic act of bravery committed by a 7-year-old.” ~ Philadelphia Police Inspector William Colarulo
During the evening of Monday, July 22, 2002, seven-year-old Erica Pratt was outside of her Southwest Philadelphia home playing with her five-year-old sister and their six-year-old friend Rani Byrd. Suddenly, two men pulled up in a white car with dark tinted windows and called Erica over. When she refused, the passenger jumped out and grabbed her, intent on stealing her away from her family. Rani tried to save her, but the man shoved her to the ground.
The car, with a kicking and screaming Erica held to the floor inside, sped away. As they traveled through the streets of Philadelphia, the kidnappers wrapped duct tape around her wrists and covered her eyes.
In the moments after Erica's abduction, the Pratt house became a scene of chaos. A crying Rani Byrd told the girl’s grandmother what had happened, and she called the police. The neighborhood searched frantically for the girl until the authorities arrived.
Erica was taken twelve miles from her home to an abandoned house in the Logan section of Philadelphia. Her captors hid her away in the basement. They then called Erica’s grandma to demand a hefty ransom for the girl's safe return — the first of at least six calls they made over the next twenty-four hours.
This series of events began within twenty minutes of Erica being taken.
It was rumored in the neighborhood that her family had received $150 thousand in life insurance funds following the murder of her uncle. Erica's captors wanted that money in exchange for her safe return.
The rumor wasn’t true. There was no money.
Erica spent the night alone in the basement with her eyes covered and hands bound next to a twin-sized mattress, a bucket, a bag of potato chips, and some juice. The next day the scared young girl exhibited a level of courage and composure few of us could hope to ever reach. Believing her abductors were gone, she began her escape.
The seven-year-old first chewed through the duct tape that bound her wrists together. When her hands were free, she removed the tape over her eyes. Then, she slowly walked through the darkness and climbed a set of rickety stairs — only to discover the basement door locked from the outside.
That didn’t stop the ever-resourceful little girl. She kicked at the door until one of the panels broke loose and climbed through. Erica then opened the home’s mail slot and called for help. A small group of neighborhood kids helped her break a window and climb outside. A young girl on a bicycle then pedaled over to police officers down the block from where they played.
It was just before 8 PM the day after Erica Pratt had been reported missing.
When the police followed the little girl on a bicycle back to the sidewalk in front of 1211 W Loudon St, they found Erica wearing the same white tank top and blue shorts she’d been wearing the day before. She was bruised and hungry, but she was safe. After a precautionary night in a local hospital bed, she went home to her family.
Her abductors, James Burns and Edward Johnson, had been identified as persons of interest within a few hours of her disappearance. While they wouldn’t discuss specifics, the Pratt family knew both men. They’d also been seen around the neighborhood in the days after Erica’s escape trying to get money to move south.
The two were captured after a foot chase a short distance from where they kidnapped the girl. The evidence against them was significant.
Burns had made the ransom phone calls to Erica’s grandmother from his girlfriend’s cell phone. When captured, Johnson had a key to the house they kept the girl in. Officials also lifted his fingerprints from the duct tape on Erica Pratt. Finally, a neighbor noticed a group of men matching their descriptions inside the abandoned house.
Erica was heralded nationwide for her bravery. Among the many accolades, Time magazine named her ‘Person of the Week,’ noting that “not all abductions end in tears.”
In May 2003, Edward Johnson pleaded guilty. James Burns was convicted a month later. The twenty-four-year-old Johnson was sentenced to 10 to 37 years, and thirty-year-old Burns to 14 1/2 to 49 years for their crimes.
Because of her courage and sheer force of will, seven-year-old Erica Pratt was a hero. Against incredible odds, she not only saved herself but saw the men who took her end up in jail.
- “2 Arrested in Philadelphia Kidnapping.” Los Angeles Times. Last modified July 26, 2002. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-jul-26-na-philly26-story.html.
- “BBC NEWS | Americas | Men Arrested After Girl Escapes.” BBC News. Last modified July 25, 2002. https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2151710.stm.
- “CNN.com — Transcripts.” Last modified July 24, 2002. https://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0207/24/bn.02.html.
- Coatney, Mark. “Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews.” TIME.com. Last modified July 26, 2002. https://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,331695,00.html.
- Gillin, Beth, Ira Porter, and Thomas J. Gibbons Jr. “How Erica Pratt fled captivity.” Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA), July 25, 2002, A01.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA). “Metropolitan Area News in Brief.” July 23, 2002, B02.