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In Pennsylvania, a Kidnapping Law Could Unravel a Life

A Shippensburg man faces 15 years on the sex offense registry for offering a girl a ride.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown.

Friday, June 21, started like any other day for Michael McCleary. The Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, resident finished his overnight shift at a food-packaging plant and stopped for breakfast around 7 a.m. before making his way home.

While driving through town, McCleary, 22, saw a girl who he thought was a friend of his younger sister. Rain appeared imminent to McCleary and there was a slight drizzle, so he stopped to ask if she needed a ride. When he pulled up beside the girl, he realized that she wasn’t his sister’s friend but asked her if she needed a ride anyway.

“She said, ‘No,’ and I told her to be careful and drove home,” McCleary told The Appeal. He went home to take a nap.

By the end of the day, he became the prime suspect in what police described as an attempted child abduction.

An affidavit filed by Officer Kelsey Hinkle of the Shippensburg Police Department corroborates much of McCleary’s recollection of the incident. In one discrepancy, the 12-year-old girl told police that McCleary said, “Get in the car” and “I’ll take you where need to go.” Both McCleary and the police report stated that there was a truck stopped behind McCleary’s car that was honking its horn, making it difficult to hear. And both accounts end with McCleary making no effort to force the girl into the car, acknowledging that he drove away as soon as the girl declined the ride.

When McCleary woke up at around 5 p.m., he received a message from his girlfriend that included the police department’s press release about the encounter, before the department knew of McCleary’s involvement. Numerous media outlets picked up the press release and ran a story. Those stories were shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook.

McCleary called Shippensburg police to let them know what had happened, that he was not trying to abduct the girl, and that the incident had just been a simple misunderstanding. The police issued an updated release saying they had identified a person in connection to the case and continued to describe the incident as an attempted child abduction.

Two days later, the police asked McCleary if he would come into the station to give an official statement, which he did voluntarily. He again told police that he thought the girl was a friend of his sister when he approached her and that he was only offering her a ride because he thought it was about to rain.

Later that day Hinkle charged McCleary with one count of felony luring a child into a motor vehicle. If convicted, McCleary would most likely face incarceration in the county jail and he would have to register as a sex offender for 15 years. Even if McCleary avoids incarceration, marking him as a sex offender would most likely make him a virtual pariah and make it difficult to maintain employment or keep ties to the community, according to Emily Horowitz, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at St. Francis College and the author of the book “Protecting Our Kids? How Sex Offender Laws Are Failing Us.”

Sex offense registries are “a form of banishment,” Horowitz told The Appeal. “It’s a form of social death. It makes people less safe because it cuts ties from the community.”

Pennsylvania’s law against luring a child into a motor vehicle was enacted in 1990 to address what legislators at the time saw as a loophole in the state’s kidnapping law; kidnapping requires that a person actually move the victim or hold the victim somewhere against their will.

“The purpose of this section is to make it a crime where kidnapping has not totally occurred because something happened to stop the kidnapping,” former Representative Lois Hagarty told the state legislature in June 1989 while introducing the language that became the law. “Luring a child into a motor vehicle terrorizes a family and a child, and when it is without consent, it should be a crime.”

Although the law was enacted to address attempted kidnappings, it does not require that the suspect’s intent to kidnap be proved. The law only requires that an adult attempt to get a child into a motor vehicle without the consent of a parent or guardian, “unless the circumstances reasonably indicate that the child is in need of assistance.”

“A officer even told me ‘I believe you. I don’t believe you had any malicious intent but the law is the law’,” McCleary said. “It stings.”

McCleary turned himself in to police on June 26 and was arraigned by Judge Anthony Adams. He was released on $50,000 unsecured bail, meaning he did not have to pay any money up front to stay out of jail, but could be ordered to pay $50,000 if he fails to appear at future hearings.

It is common for judges in Cumberland County to rely heavily on bail recommendations from police. A bail recommendation form is sometimes provided by police, but one was not attached to McCleary’s case.

The department never issued a press release identifying McCleary as the suspect.

When asked if there was any reason Shippensburg police did not believe McCleary’s recounting of the incident or whether police believed he was a threat, Chief Meredith Dominick declined to comment. Dominick said she would only comment on the case after the case is resolved.

“If you take [McCleary’s] word for it, he didn’t want this girl to walk home in the rain, ” Horowitz said. “That’s what you want adults to do. You want adults to help kids. … The way kids are safe is adults help them if they’re lost or need help.”

According to the Polly Klaas Foundation, only about 100 children nationally are kidnapped in a stereotypical stranger abduction each year. The majority of child abductions are committed by people the child knows, like a family member in the midst of a custody dispute.

Tomorrow, McCleary is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to send his case to trial. He said he was denied loans to pay for an attorney and must wait until the day of the hearing before a public defender is appointed.

“[There is] this assumption that adults are all potential predators and children are all potential prey,” Horowitz said, “but it’s just completely warped, hysterical thinking that has no relationship to real risk children face.”