Sunday, October 18, 2009

Birth of an Urban Legend

It's not really anything mysterious, but interesting nonetheless given some of the topics covered here on this blog. On October 18, the Lancaster Sunday News reported on the beginnings of an urban legend sparked by real events:
An urban legend, according to one dictionary, "is a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms."

In the Lampeter-Strasburg area last week, two stories melded together and grew in the re-telling, creating "white van" myths that frightened residents.

First, the two documented incidents:

West Lampeter Township Police Chief James Walsh said a "person of interest" had been interviewed twice after a Sept. 28 incident. Walsh told township supervisors at a Monday meeting that his department received a 911 call that a woman was being followed as she drove out of the L-S YMCA parking lot. The subject, driving a white Econoline van with a green stripe, followed the woman into the parking lot of an East Lampeter Township Turkey Hill. The woman called 911, and her husband. The person of interest, who has not been charged, is a 22-year-old West Lampeter Township male.

Jeff Kenderdine, of the Lancaster YMCA, said that the man was not a Y member. That investigation continues.

On Oct. 6, a part-time meter reader employed by Strasburg Borough inadvertently frightened two brothers, ages 4 and 6, while going about his work along North Fulton Street. Borough police reported that the boys saw the man in the front yard and became frightened.

The boys ran to their mother, but by the time she got to the front yard, the meter reader had left. The children said the man drove a white van. On Tuesday, Strasburg Police Chief Steve Echternach said the man was confirmed to be a part-time employee, who was driving a light-colored vehicle that could have been mistaken for a van.

Walsh said the two incidents were not related, but some community members mistakenly believed otherwise. West Lampeter Township Supervisor Barry Hershey said at first he, like a lot of other people, thought the incidents involved the same person.

On Oct. 9, the school district sent out a recorded phone message to parents sharing what they knew about the Strasburg incident.

Also that day, more than 500 e-mails, which did not originate with West Lampeter or Strasburg Borough police, circulated the area, Walsh said. He later said he thought people in the community took the liberty to start sharing information that "stretched the facts."

An e-mail to Willow Street Wolverines midget football program parents, relaying information attributed to another youth sports team, stated: "Apparently, there have been some scenarios around our school district that a white van and a white male is lurking and following women and children. Please watch yourselves in the evening hours; this van has been spotted at at the following places; the new Y, Strasburg Library, and at the L-S school campus."

Neither incident involved school district property, police said. Strasburg-Heisler librarian Kristin Fernitz said she and her staff noticed nothing out of the ordinary at the library.

An anonymous Craigslist warning Oct. 9 may have also contributed to the rumors. The Lancaster "Rant and Rave" section read: "... there has been a WHITE VAN following and soliciting women and children for 'indecent acts' in the Lampeter-Strasburg area. ... A 16 year old Willow Street girl is also reportedly missing."

Walsh said West Lampeter has no reports of a missing girl. A Penn Manor teen who was missing has since been found, Walsh said. The teen was not from Willow Street, West Lampeter Township or the L-S School District.

"White van" stories were told and retold at public events.

On Tuesday night, one football dad shared a version of the story; in this twist, witnesses who saw a man try to lure Strasburg children followed the man to the Turkey Hill, where they beat him up.

Both police departments have stepped up their patrols since the two incidents.

A good thing that came out of this, Walsh said, is that people in the community are erring on the side of caution.

No comments:

Post a Comment