• U.S.

Abduction Overruled

4 minute read
Daren Fonda

If her high school yearbook had featured the category, Audrey Seiler might well have been voted the Girl Least Likely to Fake Her Own Kidnapping. She was a small-town girl, raised in tiny Rockford, Minn. (pop. 3,500). A tall, pretty brunet, she was honor-society president her senior year at Rockford High School, captained the volleyball and basketball teams and graduated third in her class in 2002. The manager of the Rockford Public Library says Seiler used to show up with small children in tow and tutored summer-school students. She was the kind of kid “you want to hold up as a role model,” says Roman Pierskalla, Seiler’s principal at Rockford High.

Rockford residents may not want to hold her up quite so high anymore. Seiler’s tale of abduction unraveled in spectacular fashion last week, raising questions about why a woman who was so loved by her community would cause her friends and neighbors so much grief. Seiler, 20, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was reported missing by her roommate on March 27. A massive search was launched to find her (dozens of kids came from Seiler’s high school to pitch in), and a surveillance tape showing her leaving her dorm was played repeatedly on national TV.

The apparent abduction shook the city: citizens became bloodhounds, dorms became prayer centers, and Madison itself was on edge. On March 31, Seiler was found in a marsh a couple of miles from campus after a woman spotted her and called police. Seiler was bruised and suffering mildly from exposure but otherwise unharmed. Police at first accelerated the hunt for a perpetrator. At a nearby cancer clinic, about 50 employees and five cancer patients were herded into a room as officers swarmed through the building looking for a suspect. “People had radiation treatments aborted because you can’t run the machines with cops on the roof,” says a worker. Treatments were delayed 2 1/2 hours.

But within hours the tale began to crumble. The more questions police asked, the less they believed Seiler’s account. Investigators now say she may have planned her “abduction.” Seiler initially claimed to have been kidnapped near her apartment, police say, then in Abduction Story 2.0 changed the location to another part of town. Police also reviewed a store videotape that showed her a few weeks earlier buying rope, duct tape, cough medicine and a knife–the very items she said her abductor had used to kidnap her. An analysis of Internet searches on her computer found information about woodsy areas in the vicinity and a weather report for the week. Last Friday acting Madison police chief Noble Wray concluded, “We do not believe there is a suspect at large, period.”

If Seiler did fake her abduction, she wouldn’t be the first. But false criminal reports that aren’t motivated by money or revenge are rare, according to forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, who knows of roughly 50 U.S. cases in the past 20 years. When they do happen, they tend to make headlines. In 1988, Dietz testified in the grand jury investigation of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who claimed to have been abducted and raped by a gang of white men in upstate New York. The grand jury found her claims to be untrue. Dietz coined the term factitious victimization disorder to describe what occurs when someone claims to be a victim to win sympathy and support. The motives for individuals who stage their own victimization range from trying to get out of exams to stirring a boyfriend to pay more attention, Dietz says.

It isn’t yet clear what motivated Seiler. Police chief Wray said Seiler “stated that she just wanted to–quote, unquote–be alone.” If so, she found a highly public way of expressing her desire for solitude. (Whether she will be charged with a crime or asked to repay the cost of the manhunt isn’t yet known.) Her dean offered sympathy. “While we do not condone the behavior attributed to Audrey … we fully understand that people communicate their need for help in many different ways,” Luoluo Hong said in a statement. Whatever her reasons, one question Seiler has raised is whether folks will put their lives on hold the next time a young woman is reported missing in their town. –Reported by Simon Crittle/New York, Marc Hequet/Rockford and Kristin Kloberdanz/Chicago

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