TAMPA — On the night of Sept. 21, 1988, Patricia Rivazfar's friend babysat her three children while she was at a bar. That evening, 8-year-old Sayeh had an idea. She and her sister got fully dressed in their school clothes — down to their shoes — so they could roll out of bed and not miss the bus.
But during the night, her mother's ex-boyfriend woke Sayeh and 6-year-old Sara in their Pensacola apartment and carried them to his car. He told them he was taking them to see their mother. Instead, he drove them into the woods, raped Sayeh repeatedly and slit both girls' throats.
Sayeh Rivazfar, now 29, shared her tale Thursday on the last day of a U.S. Department of Justice conference on Amber Alert training. Her audience at the Tampa Hyatt: 350 people from around the world, all advocates for changing the way child abduction cases are handled.
As Rivazfar, now a New York state police officer, described the crime in detail, the Punky Brewster shoes she wore that night rested on the podium.
"I'm going to give you the path that these shoes walked in," she said. "I loved those shoes. It brings to life what happened."
She takes the shoes wherever she goes as a symbol of perseverance and change. Her message: Amber Alerts aren't the only steps in handling child abductions. There needs to be more thought and compassion from the beginning of the process, lasting well beyond the conviction.
Her sentiments echo an effort started five years ago by the U.S. Dept. of Justice to improve the system, starting first with feedback from the families of abducted and missing children.
About 45 relatives of those children — some dead, some still missing and others who survived — took part in a full-day, private session to come up with recommendations to help other families.
When they got together, "it was almost like therapy," said Erin Runnion, whose 5-year-old daughter Samantha was snatched outside her Stanton, Calif., apartment in 2002, raped and killed. "But it also gives us hope that mistakes made in our cases won't happen to other children in the future."
The group's recommendations should serve as a training guide for law enforcement, victim advocates, attorneys and judges, Runnion said.
They include asking law enforcement to set up command centers away from the missing child's house because it can jeopardize evidence and puts stress on siblings in a painful situation. Other ideas include making sure agencies have a variety of tracking dogs, having someone prepare family members for media questions, having specially trained victim advocates and making sure the parents are the first alerted when a body has been found.
In calling for improvements, Rivazfar noted things that could have been done differently with her case.
The man convicted of the crime, Ray Wike, had known their mother about a year. During that time, he fondled Sayeh and threatened to harm her family if she ever told anyone.
The night of the abduction, Wike bound Sara's arms and legs with tape and cloth and threw her in the back seat. He raped Sayeh in the front seat as Sara screamed, "Why are you doing this?"
"It's all right," Sayeh cried back. "It's almost over."
At one point, a car approached. Wike said that he was having car trouble, but everything was fine. His white shorts were red with Sayeh's blood. The motorist left.
As daylight came, Wike walked the girls deeper into the woods. Sayeh could hear her sister's screams as Wike began slashing at Sayeh's throat. She fell to the ground and played dead.
As she lay on the ground, she could hear Sara still screaming. Then the crying stopped. She heard Wike drive away in his car. When she opened her eyes, Sara, her arms still tied behind her back, was dead.
Sayeh ran to the road and used one hand to cover her throat to stop the bleeding and the other to flag down a couple driving by.
Wike was arrested three hours after Sayeh was taken to the hospital. He spent almost 16 years on death row before dying in prison from lung cancer.
But Sayeh was never officially informed of his death. A relative heard it on the news and called her. There were other things that traumatized her further, such as the placement of a hospital bed next to a window. Sayeh feared her attacker would climb through it to harm her. Later, a lax security system allowed Wike to type a 15-page letter to her while on Death Row and mail it to relatives in Pennsylvania. They forwarded it to her in Rochester, N.Y., where she now lives.
"As horrific as this was for my family, I want to pass on an awareness in hopes that we can prevent something like this from happening," she said. "There are many out there who can't speak, who are not alive. We must be their voice."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.