What We Can Learn From the Tragic Murder of Lily Burk

09/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robin Sax Attorney, Law Offices of Robin Sax, victim advocate, legal commentator

When I tell people I have written a book, they usually expect the title to resemble some hip chick-lit title like Lipstick Jungle or Kappa Kappa Linden. When I tell them that the book is about child molesters and predators, they usually respond with a distressed look, probably thinking something like "That's way too heavy for me..."

People have a very hard time dealing with the subject of sex offenders, especially offenders who victimize children. They either rationalize that they are already know enough about safety, or that it won't happen to them or their families.

Many people believe we in the "safety business" are fear-mongers and just want to scare the hell out of others. Well, I'm here to say that we want to remind everyone that we must deal with the difficult and sometimes "icky" topics of abduction, assault, and kidnapping, as unpleasant as this might be.

The clearest example of why this is necessary can be seen in the recent abduction-murder of 17-year-old Los Angeles teen Lily Burk. Yes, we've learned, "it can happen here, to a great kid with great parents." It can happen to anybody.

Lily was the daughter of a Southwestern Law School professor. She was visiting her mother's school to pick up some papers when she was taken in broad daylight. Lily was not sexually assaulted, as far as we know. Instead, it was apparently a robbery gone very wrong. Her abductor was trying to get her to take cash from an ATM machine, but when the card didn't work, he beat her to death in her car and then fled the scene.

Lily's death is a horrible tragedy for all of us. It is a devastating reminder that the world is not a safe place. Lily Burk's death reminds us that we are not having the conversations we need to with our kids. Let's face it; we put off these conversations because they can really be uncomfortable.

Well, here's a reality bite for you -- life isn't always pretty, so sit down and talk to your kids today. Do it now! Teach them how to make themselves safer, and give yourself the gift of a little more peace of mind. Some parents have an easier time telling their kids to be politically correct and kind to others, than they do discussing their safety.

I've put together some simple techniques that we can offer our kids to enhance their chances of staying safe:

Every family needs a code word that translates to: "Call the police. I'm in danger." ATM may be the perfect code word, since no one should ever be talking or texting on the phone while using one. Children should make a deal with their parents that they'd never call from an ATM. If they do, it's likely they're in trouble. Adults shouldn't text or make calls from an ATM, either. Doing so is distracting and keeps our attention from people who may be lurking around them, as ATMs are a huge target for robberies. If I had my way, we'd all do the same thing with our phones at an ATM as we do at a gas station -- not use them!

You can also help your kids to create a pre-programmed text (something like, "I'm in danger, call 911"). That way, if they are in a situation that feels threatening, they can just fire off the text that is already in the Draft section in the phone.

Anybody, whether child or adult, who is approached by a stranger can at least send out the last number called on his or her cell phone. By dialing any number, it accomplishes several important tasks for investigators. First, it can provide a transcript of a conversation where someone can hear that the person is in danger. By pocket dialing, the cell phone will send "ping" signals that will be able to assist law enforcement in identifying the location of where the abduction occurred. Since time is of the essence in these critical moments, every investigative lead is helpful.

Self defense classes in theory sounds wonderful and are a great idea. But I m realistic enough to know that people just don't make the time for these classes. So here are some basic self defense techniques that adults and kids can keep in mind:

a) The goal of self-defense is not to win a fight but to gain extra minutes to run.
b) Yell "fire" instead of help, as more people respond to the word "fire" by calling 9-1-1.
c) Run if possible--it's very hard for a pepetrator to strike a moving target.
d) Hit the offender in the eyes with your keys, jam your elbow into his or her nose upward as hard as possible - if you can't reach the nose, kick or punch the person with all your might in the private parts. Throw hot coffee or a soda in his or her face. Remember, you're trying to buy time, not win a fight.


I know it's not "politically correct" to tell people to judge others. But I am constantly amazed how often people give the benefit of a doubt to strangers because they don't want to appear mean, rude, or racist. I, too, can be politically correct, but not in the moments when I'm assessing my own or my children's safety. We make judgment calls all the time, and our safety depends on how accurate they are.

It amazes me how often people recount times they went into an elevator with someone that they felt "creeped out by." For the purposes of safety, skip the introspective dialogue with yourself and focus on your instincts.

The point is this: we should be having instructive conversations with those we love regularly, not just in the shadow of tragedy. There are "teachable moments" that we can use as opportunities to discuss safety. As you walk down the street and measure your own personal safety, use those opportunities to casually discuss what sets off that "creepy button." Don't just scoot your kids across the street when you feel nervous about something or someone. Instead, explain WHY you are doing what you are doing. ("Honey, I am feeling uncomfortable about that person, so let's walk on the other side of the street.")

After a murder like Lily Burk's, we will have to deal with a mourning period, loss, grief, horror, and sadness. Yet, difficult as it may be, this is exactly the right time to discuss what we can learn from such tragedies.

The techniques I described in this article may not have changed what happened to Lily Burk. But they might well be the ones that keep you and your child out of danger in the future.