THE FENNELL’S KIDNAPING
Greig, Janette and infant Alexander
Fennell returned home around midnight in October 1995. A
masked man rolled under their descending garage door. He and
an accomplice forced the adults at gunpoint into the trunk
of their car, drove to a remote area, robbed them, and left.
Cramped and frantic, they tore apart the trunk’s interior.
Finally, they found the release cable. Freeing themselves,
they realized that Alexander was no longer in the back seat.
They found a phone booth and called the police. Returning
home, they saw a policeman holding Alexander, who had been
left outside their home.
THROUGH TRAUMA TO ADVOCACY
The Fennell kidnaping was front-page
news and journalists wanted stories. The Fennells agreed to
collaborate, as long as the focus was on prevention. The
police had said: “It usually it doesn’t end this way”
after they learned Alexander was unharmed. Janette decided
to find out what usually happens. But no one could tell her.
Highway safety data, criminal justice statistics, health
data - no one collected data on trunk entrapment. So she
developed her own database. She used newspaper accounts,
court records, Internet sites, Lexis/Nexis, and word of
mouth to develop a database. As of May 2000, she has
uncovered documentation on 931 incidents of trunk entrapment
involving 1,082 victims in the United States in the last
quarter century (1976-2000).
Janette was absolutely determined to
make car trunks escapable. She knew that regulation and
product redesign had prevented children from dying when
trapped in discarded refrigerators. She felt strongly: “Any
manufacturer who produces a product that can trap people
inside should be obliged to provide a means of escape.”
Ms. Fennell founded the organization
TRUNC (Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition) in 1996 and
created its website in mid-1997 (www.netkitchen.com/trunc).
This became a powerful tool for providing information for
survivors, consumers, journalists, and policymakers.
Media coverage kept the issue alive.
Fellow advocates from Florida encouraged the Fennells to be
the spokespeople on a nationally syndicated TV talk show in
January 1997. They urged viewers to advocate for making
interior trunk releases a standard feature on all vehicles.
In December 1997, a prime time investigatory program ran a
feature segment about the trunk entrapment issue. Good
Housekeeping covered the story in November 1997.
The Fennells naively thought that
carmakers would fix the problem if they knew about it. They
wrote a letter to all carmakers in February 1997 and again
in November 1997. These letters were virtually ignored. The
carmakers’ trade association did respond in January 1998,
after a prime time TV investigatory program indicated that
automakers were unresponsive, but nothing was done.
A series of introductions led Janette
to a sympathetic policymaker. A nurse in a Wisconsin
hospital led her to a children’s organization, who led her
to a police chief interested in abductions, who introduced
her to a former highway patrolman, Congressman Bart Stupak.
Stupak also wanted cars to have interior trunk releases. He
introduced a bill in the Congress, but Congress was
unwilling to regulate trunk releases. However, in June 1998,
in its omnibus transportation bill, Congress included Stupak’s
amendment requiring NHTSA to conduct a study about trunk
Then in July/August of 1998, 11 young
children died of hyperthermia after being trapped in trunks
in three separate incidents in New Mexico, Pennsylvania and
Utah. It was Ms. Fennell who led a USA Today journalist to
link the stories. This linkage re-framed the story from an
isolated “freak accident” to a significant safety
problem and a front-page national story. Janette’s
database and experience permitted her to influence coverage
of these unwelcome but newsworthy tragedies. She argued for
trunk releases through various popular print and electronic
channels and thus reached diverse segments of the
population. Media features included LA Times (3/30/99),
People magazine (5/24/99), Oprah (6/4/99), Washington Post
(6/19/99), Readers Digest (10/99) and Redbook (2/00).
In November 1998, NHTSA asked the
National SAFE KIDS Campaign to conduct the trunk entrapment
study. They formed the Expert Panel on Trunk Entrapment,
which included experts from psychiatry, law enforcement,
health and medicine, safety advocacy (including Ms. Fennell)
and the automotive and toy industries. The panel concluded
in June 1999 that NHTSA should issue a standard requiring
vehicles to be equipped with interior trunk release
In December 1999, NHTSA issued for
public comment a proposed rulemaking to mandate that release
mechanisms be installed by Jan.1, 2001in all vehicles with a
trunk. NHTSA allows automakers to choose what type of handle
or device to use. Some manufacturers have already begun to
install trunk releases as standard equipment.
For five years, Janette’s life has
been consumed with the campaign to make car trunks
escapable, in combination with grieving the death of her
mother in 1997, caring for Alexander and giving birth to her
second son Noah in 1998. Time for sleep has been in very
short supply. In addition, the Fennells financed all their
advocacy work out of personal savings, receiving no outside
Now that NHTSA has begun the process
of rulemaking to require internal trunk releases, Janette
has taken on another cause - to prevent deaths and injuries
resulting from children being left unattended in and around
vehicles. She has founded a new organization, KIDS ‘N
CARS, with two survivor advocates, Michele and Terrill
Struttmann, whose toddler son Harrison was killed by a van
put into drive by two toddlers who had been left alone in
WAYS TO CONTACT/CONTRIBUTE
TRUNC & KIDS ‘N CARS
TRUNC website: http://www.trunc.org
KIDS ‘N CARS website: http://www.kidsncars.org
(1) Expert Panel on Trunk
Entrapment. Recommendations, June 1999.