THE ONLY GOOD news about the fabricated kidnapping of Bucks County mom Bonnie Sweeten is that she was apprehended in Florida before anything bad could happen to her daughter Julia, with whom she'd supposedly shared a car trunk.
Granted, "bad" is a relative term.
Kids take emotional cues from their parents. Who knows how erratically Sweeten might have behaved with Julia during the bizarre trek that ended in, of all places, Disney World? Or in the run-up to the fake abduction?
We do know that Sweeten withdrew her 9-year-old from her Bensalem elementary school in early May, for unknown reasons. And her former boss, an attorney, alleged to the Daily News that Sweeten had stolen money from her law firm.
But at least Julia is still here to puzzle things out, to the weak-kneed relief of her father and stepfather - both of whom begged on TV for everyone's safe return.
Relief is not always the outcome in these parents-gone-bats cases, as a handful of recent headlines makes horribly clear.
Last month, in a grisly execution recorded on surveillance tape, a Florida mother blasted her son and then herself at an Orlando shooting range. In a parting note, Marie Moore wrote, "I had to send my son to heaven and myself to hell."
Six weeks ago, a financially distraught accountant named Christopher Alan Wood killed his wife and three babies before shooting himself in their Maryland home.
And the town of Graham, Wash., is still reeling from the April 4 slaughter of five children by their dad, James Harrison, whose wife had jilted him. After murdering their kids, he took his own life near the convenience store where he'd earlier confronted his wife.
Why do the deluded never think to shoot themselves first? Why must their innocent children pave the way to the grave for them?
In the days ahead, we'll no doubt learn Sweeten's motives for inventing an abduction story that police suspected from the start was fiction.
And not just because it sounded like other phony-baloney, car-centric tall tales whose themes revolve around one or more sinister black males terrorizing one or more helpless white people.
But because Sweeten's calls to 9-1-1 were transmitted via a Center City cell tower far from the bustling Bucks County intersection where she said her captors had stuffed her and Julia into a car trunk - an act to which police could find no witnesses.
If Sweeten is this story's baffling villain, the law-enforcement officials who scrambled to find her and Julia are its blessed heroes. State, local and federal investigators - along with security staff at Disney World - were able to locate Sweeten within a day of her initial 9-1-1 call.
If they were furious that her trumped-up emergency monopolized their time, talent and resources, they were too professional to let it show during Wednesday night's news conference announcing Sweeten's apprehension and Julia's rescue.
Maybe that's because they know that, when you're as unhinged as Sweeten appears to be, a trumped-up emergency can quickly morph into a real tragedy.
Who knows what she might have done to Julia, if her odyssey had continued?
The other children impacted by Sweeten's strange actions, of course, are the daughters she left behind: a 15-year-old from a previous marriage and an infant with her current husband.
What must it be like for the teen to know she was not only abandoned by Sweeten, but left to assume that the worst had happened to her and to her younger sister?
How cruel - or unglued - must a mother be to put her child through that kind of hell?
As for the infant, well, one day she might deal with the same question: How could the mother she loves ever have walked away from her?
Again, the good news here is that, thanks to urgent work by investigators who know how badly these things can turn out, all three girls are at least alive to come to grips with what happened and why.
Too many children of parents-gone-bats never get the chance. *
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