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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: After reading in your column about the man who insisted on picking up hitchhikers, I had to tell you about a tragedy I witnessed several years ago while I was on vacation.

I arrived at my destination and was met by my girlfriend, whom I had come to visit. At a stop sign on the way to her house from the airport we saw three men leaning against some bales of hay. They approached our car and asked for a ride. Because our back seat was filled with luggage and groceries, we refused.

We looked back and saw them approach another car that stopped behind us, but thought nothing of it until the next day when we heard on the news that a man and his car were missing. From the description we knew immediately it was the car behind us at the stop sign. We called the sheriff and reported what we had seen.

The next day the news reported that the three hitchhikers had been spotted in Montana. Two days later, the wrecked and abandoned car was located, but there was no sign of the driver. A week after his disappearance, the man's badly beaten body was found on a country road.

The three hitchhikers were later seen on a busy Montana highway and picked up and questioned. Then a witness came forward who had seen them with the owner of the car. The hitchhikers finally confessed to murdering the unfortunate driver because he would not give them more money.

When I got home, I told my brother about my close call and he stopped picking up hitchhikers. I hope my true story will serve as a warning to anyone who thinks it's safe to pick up someone who's thumbing a ride. -- A WISCONSIN READER

DEAR WISCONSIN READER: A number of people wrote to say they had safely given rides to hitchhikers years ago. But too many tragedies have occurred in recent years to good Samaritans who generously offered rides to strangers. Just as it is no longer safe to leave our doors unlocked, it is no longer safe to offer rides to strangers. And contrary to popular lore, it wasn't entirely safe in days gone by. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Back in the Midwest in the fall of 1948, my husband and I drove to Chicago to buy a car. At about 6 a.m. on the return trip, we passed through a small settlement near Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and saw two young men thumbing a ride. They were wearing civilian clothes, but since it was a couple of days before Thanksgiving, we thought they were soldiers on a weekend or holiday pass.

As they neared our car, I felt uneasy, but we stopped anyway and let them get in the back seat.

We had gone only a few miles down the road when the Highway Patrol roared up with their lights flashing, pulled us over, and came up to both sides of our car with their guns drawn. They asked if we had picked up our passengers a few miles back. We, of course, said, "Yes."

They hauled the two young men out of our car, found them armed and cuffed them. Then the officers read us the riot act for picking up strangers.

Abby, those men had stashed a car behind a shed before coming out to the road to hitch a ride. An observer thought it looked suspicious and reported it to the Highway Patrol. We found out later the men had started a crime spree in New York City and left a trail of stolen cars halfway across the country. When someone gave them a ride, they'd wait for a quiet place along the road, force the driver out of the car at gunpoint and take off with the car. They had killed some of the drivers and wounded others.

Abby, death was riding in our back seat that morning. Thank goodness our guardian angels were on duty, because we had five little ones at home.

Tell the kind-hearted husband who believes hitchhikers are all good people that for every honest, needy "thumber" there are a jillion no-goods out there, and his first concern should be his wife and loved ones. -- A LUCKY OKIE

What teens need to know about sex, drugs, AIDS, and getting along with peers and parents is in "What Every Teen Should Know." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Teen Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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