Bad News, Good News

The Texas-bred Amber Plan for missing kids works and is spreading

It has become a tragic summer litany. Elizabeth Smart is kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home at gunpoint. In Stanton, California, a stranger asking help in finding his lost puppy takes Samantha Runnion. In St. Louis, 6-year-old Cassandra Williamson is last seen riding off on the shoulders of a man no one in the neighborhood recognizes. Residents of Lawton, Oklahoma, remain in a panic after two of their children, both just 5, have been abducted and sexually molested in recent months.

In the days that followed, fearful mothers and fathers appeared before television cameras, pleading that their children be returned safely. For most, the requests were met with dead silence. For others, the eventual answer was dead bodies.

And an alert procedure, born of a crime and nurtured to reality six years ago by a former Arlington Police Department spokesman and two longtime radio executives, has emerged as a new and effective weapon in the fight to rescue abductees. The Amber Plan, named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who in 1996 was kidnapped from her Arlington neighborhood while riding her bicycle and found dead four days later, has grown into a nationwide program credited with the safe recovery of at least 20 children.

Recently, it received widespread media attention when it was credited with saving the lives of two Lancaster, California, teen-age girls--Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris--who had been abducted at gunpoint and molested by an ex-convict with a lengthy history of violence and sex crimes. When located, 37-year-old Roy Ratliff had driven the young women to an isolated area where authorities believed he planned to kill them and dump their bodies. Ratliff was shot and killed when he pointed a handgun at one of the officers attempting to arrest him.

Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks, briefing the media in the wake of the successful rescue, was quick to heap praise on the Amber Plan, a unique cooperative effort of law enforcement and the electronic media that had begun in California just six days earlier. "Without it," the sheriff said, "we might be looking at a much less satisfactory ending."

In a nation where, according to Department of Justice statistics, as many as 4,600 stranger abductions of children occur annually--that's more than 12 per day--the prompt action and positive outcome of the California case lent a badly needed ray of optimism to a crime statistic that rarely provides good news. Since 1990, 103 cases of nonfamily abductions of children remain unsolved, including that of Amber Hagerman.

"If we'd had this system in place when Amber was abducted," laments Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, "I believe we could have saved her life." It is something, he says, that he finds himself thinking about often.

It was, he recalls, in the aftermath of that abduction/murder that local broadcast executives J.D. Freeman and Steve Mace visited him at the Arlington police station where Anderson was then serving as the department's public information officer. "The argument they had was a very good one," he says. "If they could alert listeners to things like severe weather in a timely fashion, why not some kind of program that could respond to the abduction of a child?"

From that discussion the Amber Plan was born. In the days to come it would be implemented successfully in North Texas and spread to other regions. Anderson became its volunteer designer, spokesman and pitchman, ultimately visiting law enforcement and broadcast executives throughout the nation to promote the program.

In his office at The Ballpark in Arlington, KRLD Director of Operations Tyler Cox had watched the dramatic California search and rescue unfold. Current chairman of the Amber Plan Task Force, a five-member group that meets regularly to discuss expansion and improvement of the system, he readily admits a feeling of great satisfaction upon learning that the abducted girls were safely returned to their parents. "That's what the program was designed to do," he says. "That it ended the way it did was the most important thing. Then, there is the fact that the widespread coverage of the event took the Amber Plan to a higher profile. That is what it has needed--proof to law enforcement, members of the media and millions of parents throughout the country that it can work."

And while the California race against time caused the phones in the offices of Cox and Anderson to ring almost nonstop with inquiries from law enforcement agencies and broadcast executives in other states, the fact is, the plan had already expanded well beyond Dallas-Fort Worth. Adopted last year by the nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the program or some form of it had now been embraced by dozens of communities throughout the country. Now, it seems, an explosion is on the horizon. California was the 15th state to adopt the plan, and several others have now announced intentions to immediately begin development of the alert system.

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and California' Senator Dianne Feinstein have co-authored a bill they will soon present to Congress in an attempt to create a national Amber Plan.

"What occurred in California," says Joann Donnellan of the Washington-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, "was a great victory for the Amber program. It showed the nation what a team effort, a powerful partnership between law enforcement and the media, can accomplish."

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