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.

Donna Norris lost a child to an abductor, but the Amber Plan, named for her daughter, lives on.
Mark Graham
Donna Norris lost a child to an abductor, but the Amber Plan, named for her daughter, lives on.
The system bearing Amber Hagerman's name is saving lives nationwide.
The system bearing Amber Hagerman's name is saving lives nationwide.

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."

In the Dallas area, the unusual alliance works like this: When law enforcement is made aware, generally through a 911 call, of an abduction that meets the strict guidelines set down by the Amber Plan designers (unlike California, the missing child has to be 15 or under or, if older, have a physical or mental disability and believed to be in danger of serious harm), the information is immediately transmitted to radio stations KRLD and WBAP. They relay the information to all radio and TV stations within a 60-mile radius and the Amber alert is broadcast or appears as a crawl along the bottom of TV screens.

"One of the things we initially had to overcome," Cox says, "was the concern on the part of some members of the media about what they perceived as 'turning the airwaves over to law enforcement.' There were some who had to be reminded that the reason they were licensed in the first place was to provide programming that was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. Once everyone got comfortable with the concept, the program began to grow."

It was, originators agreed, also important that the alert not be overused. "This program is not for dealing with runaways or children that have been taken by a relative involved in some kind of family dispute," Anderson says. "It is designed to react to only the most dire of situations."

Despite its record of success in the area, only now is a move afoot to put the program into widespread use in Texas. This week, Governor Rick Perry announced plans to soon have the system used statewide. To date, several cities, including Houston and Wichita Falls, have local alert systems modeled after the Arlington-based plan, but no statewide program is in place. That, says Kirk Watson, a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, will soon change. "It is clear that there is a system available that will work very well," he said on a recent campaign stop.

Earlier, the Texas Department of Transportation announced that it is developing a strategy to participate in Amber Plan alerts by borrowing from the California idea of using electronic highway and freeway signs, generally used to alert motorists to traffic, weather and construction conditions, to provide information on child abductions.

Among those urging quick adoption of a statewide alert system is Saginaw mother Patricia Bradbury, who can attest to the effectiveness of the Amber Plan. Hers is its first success story.

In November 1998, she and her husband returned to their Arlington home to find their 2-month-old daughter Rae-Leigh and her 42-year-old baby sitter gone. The Bradburys phoned police and the Amber alert was soon being broadcast throughout the area.

Recalling the story, Tyler Cox reaches into a file cabinet to retrieve an audiotape of the 911 call that resulted in Rae-Leigh's rescue. On it, a man driving along Interstate 20, south of Grand Prairie, says that he had just heard the alert and the description of the pickup that the baby sitter was driving. "It's right in front of me," the excited man says before giving his location. Minutes later, police stopped the truck, arrested the abductor and returned the child to her parents.

"It is the perfect example of how critical time is in situations like this. Another 30 minutes or an hour and there's no way to tell how far away that baby might have been," Cox notes.

The triumphs have steadily mounted. In March '99, Dallas police credited the Amber Plan with the safe return of 9-year-old Fleisha Moore after she was abducted by a man as she walked home from school. The abductor, after hearing the Amber alert broadcast on his pickup radio, stopped on a road in rural Navarro County and ordered the child out of his vehicle. Within hours a call came to police, reporting her location, and she was returned home unharmed. In Houston, it took less than three hours to rescue 5-year-old Maria Cuellar after she had been kidnapped by a man driving a stolen ambulance.

It has, in fact, even worked in ways it was not designed to. Last winter, a mother came out of a laundry to find that her car and 5-month-old baby were gone. Immediately after she called 911, the Amber alert was issued and descriptions of the car and the child were broadcast. Within 30 minutes a towing-company driver, hearing the alert, phoned his dispatcher to say he'd just taken a car that matched the description to the city pound. The sleeping child was found in the backseat, hidden behind tinted windows.

"How can anyone argue against the use of such an effective tool?" the evangelical Anderson asks. "When I'm asked to speak to people who are considering the use of the plan, I always close my presentation with the observation that it is much better to have this program in place and never need it than to need it and not have it."

The Amber Plan, he is convinced, has also become a deterrent to those contemplating the kidnapping of children, pointing to statistics that, despite the recent rash of cases, show a reduction of such crimes. "Over the years, the program has become well-known enough that those considering abducting a child have to know that they're going to be the focus of an alert. They know it works."

And it has become a shining legacy for a life cut short. "Every time I learn about a child being safely returned home as a result of the Amber Plan," says Amber's mother, Donna Norris, "it makes me so proud. I just look to heaven and say, 'Honey, you did it again.'"

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