The crime could scarcely have been more horrific: In January 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, was kidnapped by an unknown man who forced her off her bike and into his black pickup. Four days later her body was found in a drainage ditch several miles away. It may not entirely make up for that terrible loss, but some good did come from that still-unsolved killing.
Convinced that a more coordinated response to child abductions could save lives, media broadcasters and Dallas-Fort Worth police devised a rapid warning system, naming it Amber Alert after the little girl. Launched in July 1997, Amber Alert plans have been established in all 50 states since 2005 and are coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
State plans vary somewhat, but they generally require that a child 17 or younger be in serious danger and that sufficient information exist on the child or kidnapper. Not just delivered over the media, the alerts can also now be sent as wireless messages to cell phones. In just 10 years at least 333 abducted children have been brought home thanks to Amber. What follows are some of the more dramatic rescues.
SNATCHED FROM HER FRONT LAWN
MARA DOWNES, Ramapo, N.Y., April 2006
As her kidnappers threw her into the trunk of a Toyota Camry, 13-year-old Mara Downes thought she caught a glimpse of a shovel. To the terrified eighth grader it meant one thing: They intended to kill her and bury her body. Trapped in the suffocating blackness, she gasped for breath and said her prayers over and over. Thanks to an Amber Alert, they were not in vain. Just over three hours after the abduction on April 24, 2006, a woman who had seen the report on how Mara had been snatched from her lawn moments after getting off her school bus glanced out her window and saw a Camry matching the description on the news. She called police, who found and freed Mara. (The three kidnappers, local teens who hoped to collect a ransom, had intended to come back to the car the next day, but were caught.) “It worked so well,” says Mara’s mother, Martha Boland-Downes of Ramapo, N.Y. “She would have died in that trunk.”
The lead investigator, Det. Lt. Brad Weidel, a 26-year law enforcement veteran, also marvels at how Amber has changed everything. In the old days, Weidel points out, officers would have had to send teletypes to police forces and contact individual television stations for coverage. Now, with a single phone call, all the stations begin running the alert; what’s more, notices about the missing child immediately appear on all state highway signs and the screens of lottery machines. “If I’m in command of an investigation and we’re trying to find this girl,” says Weidel, “the last thing I want to do is go through all those notifications.” As with any great power, it is best used sparingly. Last year there were only three Amber Alerts in New York State—all of them ending with the safe recovery of the victims.
A THREAT, THEN A KIDNAP
LISA MARIE PORTER, West Point, Neb., January 2007
Eleven-year-old Lisa Marie Porter’s life changed when she received a call on her cell phone in the early morning hours of Jan. 13, 2007. It was a man she knew: a former neighbor in Salem, S.Dak., and he made a terrifying threat. “He told her he was going to do bodily harm to her and the whole family if she didn’t go with him,” recalls her stepfather, Rodney Jackson.
So in the middle of the night, Porter sneaked out of her parents’ West Point, Neb., trailer home and disappeared. It was late morning before her family discovered she was gone and started a search. When they didn’t find her at the playground or at a friend’s home, they called the West Point Police Department. They told police her abductor might be a 31-year-old former felon named Jamie Davis since it was Davis who had given the girl the cell phone and had called her many times.
An Amber Alert was issued at 2:49 p.m. Roughly an hour later, a citizen spotted Davis’s white Chevy Silverado traveling south on Highway 81. Officers took position in nearby York County knowing the vehicle was coming their way, says State Patrol Amber Alert Coordinator Scott Christensen. When two officers tried to stop his truck, Davis swerved toward one of them and the policeman then shot out a left tire. Davis sped away, but two miles later lost control of the truck, allowing authorities to capture him. Total elapsed time from the first alert until Porter was returned: 2 hrs. 1 min.
Now in Madison County Jail on a $1 million bond, Davis is facing kidnapping and other charges that could carry a sentence of life in prison; a trial is scheduled to start later this summer. “When she called us on the phone from the sheriff’s station she was crying because she was so scared,” remembers Jackson. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody.”
ZIPPED UP IN A SUITCASE
GRACE TROTTA, Marlborough, Mass., November 2005
It was 2 p.m. and Rebecca Borey was outside her home daycare facility in Marlborough, Mass., raking leaves when a stranger approached and called her name. Coming closer, he grabbed her and forced her to the ground. “He said, ‘Do as I say and nothing will happen,'” recalls Borey, 40, who had four children under her supervision, including her son Christian, 3. But Borey began to shout and the man struck her repeatedly with a club. Hauling her inside, he tied her up and made off with Christian and the Boreys’ 5-year-old foster child Grace Trotta—but not before Borey’s 18-year-old daughter Nicole Aucoin called police, who activated an Amber Alert. “After that the chase was on,” says Det. Lt. Martin Robichaud of the Massachusetts State Police.
According to prosecutors, Grace’s mother, Cathleen Trotta, 39, and her boyfriend, Denis Piper, were behind the abduction in November 2005. After allegedly dropping Christian off with a friend, they got in a cab with Grace, who promptly informed the driver that “Melody”—what her abductors called her—was a pretend name and that Grace was her real name. Authorities say that during the cab ride out to Logan airport, Cathleen Trotta kept talking in a loud voice to distract the driver from the Amber Alerts that were already blaring on the car radio. But it was no use: As soon as he dropped off his fare, the driver contacted police. State troopers at Logan discovered the suspects had missed a flight to the Bahamas and had gone to a nearby Embassy Suites Hotel. When troopers and the police stormed the hotel room, they allegedly found Trotta, with Grace zipped up in a suitcase. (Trotta and Piper are due to go on trial this month.)
Chris Borey points out that when it comes to dealing with kidnap cases, even success comes at a steep price. In Christian’s case, he still has nightmares about the incident. “This is going to be with him the rest of his life,” says Chris. “It’s a happy ending, but not such a happy ending.”
SAVED BY A MEMORY TRICK
STEVEN AND TYLER MORTON, Plymouth, Utah, December 2005
Mike Butcher and his wife, Chasity Angell, of Ivins, Utah, were waiting in line at a Dairy Queen on Dec. 30, 2005, when they heard an Amber Alert on the radio. A mother who police said was potentially violent and emotionally troubled had abducted her two young sons and fled in a stolen Ford Focus with the license number 719VMN. Remembering a word association trick she had learned from a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Angell memorized the plate by repeating “July 19-Very Macho Name.” “We always pay attention to the alerts,” says Angell, 29, the mother of two daughters. “It’s a scary thing.”
The next morning Butcher was cleaning up at home for a New Year’s Eve party when he noticed a car matching the description driving slowly down the road. He ran to check the plates with his wife, who confirmed it was the car identified in the Amber Alert. The couple jumped into their own car and quickly gave chase, using a cell phone to guide police.
Meanwhile, off-duty Ivins Police Sgt. Jim Hatzidakis was driving his wife to a nearby town when the 911 dispatcher called. He pulled over long enough to let her out on the side of the road. Moments later he apprehended Tessa Morton, then 33, with 7-year-old Steven and 12-year-old Tyler. The boys were confused and quiet, recalls Hatzidakis, but otherwise unhurt. (Morton served six months in jail for attempted kidnapping and has just completed probation.)
Judy Cline of Plymouth, the boys’ custodial grandmother, thanks Butcher and her “guardian” Angell for the safe return of her grandsons: “These kids would not be home if it wasn’t for them seeing the Amber Alert.”
SAVED 950 MILES FROM HOME BY A SMART COP’S HUNCH
CINDY BRUNO, St. Cloud, Minn., May 2003
Utah Highway Patrolman Sgt. Randy Richey had just come on duty the evening of May 7, 2003, when an Amber Alert came through. That day at 8:40 a.m., the St. Cloud Police Department in Minnesota had issued an alert on missing 11-year-old Cindy Bruno. Given that the suspect, Antonio Andrade, then 21, had family in Provo, the Amber Alert coordinator sent the first-ever interstate activation, blanketing Utah with a description of Andrade’s green minivan with a stripe across the bottom.
So Richey decided to play a hunch. He guessed the most likely travel route would be west on I-80 and then south on Highway 40 toward Provo. Pulling into the median of Highway 40 in his patrol car, he went on the Internet to check MapQuest and look up the estimated travel time from St. Cloud. Just then a vehicle matching the description drove by. “I thought, ‘Nah, there’s no way,’ but I pulled out after it,” recalls Richey.
In fact, he quickly verified that the vehicle was Andrade’s. Richey followed the car for nearly seven miles, using his radio to coordinate backup officers. When everyone was in place, he pulled over the van. “At first the 11-year-old denied who she was,” says Richey. “She had gone voluntarily with him.” (Though Bruno’s mother, Rosemary, says she declined to testify against Andrade because he was a former friend of the family, he pleaded guilty to deprivation of parental rights and served 94 days in jail, with four years of probation.)
“The Amber Alert relies on everybody that sees it to pay attention,” says Richey, now a lieutenant. “The situation where I saw him drive by me was a one-in-a-million shot.”