Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

No Amber Alert Issued for Abducted Cleveland Teen Gina DeJesus 10 Years Ago. Why?

From left to right: Gina DeJesus, Gabiee Swainson and Alicia Moore

From left to right: Gina DeJesus, Gabiee Swainson and Alicia Moore

In light of the recent discovery of three women in their 20s, who since they were teens were imprisoned as sex slaves in a Cleveland home, the public is asking some tough questions about what could have been done differently in each case. It is widely known that the families believed that their daughters had been taken and that in each instance, during the crucial first hours after each abduction, police refused to issue and Amber Alert because the proper criteria (shown below) was not met.

Sadly, this is becoming an all-too-familiar phrase associated with missing child cases: the case does not fit the criteria for an Amber Alert.

In the Cleveland case, the most publicized of the three missing children’s cases was that of Gina DeJesus. She had been walking home from school with a friend, called her mother, said she was coming home, parted company with her friend and disappeared. Police explained that they could not confirm that Gina had been taken, therefore, despite her parents’ assertions that their child would not run away, the case did not meet the qualifications for an Amber Alert. Result: No Amber Alert was issued. We now know that Gina and two others, Amanda berry and Michelle Knight, were held for a decade and brutalized as sex slaves in a local home. The others girls’ disappearance were also treated as possible runaways for the same reasons, but it was Gina’s disappearance that got the media’s attention.

On August 18, 2012, Gabrielle Swainson, 15, disappeared from her Richland County South Carolina home without a trace. Her worried mother, having returned from work to find her child gone, called police. Investigators found Gabbiee’s blood in her bedroom, and her cell phone gone, but despite her mother’s assertions that this type of behavior was out of character for her daughter, they decided that it there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Gabbiee had been abducted. Result: No Amber Alert was issued. We now know thanks to the efforts of investigators, that Gabbiee had been taken.

Police continued the investigation into Gabbiee’s disappearance, which began with eliminating family and friends as suspects. High up on the list was the man that Gabbiee’s mother was dating, Freddie Grant, who had a key to her home. Grant was uncooperative enough with police that on the August 21 they got a warrant and searched his home. Disturbingly, they found some used duct tape with Gabbiee’s blood and hair on it in his home and in a junked car in a junkyard near Grant’s home. He remains uncooperative and has been charged with the girl’s kidnapping. Gabbiee has still not been found.

On November 2, 2012, Alicia Moore, 16, of Greenville, Texas, took the school bus home, got off the bus near her home and vanished. She never made it home and no one knew what had happened to her. Footage from the security cameras on the bus showed her getting off safely, but nothing else. Since investigators could not confirm that Alicia had been taken. Result: No Amber Alert was issued. On November 4 her body, stuffed in a box, was dumped near a bridge in Van Zandt County Texas.

Amber Hagerman

Amber Hagerman

In the face of cases like these, many ask themselves what the purpose of an Amber Alert is. It is worth looking into. Amber Hagerman, 9, and her brother Ricky, 5, were visiting their grandparents in Arlington, Texas, on January 12, 1996, when they asked if they could go for a ride on their bikes. Their grandfather said “OK, but just go once around the block.” They went half way around the block, and being children paused in the parking lot of an abandoned Winn-Dixie to ride the ramp there, as many neighborhood children did. Ricky went home, Amber stayed to ride the ramp again. When Ricky arrived home without his sister, his grandparents sent him right back to get her, but she was gone. The grandfather got in his car and quickly drove to the parking lot. A policeman in a squad car was already there saying that he had responded to a 911 call from a neighbor about a man stuffing a screaming young girl into his pickup truck, but all that was left was her bike. In all, 8 minutes had elapsed from the time the children rode away, to the time the neighbor called 911. Amber’s body was found 4 days later.

In the aftermath of the murder, one Dallas man asked: When a child is abducted and each minute matters, why can’t the police and the media get together to inform the public with the same urgency of, say, a weather warning about a tornado or a hurricane? The Amber Alert program was soon born. The basic idea is that when a child is abducted, police provide information, a description and photos in a timely fashion to the media, who broadcast the information all over. Such a system might have been able to save Amber, and it is named in remembrance of her.

The criteria for an Amber Alert are pretty specific. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, they are as follows:

  • There must have been an abduction
  • The child must be at risk of serious bodily injury or death
  • There must be enough descriptive information about the victim and the abductor and the vehicle to give to the public.
  • The child must be the right age. Ages vary from state-to-state and can range from 10 and under to 17 and under.

The problem is that there isn’t always a neighbor present to hear a child’s screams as they struggle with a would-be abductor and people don’t always see when a child is grabbed and taken, but it doesn’t mean that the child is in any less danger.

We now know that in Alicia and Gabbiee’s cases, as in the case Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight, an Amber Alert could very well have made a difference. In all these cases doubt remained that that the girls had actually been taken — but they had.

While the Amber Alert system is a definite improvement when it comes to recovering abducted children, it seems that it is more effective at stopping an impulsive or botched abduction, rather than a stealthily planned one, though both types are just as dangerous for the victim.

Feature Story: The Abduction of Amber Hagerman

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