By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
In one case, a 52-year-old man sped north out of Georgia, his
4-year-old daughter tossed carelessly in the back among his belongings.
the other, an 11-year-old girl who had been visiting her father walked
into Old Hickory Mall in Jackson while he slept in his car. When he woke
up, he told police, she was gone.
Two different cases, two
different outcomes - and a side-by-side illustration of what can happen
when children disappear. One occurred more than a decade ago, before
Tennessee turned to a nationwide system known as Amber Alerts; the other more recently.
program, named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was abducted
and murdered in Texas in 1996, has become the go-to method for pursuing
missing children in cases considered the most dangerous. State officials
set the alerts in motion with tremendous selectivity - they've used it
in Tennessee for only 80 cases involving 101 children in ten years, but
that's only a fraction of the 100,000 kids who have gone missing since
it became available as a law enforcement tool.
When they do, the children are almost always found.
the exact role the alerts play in finding children isn't always clear,
authorities agree that asking the public to help has changed the way
they do their work. But part of the program's effectiveness, police say,
rides on using the alerts sparingly. That approach often leaves police
detectives wondering why their case isn't worth an alert - and worse
still, how they will explain that decision to anguished parents.
got to save the Amber Alert for the worst-case scenarios," explains
Margie Quin, who runs the state's alert program for the Tennessee Bureau
of Investigation. "Amber is to notify the public there is a child in
danger and that if we don't have the public's help, we might not be able
to save this child."
The alerts go out through television, news
sites, weather radios, digital interstate signs and even Tennessee
Lottery kiosks. At times, just putting out an alert has pressured
abductors to turn themselves in, authorities said. And in at least 16 of
the 80 cases, people who saw alerts pointed police directly to
suspects, according to TBI records and news reports.
in Tennessee turned out to be false alarms, including three out of eight
this year. Just like overusage, bogus cases can eat away at people's
"I'd rather activate once or twice a year and it's a hoax
than not act because we're cynical," Quin said. "If you're wrong, kids
die. These are the stakes."
To be considered for an Amber Alert, a missing child case must meet
three initial requirements: the victim must be younger than 18 years
old, police must believe there is "imminent danger," and a description
of the child, the suspect or a vehicle must be available.
majority of alerts go out in "familial abductions" carried out by
parents, or by other acquaintances - not strangers - which can put
officers in the middle of emotional disputes.
To make their case
for an Amber Alert, police must establish a high level of danger. If
officers are convinced they would benefit from widespread help, they
call the TBI to request an Amber Alert. Nine out of 10 times, those
requests are rejected.
If Quin and her colleagues are satisfied -
which can take minutes or hours as a case unfolds, although they're
acutely aware that time is of the essence - the TBI arranges information
and photos to be sent to broadcasters, news agencies, the National
Weather Service and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
process includes checkpoints because an alert must find the right
balance of providing helpful information without adding more danger, or
further damaging the child involved, Quin said.
"If we don't give a certain amount of information, the public tunes out," Quin said.
At times, her caution drives local detectives crazy.
got to have facts," Quin said. "I can't stand up in front of
Tennesseans and the broadcasters and say, 'I just didn't have a good
feeling.' That wouldn't be responsible. We wouldn't be good stewards of
While authorities consider the system a leap
forward, some researchers have questioned whether the alerts save kids
from the most dangerous stranger abductions.
"Typically, when you
see Amber Alert success, it involves cases that don't strike us as that
menacing," said Timothy Griffin, associate professor of criminal justice
at the University of Nevada, Reno.
His review of hundreds of cases found few alerts that clearly saved kids' lives.
be very clear to the public that it's succeeding at something other
than what inspired it," he said. "It bothers me when I see these public
agencies promoting the notion that Amber Alerts have saved the lives of
hundreds of children. That's misleading at best. It might be accurate to
say they have contributed to the recovery of hundreds of children."
does credit alerts for finding more kids, or at least closing the book
on cases. Before Amber, she said, detectives were growing weary of
unsolved cases. When alerts were used, children were found in 79 of 80
cases, although not always with happy outcomes.
TBI agreed to run
the state's system from the outset. The Tennessee Association of
Broadcasters emerged as a key ally, but President Whit Adamson said he
had misgivings at first.
"We know that if we over-use this system
it will be a turnoff to the public," Adamson said recently. "We were
looking for a filtered alert. We weren't looking for every kid that
didn't come home from soccer practice in every county or city."
Years later, Adamson has seen people help solve cases after seeing alerts.
Sumner County in March 2006, a woman saw an alert on TV and led police
to an abductor's car parked near her home, leading to the recovery of
two boys within hours.
"The more eyes, the better we are," said Millersville Police Chief Ronnie Williams, who worked the case.
Before Amber, "you were just searching, you didn't have as many leads," he said. These days, information spreads quickly.
"You don't have to sit there and teletype each department," he said.
The abduction in Georgia
The toughest cases have stuck with Quin - good and bad. There was the
time, for example, when Jerry John Jones fled from Georgia, his
daughter in the backseat with no car seat, and turned up at a Franklin
Georgia had not issued its own alert, in part because the
girl's mother did not believe the man posed a threat. Tennessee
officials soon had reason to think otherwise.
Jones drew the
attention of U.S. marshals at the hotel. After he sped off around 8
a.m., eluding his pursuers at 100 mph, Quin activated an alert within 20
Rutherford County Sheriff's Office Cpl. Andrew Caravello
heard the alert, and spent the next two hours waiting for Jones's white
Ford Taurus to cross his path.
He had moved on to other calls by the time a Taurus caught his eye at a Smyrna car wash. But it wasn't just white anymore.
"The car was half black and half white," Caravello said.
Jones was there, too, with a can of spray-paint in hand.
Caravello gave chase as the man sped off, racing through red lights.
didn't see the girl in the car," he recalled. "That was my fear. I
didn't know. The way he was driving, I was praying she wasn't."
the girl was in back, wrapped in a cocoon of clothes. A few harrowing
minutes later, the two-tone Taurus collided with a silver pickup truck,
ending the chase in a tangle of metal. Caravello pulled the man out.
Others tended to the girl.
Investigators found more than a dozen
stolen credit cards in the car. They showed the man's intent to create
new identities for himself and the young girl, Caravello said.
"If he would have gotten away with her," he said, "she never would have been seen again."
The mall disappearance
When alerts go out now, Jonnie Carter is sure to see them. For the
49-year-old Mt. Juliet woman, each one dredges up old frustrations.
It was her daughter, 11-year-old Bethany Markowski, who disappeared from Old Hickory Mall in Jackson on March 4, 2001.
been on a custodial visit with her father. The man said he'd gone to
sleep in his car in the parking lot while the brown-haired, green-eyed
girl, wearing a green T-shirt and jeans, headed from the car to the
Only a few states used Amber Alert back then. Tennessee
wasn't one of them. So as police chased leads, Carter went to Kinko's to
make photocopies. She prayed that newspapers and TV stations would
carry details of the disappearance.
She hardly ate for two weeks. She could not stop thinking about how her daughter disappeared on a cold day without a coat.
"Every good thing and every bad thing goes through your mind," she said.
After that, she began to pay attention to the desperate flyers posted in supermarkets.
the ensuing years, Carter has become a regular at Amber Alert
conferences. She speaks from experience of the emotional and physical
strains that tear a parent's insides out when kids go missing. And she
accompanied TBI agents when they announced the start of the alert
program in Tennessee.
Carter and Quin cannot say for sure whether
an Amber Alert would have helped find Bethany. They do believe it would
have changed how police worked on her case.
"It's certainly something," Quin said. "What we had was nothing."
Still, Carter wonders: Could the things she's learned since about missing children have helped find her daughter?
a good chance she'll never know. Since the day Bethany's father drove
her to the mall, she has never been heard from again.