May 28, 2005 in Idaho

New protocol slowed Amber Alert

Staff writer
 
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Background and the latest updates

About two months ago, Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson wrote a letter to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne complaining about the statewide Amber Alert system.

Watson’s hunch that the statewide system might cause unnecessary delays in North Idaho was borne out less than two weeks ago when two children turned up missing from a triple homicide scene. That state system had recently replaced a regional one that had been in place for eight years.

Bound and bludgeoned to death in the Wolf Lodge area home were Brenda Groene, 40, Mark McKenzie, 37, and 13-year-old Slade Groene.

Brenda Groene’s two youngest children – 8-year-old Shasta and 9-year-old Dylan – are missing.

The homicides occurred the night of May 15, or on May 16. The bodies were discovered that Monday evening, and sometime early May 17 investigators learned that Shasta and Dylan were missing and may have been abducted.

About 4:30 that morning, Capt. Wayne Longo of the Idaho State Police issued an Amber Alert at the request of the sheriff’s department.

If Watson had had his way, he also would have immediately activated the Emergency Alert System, a radio broadcast system used to warn local communities of emergencies.

As it was, the EAS system wasn’t activated for another 31/2 hours, according to Idaho State Police spokesman Rick Ohnsman.

That delay has the state’s director of homeland security, Bill Bishop, and the governor’s office looking at how to improve the Amber Alert system.

“We tripped up on this one,” said Bishop.

Wednesday in Boise, at an “after action review” of the recent alert, agency officials agreed to give local jurisdictions more authority and flexibility to get the alerts out more quickly, Ohnsman said.

“They ignored us until there was a problem,” a frustrated Watson said Friday. “Why does it have to fall apart first to get their attention?”

A couple months ago, Watson told Idaho Amber Alert director Vickie Miller that he wanted the ability to use the EAS system to alert local broadcasters in the Spokane area, as the county had previously done as part of a local agreement.

But Miller told Watson only the state could activate the system, according to Watson and Shoshone County Sheriff Chuck Reynalds.

Under the state’s Amber Alert protocols, the regional ISP captain activates the alert and it triggers electronic notifications first to people who have signed up to receive the alerts by e-mail, pager or cell phone. Then the alert goes to the state communications center, which notifies the Idaho Department of Transportation, the Idaho Lottery Commission and area broadcasters.

“Eventually, the information is sent to broadcasters in Spokane for airing to the public,” Watson wrote in his letter to the governor. “This time delay is unacceptable when we must consider that it only takes minutes to be in another state or even into Canada for a fleeing abductor.”

Kempthorne replied by letter that he and his staff needed to examine the issue.

Although Longo approved the alert at 4:30 a.m., the automatic system was not activated until 6:30 a.m., according to Ohnsman, because someone down the line questioned whether it met the state’s Amber Alert criteria.

When it got to the state communications center, someone again questioned whether it met the state criteria for an Amber Alert, and its release to broadcasters was delayed until about 8 a.m., Ohnsman said.

The state lottery commission didn’t get the Amber Alert information out to customers until later in the afternoon because of a computer glitch, and Ada County highway reader boards didn’t start posting the information on the missing children until 10 hours after the alert was issued.

Washington state never activated its Amber Alert system because the case didn’t meet its criteria, and Montana’s alert was delayed for similar reasons, Ohnsman said.

Sheriff’s investigators had no known direction of travel or vehicle description for Shasta and Dylan’s abductor. They didn’t know how long it had been since the children had disappeared. They didn’t even know for a fact that Shasta and Dylan had been abducted.

That information is required for an Amber Alert.

“Amber coordinators across the country and law enforcement using the Amber Alert are put in a balancing act,” said Bob Hoever, an Amber Alert specialist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “They need to protect the safety and health of children versus over-using the Amber Alert system and desensitizing the public.”

The need to get Amber Alerts out as soon as a child is abducted is based on a sobering statistic: 74 percent of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction.

Local officials say they believe Shasta and Dylan are alive.

None of the blood sampled so far at the crime scene matched Shasta or Dylan.

Reynalds, who is president of the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, attended Wednesday’s review and said all agencies agreed that they needed to communicate better.

“Our system broke down when we used it,” he said. “The kids are what’s important. To hell with the protocol sometimes – let’s get the information out there.”

The Amber Alert was discontinued Monday, but Idaho Department of Transportation reader boards continued to carry the missing children information until Friday, when they switched to traffic safety information for Memorial Day weekend.

Meanwhile, the state’s director of homeland security wants to work with Washington and Montana to have better cooperation for the next Amber Alert to originate in North Idaho. And he’s willing to let Watson issue regional alerts when necessary.

“We’re not taking the (EAS) equipment away from Rocky,” Bishop said. “He’s got a long and professional career. I think we can trust him.”

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