Amber Alerts Often Involve People Children Know


DALLAS (AP) - An Amber Alert issued for a 12-year-old girl taken from her suburban Dallas home by her stepfather two weeks ago highlights a common situation - abductions by parents or acquaintances that rise to the level of an alert.

Since the Texas Department of Public Safety began issuing Amber Alerts in August 2002, there have been 14, including one for a Mesquite girl who was found Wednesday in a hotel in Oklahoma City with her stepfather. James Hudachek, 28, fatally shot himself in the head when police arrived.

The alert was issued Sept. 7 after the girl's mother showed authorities a letter Hudachek supposedly wrote in which he professed his romantic love for his stepdaughter. He said he would rather die than not be with her.

The alert came less than two weeks after Southlake physician Elizabeth Rohr abducted her five children, who were found unhurt at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her ex-husband was granted temporary custody of the children, and his attorney said Rohr had threatened to go to Mexico or the Caribbean if she ever lost custody.

Abduction by family members is not only traumatic, but can place children in dangerous situations, said Jenni Thompson, spokeswoman for the California-based Polly Klaas Foundation, a national nonprofit group that helps find missing children.

"We're not in favor of using an Amber Alert in every circumstance, but we are in favor of using it when the child is in imminent danger," Thompson said.

When an Amber Alert is sounded, case details are flashed to media outlets and lottery retailers describing the missing child and the suspected kidnapper, along with other information. Highway traffic advisory signs are activated, and a special telephone number is distributed for people to call if they see the child or have any information.

Under the program - named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted in Arlington and killed in 1996 - police also get immediate faxes, telephone text messages and e-mails describing the child and possible kidnappers.

A witness saw Hagerman being dragged, kicking and screaming, off her bicycle by a man who drove a pickup truck. Her abductor was never caught.

Of the 14 Texas alerts, only one was the result of a stranger abduction, DPS spokeswoman Lisa Block said. Two were runaways, five involved parental abductions and six were by acquaintances, she said. One of the alerts was a false alarm.

Four children were recovered as a direct result of the alerts, she said. One child, taken by a non-custodial father, remains missing, Block said. The other children were found, but not solely because of the alerts, she said.

Mesquite police Sgt. Shannon Greenhaw said authorities don't yet know what role the alert played in the recovery of the 12-year-old girl in Oklahoma City.

"When the media turns that big spotlight on you, it makes hiding a lot less feasible," Greenhaw said.

Each state has different rules about case specifics that qualify for Amber Alerts. In Texas, the criteria includes that the child be 17 or younger, and must be in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death. Local police departments can issue alerts as well as DPS.

Greenhaw says her department regularly gets calls from parents who want to issue an alert for children taken by another parent in a custody battle. Unless it's proven that the child is in danger, an alert is not issued.

The Mesquite girl went missing from her home on Sept. 4, but police didn't issue the alert until three days later, after the letter purportedly written by Hudachek was found. At that time, Greenhaw said, "We felt like there was a clear danger."

While the U.S. Department of Justice says that 156 children have been found due to the alerts, it does not track the number of alerts issued nationwide.

According to a federal study from 1999, there were 58,200 abductions by non-family members, 203,900 victims of family abductions and 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical kidnappings."

Texas also doesn't have exact figures on the number of alerts issued each year, since various law enforcement agencies may issue them, Block said. She said local authorities sometimes ask DPS to issue an alert, which usually goes out within a 200-mile radius of where the child was abducted.

"It's a great tool for law enforcement," Block said.

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