AMBER Alert on the Front Lines: Utah

Utah’s newly fine-tuned AMBER Alert plan helps recover infant from stranger abduction

It took only moments for ten-month-old Amila Spratley-Apkey to vanish. Amila’s mother Breesha Spratley left her car running in the driveway with her daughter in the backseat in Ogden, Utah, at 10:45 a.m. on November 4, 2020. The mother ran into her home to use the bathroom and her friend who was in the car also decided to go into the house.

When the mother returned, her car and infant daughter were gone.

Spratley called 911 for help. The Ogden City Police Department determined the situation met the criteria for an AMBER Alert and began gathering as much information as possible before initiating an alert.

Ogden Police Department Technical Agency Coordinator (TAC) Angie Turner entered the alert into the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Utah Criminal Justice Information System (UCJIS) at 11:16 a.m. The alert was activated just moments later at 11:30 a.m.

Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminalists Alex Martinez
Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminalists Alex Martinez
Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminalists Ofa Vaisima
Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminalists Ofa Vaisima

Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) Criminalists Ofa Vaisima and Alex Martinez began their positions as AMBER Alert co-coordinators just two months earlier in September. Vaisima was the on-call coordinator November 4th and issued the alert to law enforcement agencies, businesses, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), Utah Trucking Association, and all media outlets.

A Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) also sent details about the abduction to all cellphones in Utah. The wireless alerts reach approximately three million cellphones throughout the state.

Ogden Police Captain Timothy Scott set up the Area Tactical Analysis Center (ATAC) and briefed dispatchers about the potential for an overwhelming number of tips.

“Cases like this involving non-family or unknown suspects heighten the concern significantly,” said Ogden Police Captain Jacob Sube. “It becomes imperative to locate the child as soon as possible to reduce the risk of harm. We also had concerns of the child being abandoned in the cold or being physically harmed by the suspect.”

Investigators on scene continued gathering information from interviews and shared their updates with the police command center.

Citizens Respond

Mindy Michelle and her sister, Tiffany Bingham, saw the AMBER Alert on their cellphones and decided to help with the search for the missing infant. “I was just bawling because I felt so drawn to this Amber Alert,” Bingham told a Deseret News reporter.

The two sisters spotted a car without a license plate that matched the missing vehicle. “I don’t know how, but I knew that that was the car, and I knew she was in this neighborhood,” added Michelle.

Breesha Spratley is reunited with her daughter, Amila Spratley-Apke
Breesha Spratley is reunited with her daughter, Amila Spratley-Apke

They called 911, started looking for the baby on their own, and ultimately heard a baby crying. They found the infant on a porch in their neighborhood, but the car was nowhere in sight. “I just grabbed the car seat, and I picked her up,” Michelle said, “and I said, ‘Hi, baby!’”

When Ogden police officers arrived, they found one sister cuddling the child and the other one on the phone with a 911 dispatcher.

“The two women who participated in the locating and safekeeping of this child are prime examples of how important it is to be observant of your environment,” said Ogden Police Officer Nigel Bailey. “They realized the seriousness of the situation and acted quickly and appropriately to keep this child safe.”

In the meantime, a DPS helicopter spotted the missing car and began following it. Officers from the Ogden Police Department and Weber County Sheriff’s Office began a pursuit and eventually arrested a 20-year-old man and a 34-year-old woman at 12:30 p.m. The AMBER Alert was canceled at 12:51 p.m.

Vaisima breathed a sigh of relief and felt gratitude for the two sisters who responded to the alert.

“Their quick thinking and effort ensured the safe recovery of the child,” said Vaisima. “We are also grateful to all the other citizens who contacted the police with tips and information.”

Improving Utah’s AMBER Alert

The arrests and safe recovery are an important milestone for what has been a whirlwind year for the Utah AMBER Alert program. This AMBER Alert was the seventh in 2020; the highest number of alerts Utah has ever issued in a single year. All seven alerts resulted in safe recoveries.
The DPS had also been working during the past year to address concerns they were having regarding use of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). DPS stopped using the WEA system until technical issues could be resolved to ensure the public receives the best and most accurate information.

“For a long time, we’ve been talking about how to get a message to as many people as humanly possible,” said Joe Dougherty, DPS Director of Public Affairs. “This is one tool that allows us to hit a person in every pocket and every purse where they’ve got their cell phone.”

The WEA messages now contain a link to access the latest information about a child abduction. The Utah AMBER Alert coordinators also created a blackout period between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. when alerts would not automatically go to cellphones. Depending on the circumstances, law enforcement agencies can still request a WEA during this time frame.

“Each AMBER Alert definitely teaches us something to help us the next time an alert is issued,” said Vaisima. “With this AMBER Alert being as successful as it was, we learned the changes we are making and have made are leading us in the right direction. We will be able to use this success and information gathered from this alert in future training, which will ultimately help us with any future alerts.”

The DPS is also updating its AMBER Alert program policies and procedures. The coordinators will continue training officers and have several training events scheduled this year.

“It is really important to understand the way different systems work, the needs of the public, and how new technology may improve the AMBER Alert program,” added Vaisima. “Doing these things helped with the success of this alert.”

In the end, the victim’s mother is grateful so many were working together to bring her daughter home safely. “I really appreciate you guys being there and being a good place for her to be,” Spratley said to a reporter. “That’s really awesome, that there’s good people out there still.”