Three men burst into a St. Joseph, Missouri, home and took a two-year-old girl at gunpoint and then fled with the child. Police say the non-custodial father had a physical confrontation with the mother before leaving.
The alleged abduction took place on March 15, 2021, at 3:30 p.m. Authorities received the call about the kidnapping seven minutes later.
At 4:20 p.m., communication operators Melanie Stallsworth and Kristen Bartles, with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, took a call about the armed home invasion and child abduction and immediately notified those responsible for issuing alerts.
A conference call with the St. Joseph Police Department was quickly established and an AMBER Alert was requested.
Missouri AMBER Alert Coordinator and State Highway Patrol Captain Corey Schoeneberg said recent events helped inform the decision about whether to issue an alert. This case involved a non-custodial father; and the event occurred less than one month after a separate incident in which a custodial parent killed two of his children before committing suicide.
“Making a judgement call as to what is a credible threat, reasonable threat, sufficient evidence of harm or whatever the language used may be, is not an easy call; and sometimes it is best to err on the side of caution,” said Schoeneberg. “Like all cases, a judgment call was made quickly based on the information available.”
AMBER Alert issued
Alternate AMBER Alert Coordinator Lieutenant Kevin Hunter was on duty and discussed with his team the scope and content of the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA). A regional activation was approved, and the AMBER Alert was issued at 4:34 p.m., just 14 minutes after the request was made.
Missouri partners with Twitter and the WEA message includes a uniform resource locator (URL). The link directs the public to Twitter where the public can access the AMBER Alert bulletin.
The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department assisted in the investigation and discovered the suspect’s vehicle – but it was empty. The suspect learned from his former employer about the AMBER Alert and he voluntarily surrendered himself and the child at the St. Joseph Police Department at 5:21 p.m., only 47 minutes after the alert was issued. The AMBER Alert was cancelled three minutes later.
“Our immediate thoughts revolve around the relevance of the AMBER Alert in this case; however, the fact the child was safely recovered and returned to the mother provides a sense of relief,” said Schoeneberg.
“You always have a huge knot in your stomach every time a child goes missing and you want to make sure that you find that child as quickly as possible; safe, healthy and unharmed,” Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Puett shared with reporters.
St. Joseph Police Detective Sergeant Jason Strong added that it can be difficult to distinguish whether a child custody situation constitutes an emergency situation, and warrants an AMBER Alert - but he is grateful the alert was issued.
“Being able to engage the public through media, and with alerts and billboards, it’s very helpful,” said Strong. “Statistically, the longer that a child goes missing, the worse the outcome could be. So we want to get a child back as soon as possible.”
After each AMBER Alert, a review takes place on what worked and what can be improved to get a full perspective on the incident. Schoeneberg said they reached the conclusion the alert went to a broader area than necessary, but overall the alert worked exactly as it should.
“This case highlights the role communications personnel, even when not directly involved in the investigation, can have on the notification process,” said Schoeneberg. “Time is such a critical component of any missing child, and communications personnel realized the circumstances may meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert. This decision saved precious minutes and expedited contact with AMBER Alert Program Coordinators.”
Recognition for a job well done
On April 28, the Missouri State Highway Patrol honored the two communications operators for their roles in saving the child. Kristen Bartles said their training at the law enforcement academy was critical to their ability to act quickly.
“While I was down there, we had (Assistant Chief Paula Heckes) come to speak with my class, basically saying, in the event of any kind of possible alert, notify them immediately,” said Bartles.
Melanie Stallsworth said she is grateful communications operators are being recognized for their role in AMBER Alerts.
“You don’t have to carry a gun, you don’t have to be out in the field,” said Stallsworth. “You can still serve our public; you can still serve law enforcement and not be one of the guys on the front line.”
Looking back, Schoenberg said every AMBER Alert partner in Missouri has the same goal: “The motivation of all those involved is based on the fundamental duty to safeguard lives and protect the innocent.”