AMBER Alert on the Front Lines: Illinois

Illinois woman honored for responding to an AMBER Alert and saving baby tossed in a ditch

Gena Wilson embraces Brittney Ford.

The Alton, Illinois, Police Department honored a woman for responding to an AMBER Alert and finding a baby who had been taken during the theft of a van. At the July 14, 2021, event, Alton Police Chief Marcus Pulido remarked that Brittney Ford saved the 3-month-old baby’s life.

“We put that AMBER Alert out to try to solicit some help and sure enough we got help, and it was beyond impressive,” said Pulido.

The ordeal began March 26, 2021, when Gena Wilson’s van was stolen from her driveway. Her daughter Ghvadi Jaber was still inside the vehicle. “I thought she was gone,” said Wilson.

Wilson called the police department for help at 7:30 p.m. — five minutes after the child and van were taken. An AMBER Alert was requested at 9:00 p.m. Illinois AMBER Alert Coordinator Craig Burge issued the alert at 9:33 p.m. after determining the situation met the state’s criteria for the child abduction alert.

“Because time is of the essence with any alert, once a call comes in with a case that would qualify for an AMBER Alert, we immediately try to gather information that will galvanize the public’s interest in helping us find the missing child,” said Burge. “The most important thing we can do as an alerting authority is to collect the most accurate information possible to disseminate. And that process starts immediately.”

The Illinois State Police disseminated the alert to broadcasters through the National Weather Service (NOAA) Weather Radio and a secondary blast fax/email that is posted on all Illinois state websites. The information is also displayed on Illinois Department of Transportation and Tollway roadway message boards.

Illinois is divided into three areas for AMBER Alert distribution, allowing notifications to be sent to just one area or a combination of the three.

“Any time you have a situation with someone stealing a car, you never know the motive of the person,” Burge said. “You hope the AMBER Alert deters them from continuing with the crime, but you also want to make sure the child is found in a timely manner. It can get cold at night in Illinois, and you  want to ensure the child is not subject to those elements for a long period of time.”

After hearing the AMBER Alert, Brittney Ford drove 12 miles from her home in Brighton and picked up her aunt Jenny Mawhee in Alton to start looking for the missing child. They were driving in the cold with the windows down so they could hear if the baby was crying.

At 11:40 p.m. they were on a road that is not heavily travelled and heard the baby’s cries. They found the infant face down in a ditch on the side of the road. “I still cry sometimes because it’s an emotional thing,” said Ford. “If it was my baby, I would want everyone out there.”

The child was found cold to the touch and taken to the hospital, but she did not have any serious injuries. The AMBER Alert was canceled at 12:04 a.m.

“This private citizen is a true hero,” said Burge. “There is no better feeling than being notified a child has been located safely. I think all my counterparts in every state would agree with me that this feeling is why we are so passionate about the AMBER Alert program.”

Gena Wilson shed tears of joy after finding out her baby had been found. “It was complete selflessness,” Wilson said about the Good Samaritan. “She took the time to look for my baby even though she has her own family.”

A 15-year-old boy was arrested and has been charged as an adult with attempted murder, kidnapping, and offenses related to motor vehicles in connection to the incident.

Illinois is seeing a rise in vehicle thefts and car jackings. Burge said these crimes are becoming more difficult and dangerous to investigate because the offender is often unknown and descriptive information is rarely available and can be limited.

Burge has been with the Missing Persons Unit at the Illinois State Police for 12 years. As the unit administrator, he is the AMBER Alert Coordinator, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Manager, and coordinator for the Silver Search and Blue Alert. “People want to help, and most of the time they don’t get the chance,” Burge said.

He continuously trains telecommunicator/call-takers so they can process and disseminate alerts as fast and efficiently as possible. “The key is knowing the right questions and asking for the right information, so you are not hunting for the details later.”

Burge said it is important to be persistent in your approach to AMBER Alerts. “Consistency in your process leads to increased speed and efficiency of your alert,” he concluded. “If you have the same processes, the same people making the calls and the same coordination with law enforcement, your plan will be more widely respected and ultimately more effective.”

“The ultimate gratification is to see an abducted child returned home safely. This is why the AMBER Alert program means so much to me, and the reason I take great pride in its success.”