On the Front Lines: Fall 2018

Colorado AMBER Alert helps find boy wandering naked and hungry in Utah

Emergency 9-1-1 telecommunicators in Saguache County, Colorado, received a call from a father who was concerned because his twelve-year-old son had been missing for three hours. It was Saturday, June 23, 2018, and the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office gathered information and sent a message about the boy to other local law enforcement officers in case he might be in the area.

The sheriff’s office asked for an AMBER Alert to be issued on Saturday night, but CBI had some concerns about the criteria.

“We declined the AMBER request based on the facts we had at the time,” said Jillian Ganley, Colorado AMBER Alert Coordinator. “We suggested an Endangered Missing Person Alert. We also offered investigative assistance and let the agency know we would be willing to issue the AMBER Alert if any new information was uncovered during the investigation.”

The sheriff’s office began to conduct additional interviews and collaborated with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the FBI to gather additional information. They discovered the missing boy was likely with a 60-year-old man who was known to have a dubious reputation.

“The suspect belonged to a group of individuals known to approach children in parks,” said Captain Ken Wilson, Saguache County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re a small community with more than 3,000 square miles and 10,000 people, so we all need each other and look out for each other.”

On Sunday, June 24, deputies determined the boy was in danger and they had enough information to meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert. CBI issued the alert at 8:26 p.m. through the Emergency Alert System (EAS) which sends the information to Colorado law enforcement, media outlets, highway signs and state lottery terminals.

CBI then sent the information through the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), a system which sends text alerts to all cell phones in the area. However, after issuing the WEA, they discovered some cell phone users received multiple notifications of the AMBER Alert, while delivery to other cell phone users was delayed. CBI contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for assistance with sending the alert through WEA to ensure complete distribution.

“In the end we learned several cell service providers were not able to accept the formatting of a dash included in the message,” said Ganley. “We now know to avoid special characters if at all possible, and to type the message directly into the software instead of copying it and pasting it in.”

The sheriff’s public information officer also posted the information on Facebook. “People started sharing it like crazy,” said Wilson.

Even though they were looking for a boy believed to be in danger, everyone involved in the search did their best not to get too emotional during the investigation. “We try as best as we can to be detached and analytical,” he said. “We need to make sure we have everything we need to find the child. It helped us all to know something is being done and people are looking.”

“After every AMBER alert we issue there is an uneasy feeling until the children are found,” added Ganley. “However, we must remain focused to ensure everything possible is being done to bring these children home safely.”

At 9:50 p.m. that same day, a tip came in on Facebook that the boy was seen that morning in Hanksville, Utah. At 11:30 p.m., the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office in Utah received a call from campers who said they were approached by two people without clothes asking for food and water. Deputies immediately responded to the call but did not find anyone.

On Monday, June 25, dispatchers received a call at 9:40 a.m. stating “a young boy and an older man were both naked at the Bear Paw Resort,” according to the law enforcement report. “This description matched the AMBER Alert that dispatch had received the night before.”

Upon immediate response, deputies found the suspect and victim and confirmed they were the subjects in the AMBER Alert. The man was taken into custody and the boy was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

“I always feel very relieved and thankful after every successful AMBER Alert,” said Ganley. “I am so glad we were able to reunite this young boy with his family. This is the ending we hope for after every alert we issue.”

“I’m happy for the family,” added Wilson. “I’m happy for the child.”

According to the law enforcement report, the victim said they had spent the night without clothing and slept under a tree. The suspect was charged with child kidnapping, lewdness involving a child and reckless endangerment. He may also face federal charges.

The Colorado AMBER Alert coordinator said it was helpful to have so many law enforcement officers, including CBI agents, sharing information from the scene. “Every AMBER Alert requires a unique mix of training, experience, instinct, quick thinking and a lot of teamwork; and this alert was no different,” said Ganley.

Looking back, Wilson said training helped in the search, but he credits his public information officer for getting the information out to so many people. He said the most important lesson he learned from this case is the need for getting enough information quickly to meet the AMBER Alert criteria.

“Make sure your focus is correct,” he said. “Make sure you meet the criteria before you jump the gun and do everything else. You can’t just say you need an AMBER Alert, you have to meet the criteria. Otherwise every missing child report would be an AMBER Alert and they wouldn’t be as valuable as they are.”

Ganley agrees that determining the facts for an AMBER Alert is critical. “My best advice would be to have as much communication as possible with those on scene,” she said.  “All AMBER Alert incidents are very fluid situations, and this one was no different. By having an open line of communication, we were able to send the alert very quickly after new information was learned.”

Colorado has issued 91 AMBER Alerts since the program began in April 2002. The state’s first AMBER Alert was issued in August 2002.