In the early morning hours of September 3, 2017, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Florida received a call about an abduction. A convicted felon kidnapped an 11-year-old female relative and then dragged her into the woods.
The child’s grandmother woke in the middle of the night and discovered the girl’s room was locked. She picked the lock and discovered a 50-year-old man sexually abusing the girl. The man grabbed the child, who was screaming hysterically and naked from the waist down. He ran into the woods, continuing to sexually assault her.
The suspect had been incarcerated at least eight times since 1989 and was released from prison in 2014. He then married a relative of the victim.
Deputies arrived at the home in Apopka, Florida, within minutes after the 911 call was placed. Search dogs were brought in and a command post was set up. A BOLO (Be on the Lookout) message was sent to all law enforcement in the area.
When the suspect and the child could not be found, Orange County Corporal Benjamin Thorpe decided an AMBER Alert was needed to give the child the best chance of survival.
“The decision to move forward with an AMBER Alert was based off the manner in which the suspect abducted the victim into the woods and his past history of sex abuse,” said Thorpe. “I was concerned, based on training and statistics, that the victim may have been deceased.”
Detectives gathered information about the child, suspect and significant events surrounding the investigation to support the alert. At approximately 7:00 a.m., the Orange County Sheriff’s Office had a
conference call with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Assistant Special Agent in Charge, the Regional Special Agent Supervisor and the AMBER Alert Coordinator to discuss issuing the alert.
“The case clearly met the AMBER Alert criteria,” said Florida AMBER Alert Coordinator Lyndsey Pitts. “We believed the child was at risk of great bodily harm or death and there was a clear indication of an abduction.”
The AMBER Alert was issued by the FDLE at 7:23 a.m. and notifications were sent to the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Highway Patrol, Florida Department of Lottery and all law enforcement agencies in the state. The Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system deployed an alert text message to all cell phones in Florida.
The AMBER Alert was broadcast on television and radio, posted on social media and sent to everyone in Florida who signed up to receive AMBER Alerts by email.
The FDLE Child Abduction Response Team (CART) was also activated to assist the Orange County Sheriff’s Office with a door-to-door search. More than 100 law enforcement officers from several agencies took part in searching for the child.
About three hours after the alert was issued, a member of the public who saw the alert on TV discovered the victim. “The victim was banging on the windshield of an abandoned vehicle,” said Thorpe. “I am very thankful and proud that a member of the community intervened and notified law enforcement.”
“Everyone at FDLE and all law enforcement involved were pleased with the child’s safe return,” added Pitts.
Florida has issued 217 AMBER Alerts since 2000. Thorpe has investigated several missing child cases, but this was his first AMBER Alert request. He said the investigation did have some challenges, which included tracking all of the law enforcement officers from different agencies needed for the investigation and managing the numerous tips received to protect against duplication or loss of important leads.
Thorpe offered this advice for other AMBER Alert partners. “Use resources effectively. Manage the information as it comes in and delegate responsibilities to trustworthy sources. Do not be afraid to push forward with the AMBER Alert once you have the appropriate information and meet the criteria.”
The father of the victim posted his thanks on Facebook for everyone who helped find his daughter. “I want to thank the community for [coming] together to help find her but most of all I want to thank the police officer[s] who [were] out there helping to find my baby.”