On the Front Lines: Ohio

Ohio AMBER Alert Prevents Child from Being Taken to Las Vegas by Hitchhiking Grandma

Six-year-old Brooklyn Vance was staying with her aunt in Ashtabula, Ohio, while her mother was out of town. Connie Nelson, the girl’s grandmother from Las Vegas, was also staying at the home and decided to take the child.

At 9:30 a.m. on June 12, 2018, the aunt woke up and discovered the girl and her grandmother were gone, as well as all of the child’s clothes. The aunt called the Ashtabula Police Department at 11:14 a.m. to report the girl missing.

Police learned Nelson had mental health issues and an “unhealthy infatuation” with her grandchild. Family members feared she was planning to take the child to Las Vegas and the only way she had to get there was by hitchhiking.

Officers asked the Cuyahoga Emergency Communications System (CECOMS) to issue an AMBER Alert at 2:08 p.m. after determining the case met all four criteria for the alert:

  • The child is under 18 years of age.
  • There is credible information the child was forcibly or intentionally removed or lured away from her location and remains missing.
  • The law enforcement agency believes the child is in danger of serious bodily injury or death.
  • The law enforcement agency has sufficient identifying information on the child, and/or alleged abductor(s), and/or alleged abductor’s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will be beneficial in identification efforts.

CECOMS handles emergency communications in nine counties in Northeast Ohio. It is the only independent agency in the state authorized to issue AMBER Alerts. The agency has a goal to issue an AMBER Alert within 20 minutes; this alert was issued just two minutes later at 2:10 p.m.

Christopher Minek, CECOMS operations supervisor and Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert coordinator

Christopher Minek serves as the CECOMS operations supervisor and the AMBER Alert coordinator for Northeast Ohio. “We knew we needed to complete the AMBER Alert broadcast to our region as soon as possible,” said Minek. “We hoped the AMBER Alert would prevent the grandmother from taking her out of the region and possibly the state.”

The alert, along with photographs and additional information, was distributed to the National Weather Service, Ohio State Highway Patrol, local media outlets and LAMAR Advertising billboards. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was also notified to disseminate the alert via the Wireless Emergency Alert system. Nearby airport, bus stations, train stations and cab companies were also contacted about the situation.

CECOMS also activated the new AMBER Alert Family Response Plan. The Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert Committee recently created the plan to gather information from family members of the victim and help them after an alert has been activated.

“The goals of the Family Response Plan are to provide crisis stabilization, trauma informed communication and a sense of hope that reunification is possible,” said Minek.

9-1-1 telecommunicators received three accurate tips from the public within 15 minutes after issuance of the AMBER Alert. Nelson was found at 3 p.m. walking with the child, ten miles from where she was taken. The girl was unharmed and the grandmother was taken into custody for interference with custody, kidnapping and inducing panic.

“The citizens who called in the tips are the real heroes,” said Minek. “They took the time to remember the detailed suspect and child description and then assisted without hesitation in a stressful and active situation to bring the child home. There are no words that can describe the joy of watching a child be reunited with their family after such a traumatic incident.”

“We want to thank the public for assisting us; that’s how we were able to recover the girl so quickly,” added Ashtabula Police Chief Robert Stell. “We could not be more pleased with the outcome.”

The Northeast Ohio AMBER Alert Committee reviewed the case following the incident, determining it indeed met all of the criteria for an AMBER Alert.

Minek said the key factors in the successful recovery were having an effective AMBER Alert plan, contacting all local transportation hubs, and training with law enforcement agencies. “The City of Ashtabula Police Department and CECOMS established early and effective communication during the AMBER Alert activation,” he said. “Through our communications we were able to relay information with extreme efficiency.”

Still, the Northeast AMBER Alert partners will continue to refine their AMBER Alert plan. “We learn something new every time we have an AMBER Alert activation,” concluded Minek. “Our plan is always evolving to keep up to date with the latest technology and procedures.”