On the Front Lines: Minnesota

Frontlines Minnesota

Good Samaritan + AMBER Alert = safe return of two abducted girls in Minnesota

The sun was barely up when a man hiding in the backseat jumped up inside his ex-girlfriend’s van in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. At 6:34 a.m., June 7, 2019, Jeffrey Lo allegedly struck the woman in the head with his pistol. Police say Lo pushed her into the passenger seat and drove off with the woman and their two daughters, ages one and three.

After traveling a short distance, the woman was able to get out of the vehicle. Lo sped away with the two girls in the van.

A passerby saw the “extremely distraught” and bloodied woman leaping away from the van and screaming that her children had just been kidnapped. They attempted to follow the van and quickly called police.

“A Good Samaritan stopped to help the mother and immediately called 911,” said Janell Twardowski, Minnesota’s AMBER Alert Coordinator. “The local police department then called the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to activate the AMBER Alert.”

A request was made for an AMBER Alert at 7:25 a.m.

Early Threats

In May 2019, a judge had granted a protective order for the woman against Lo. According to court records, Lo was abusive to the woman after the birth of their first daughter and threatened to kill her.

A few months earlier she said Lo started pulling her hair and punching her arm for sleeping on the floor instead of with him. The judge also gave sole custody of the girls to their mother.

“Her immediate call to 911 was crucial in ensuring a fast and immediate response, “Cottage Grove Public Safety Chief Pete Koerner told a reporter. “It was a tragic incident. I really feel for those children.”

Koerner said officers had a lot of things running through their heads after learning the suspect had a handgun.

The AMBER Alert

After determining the case met the proper criteria, an AMBER Alert was issued at 8:27 a.m. The alert was sent to all partners throughout Minnesota, including notifications to a law enforcement helicopter and K9 officers.

The original alert was issued with the wrong vehicle model. An updated alert was quickly sent out with the correct information. Because the mother was taken immediately to the hospital to treat her injuries, authorities had to issue the alert with only the ages of the children--but not their names.

The limited information did not stop the public from calling in tips to help law enforcement agencies narrow their search. Officers found the missing van parked on a street a few miles from the original kidnapping location, but no one was inside.

The police helicopter spotted the suspect in heavy underbrush. Officers on foot found Lo lying on his back, clutching the girls next to his chest. Both children were recovered unharmed at 10:27 a.m., exactly two hours after the AMBER Alert was issued.

“It was a relief when the children were located safe,” said Twardowski. “It’s the exact outcome we all hope for in these instances.”

Preparation Is Essential

Minnesota has issued 36 AMBER Alerts, but this was the first alert for Twardowski. She said training and having solid procedures in place were critical in getting the AMBER Alert out so effectively.

“With every AMBER Alert, time is of the essence to disseminate the information out to the public,” she said. “Everyone in law enforcement makes sure they are ready, so children can be recovered as quickly as possible.”

This case included help from a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, the Department of Natural Resources, three local K-9 units and ten other law enforcement agencies.

Good Samaritan Honors

The Cottage Grove Police Department presented Christina Kelley with the Citizen Commendation Award on August 21, 2019, for stopping to assist the mother and helping police recover her children.

“I feel like I was meant to be there to help her, save her and get those kids back,” Kelley said. “I don’t think I would change anything I did that day. I would still help, because that’s just who I am.”

The mother of the abducted children said five cars passed by as she screamed for help. Kelley was the first one to stop.

“She changed my life that day,” the mother told a reporter. “I could have died that day.”