On the Front Lines: South Dakota

South Dakota AMBER Alert Rescues Children Taken in Washington

On August 8, 2016, detectives in King County, Washington, learned of the alleged abduction of 2 boys by a suspect on his way to Chicago. Paul Brown allegedly took his 3-year-old son Chance and 1-year-old son Hunter and told their mother he would not return.

The children had been taken 3 days earlier, with Chance having a condition requiring tube-feeding and medication. Chase’s father did not have the supplies nor the training to feed him. Detectives requested an AMBER Alert be issued in South Dakota after they discovered Brown had recently made a credit card purchase in that state.

South Dakota AMBER Alert Coordinator Bryan Dockter was out of state at the time, but Bryan Gortmaker and Bonnie Feller Hagen with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) were on site to take the 8:22 p.m. call.

The Washington detective called 25 minutes later and provided information from a Seattle hospital that the situation for the older boy had become dangerous and life-threatening.

“We decided to activate to try and recover these endangered children,” said Feller Hagen. “Securing the safety of the children was our number one priority.”

Photos and additional information were gathered and the AMBER Alert was issued at 10:14 p.m.

The alert was posted on the state website, emails were sent to state employees, and citizens signed up to receive alerts began receiving messaging notifications. The Emergency Alert System notified the media, National Weather Service, 511, highway signs and lottery terminals.

The state’s FUSION center sent a text and email to all law enforcement in the state and an audible message was broadcast over law enforcement radios. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children activated a Wireless Emergency Alert to reach all cell phones across the state.

“I was feeling a sense of urgency,” said Feller Hagen. “We wanted to get the information out rapidly and accurately and get the information out while people were still up and watching the evening news.”

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was also underway that night requiring a large presence of law enforcement. The popular event also resulted in large numbers of people on the road who might spot the suspect’s vehicle.

Within minutes a trucker and an Indiana sheriff’s deputy spotted the suspect’s white Pontiac with Washington license plates and called 911. Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy Natasha Mendelsohn was driving home through South Dakota and said she has a habit of scanning vehicles and plates.

“I cried,” said Mendelsohn to a WTTV reporter. “It was more tears of happiness that we knew that these children were now safe.”

When she got home she shared a call to action on Facebook: “More people can help other people just by being aware of your surroundings and paying attention to what’s going on around you. And had we not taken the quick second to look at that vehicle, we may not have been able to help the way we did.”

The children were taken to a nearby hospital for medical care and Brown was arrested and charged with abuse or cruelty to a child.

“I am amazed at how quickly everything came together with the help of public and the cooperative efforts of law enforcement,” said Feller Hagen.

This was the sixth AMBER Alert issued in South Dakota since the state started the child abduction alert program in 2003. The state is now implementing the AMBER Alert LEAP portal to streamline the activation procedures and improve the time required disseminate an alert. A significant lesson learned from this AMBER Alert is how important it is to know your AMBER Alert partners in other states.

“Keep your state AMBER Alert program active and meet and test your system regularly,” said Feller Hagen. “Working together for the safety of children is the primary goal.”