It’s a parent’s worst nightmare when a child goes missing. Each second counts, and any resource or tool can be invaluable in finding children who are in danger.
Law enforcement officers immediately turn to the nationwide Amber Alert system to spread the word about abducted children when criminal activity is suspected in the disappearance.
Many people in northwest Ohio and the state first learned that authorities were looking for three Putnam County teenagers after getting Amber Alert texts on cell phones and other electronic devices.
The alert was issued nearly five hours after Michelle Grothause returned early on May 9 to her home on North Perry Street in Ottawa to find her sons, Blaine Romes, 14, and Blake Romes, 17, along with a 17-year-old housemate, missing. She also discovered a trail of blood from a bedroom to the back door, and the family’s Chevrolet HHR gone.
After checking with local hospitals and the teenagers’ schools, and getting a search warrant to investigate the crime scene that the boys’ mother discovered in the trailer, police went to the Ohio Highway Patrol to issue the alert.
But could the Amber Alert have been issued earlier?
Lt. Anne Ralston, highway patrol spokesman, said there is strict criteria before the state can activate an alert and the broadcast can be sent out to wireless carriers, television, radio, and electronic bulletin boards.
The investigating law enforcement agency must confirm that an abduction took place, and that the abduction poses a credible threat of immediate danger of serious bodily harm or death to the child.
Also, the local police or sheriff’s office must have descriptive information about the missing child, the suspect, or circumstances surrounding the abduction to believe activating the Amber Alert will help find the child.
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“We err on the side of caution and would activate an alert if the criteria is met,” Lieutenant Ralston said.
The investigating law enforcement office is expected to determine that the child is not a runaway, or that it is a case of family abduction.
“But the caveat to that is unless the investigating agency determines the child is in immediate danger or serious harm,” she said.
According to the highway patrol, there were 10 alerts issued in Ohio last year, with all but one resulting in a safe return of a child. There were nine alerts posted in the state in 2011, and the children were all found safely. The alert issued for the Romes teens was the sixth Amber Alert this year, but it was the only one that didn’t end with a safe return.
Michael Aaron Fay, 17, who lived in the trailer with his mother, the Romes brothers, and their mother, was found by police three hours later in the parking lot of a Marathon station on West Broad Street in Columbus. It’s unclear whether the gas station employee from whom the Fay youth asked directions knew about the alert.
The Fay teen told police that the brothers were dead and gave the location of their bodies, authorities said. After he was arrested, the Amber Alert was canceled. He was charged last week with delinquency in connection with aggravated murder in the deaths of Blaine and Blake.
According to court records, police had strong reason to believe that an abduction took place. There was a handgun on the couch and a magazine nearby on the floor. Cell phones belonging to the teenagers were left in the home. Blood evidence throughout the trailer indicated one or all three had been injured.
Lt. Josh Strick of the Ottawa police department said investigators strongly believed all three teenagers had been abducted, but the lack of a suspect contributed to the delay in asking the highway patrol to activate the alert. “We had a crime scene, we knew something had happened, but we just didn’t know what,” he said.
Lieutenant Ralston said alerts are handled on case-by-case basis, with no two alike. She said there is not a time frame that is specified for activation after authorities receive a report about a missing person because every situation is different.
“Of course law enforcement and also the patrol’s duty officer, when they are notified of an Amber Alert, realize that time is of the essence when dealing with a missing or abducted child and the [alert] should be issued promptly,” she said.
In each case of an Amber Alert, the highway patrol posts the information about the missing child on the state Amber Alert Web site, including photos if available. Lieutenant Ralston said photos can be obtained from local law enforcement or family or, if possible, state identification or driver records. “Sometimes we take the photo local media uses if they get the story out before we issue alert,” she said.
Contact Mark Reiter at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6199.