When South Salt Lake police sought to issue an Amber Alert for little Hser Nay Moo, the Utah Attorney General's Office had reservations.
"I initially told the chief he shouldn't issue it," said Paul Murphy, the Amber Alert coordinator. "The media coverage was heavy and people seemed to know it was going on. I was concerned about having the criteria met. I was pushing him to articulate the criteria had been met."
Police pushed back by saying they believed Moo had been taken and was believed to be within a mile-and-a-half of her home.
"They were right," Murphy told the Deseret Morning News on Wednesday. "That's why I think Utah was correct in putting the decision in the hands of law enforcement officials who are actually working the scene."
The decisions in issuing an Amber Alert and activating the attorney general's Child Abduction Response Team (CART) will be reviewed in the coming days, in the face of some criticism over the alert and the volunteer search effort. Such reviews focus on what can be improved the next time a child goes missing.
"It worked great," said Lt. Jessica Farnsworth, who leads the CART team. "The outcome (Moo's death) was terrible."
When the Amber Alert was activated at approximately 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, radio and TV stations broke into programming, notices were posted on Web sites, freeway signs lit up and text messages were sent to cell phones with information about Moo.
To issue an Amber Alert, the abduction must meet certain criteria:
• The child is under 17.
• Law enforcement believes the victim is in imminent danger, facing bodily injury or death.
• There is information that could help the public in the safe recovery of the victim or arrest of a suspect.
• Law enforcement believes the child has been abducted.
It is a law enforcement agency that issues an Amber Alert. South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder believes the alert was issued at the right time.
"We went through a process of elimination. We had what we had to start with. We didn't know if we had an abduction. Certainly there were some hunches," he said Wednesday.
Snyder said ultimately, Murphy told him: "This is your decision, whatever you do, I support it."
"Whether it could have been put out earlier, it's way too early to start Monday morning quarterbacking. I'm sure more discussion will come. We followed the policy to a T. The bottom line is we didn't know we had an abduction when we went there (Monday night)," Snyder said.
There is a concern among law enforcement about "crying wolf" with an Amber Alert. In past child abductions, some broadcasters have been highly critical of activating an Amber Alert.
"The public demands that we don't use the Amber Alert freely," Murphy said. "If they issued it every time a child is missing, it won't have the same effect."
In hindsight, some in law enforcement wish the alert had gone out sooner, but concede that other possibilities (such as a runaway) had to be eliminated first. It is unknown if it would have saved Moo.
Meanwhile, the Utah Attorney General's Office will look at expanding the reach of the Amber Alert.
"In this case, they had the flier printed in Burmese. That's something we haven't considered before," Murphy said. "We've talked somewhat about reaching out to the Spanish community. We need to do a better job in reaching out and contacting those (ethnic) communities."
The CART team's first-ever activation is being considered a success.
The team is made up of federal and state law enforcement officers with expertise in fields ranging from forensics and Internet crimes to probation agents who track sex offenders and U.S. marshals.
"Everything that you would possibly need that has expertise in locating a missing child is compiled in this one team," Farnsworth said Wednesday. "If we have all of the personnel that has the experiences we need, we're not wasting time and we can immediately start on our investigation and assisting the law enforcement that is requesting us."
Farnsworth said she would wait until the team went through a debriefing before saying what could be improved, but initially said they could use more clerical help.
Some of the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to search for Moo were critical of how long it took to get through a Justice Department-required background check before they could get out to look for the little girl. Addressing problems coordinating volunteer searchers, Snyder admitted it "wasn't a perfect thing," but once everything was in place and got rolling, it went "pretty well," he said.
Volunteers are a welcome part of the search for a missing child, Farnsworth said, but law enforcement needs to take precautions to make sure they are safe and aren't interfering with a criminal investigation."As I was driving around, I would watch people with their families. They were going door-to-door," she said. "That frees up law enforcement from having to get out the word. I'm sure in some sense, it probably comforts the family to see so many people care."
Contributing: Pat Reavy E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]