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Authorities defend search time, Amber Alert delay

Published April 2, 2008 1:27 am

Police say there was no evidence of abduction and they wanted to issue warning properly
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Why did the search to find missing 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo take so long to get under way?

It's a question authorities fielded repeatedly Tuesday from a skeptical public puzzled over why South Salt Lake police waited about 15 hours to issue an Amber Alert for the shy refugee of Burma, now known as Myanmar. She vanished from outside her family's apartment building Monday afternoon, and was found dead in another apartment in the complex Tuesday evening.



Early Tuesday morning, a throng of frustrated volunteers were kept on hold for hours, awaiting background checks and for officials to get organized.

But police and national experts defended the delayed Amber Alert, and police said they had streamlined the background checks by Tuesday afternoon, getting the wait down to 15 to 30 minutes.

Police searched throughout the day, despite any glitches with the volunteers, pointed out Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder.

Raising the alert

South Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Snyder said an alert about Hser wasn't issued before 9:30 a.m. Tuesday because there was no evidence of an abduction, and there was a possibility the girl might be with friends.

"If I issue it later, people would say, 'Why did you wait so long?' " Snyder said. "If I issue it earlier, it's a case of, 'Is it being abused? Is it being issued properly?' From my standpoint, it is [being used properly]. I'm not taking any chances."

Difficulty communicating with Hser's Burmese family, and the four-hour delay before police were notified of her disappearance, also slowed the decision, Snyder said.

Ed Smart, father of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart, agreed with Snyder's "judgment call," saying, "If we use Amber Alert every time a child fails to come home, the effectiveness is going to be diminished."

Smart noted that his own children "still forget to call or come home when they're supposed to."

Utah's Amber Alert guidelines require police to determine:

* There is enough information to believe a child is abducted,

* Or a disabled child age 17 or under may be in imminent danger, and

* The public can help in the return of the child.

Police across the country struggle to balance the safety of missing children with ensuring the alerts aren't overused, said Bob Hoever, associate director of training for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Sometimes police can make more progress in a missing persons case using other tools, he said.

"What we need to do is to sit back and see what they are doing," Hoever said.

'Waiting around'

Some in the community questioned whether police did enough, soon enough.

After overnight searches by police and volunteers found no sign of the girl, volunteers again began gathering at 7 a.m. Tuesday at an LDS ward house at 2280 S. 300 East.

But apparent disorganization frustrated searchers and kept them on the sidelines late into the morning.

Volunteers said they were told they had to wait for the Utah Attorney General's Child Abduction Response Team to arrive - the first time the CART team worked on a missing child case in the state.

It was 10:30 a.m. before about 150 searchers were being divided into groups. The first main group of searchers set out around 11:15 a.m.

Marilyn Brusch, a South Salt Lake City Council member who helped sign up volunteers Tuesday morning, said search efforts the previous night "seemed a lot more organized. . . . I just can't believe this many people have been waiting around."

Brusch said several volunteers told her they could wait no longer and were leaving.

Pacing in the church parking lot midmorning, Alex Rodriguez, 34, said he was assigned an area by volunteers, then discovered police already searching there. He returned to the search's headquarters for a new assignment, then being coordinated by the Salt Lake County Sheriffs' office, and was told to wait for a background check.

Necessary screening

Lt. Jessica Farnsworth, who heads CART in the attorney general's office, downplayed concerns from volunteers. Earlier in the day, she said, considering that three agencies were handling the case - South Salt Lake, the FBI and the sheriff's office - "things are going pretty smoothly."

Hoever said it's not unusual for police to carefully monitor who is participating in searches. In several high-profile abduction cases, he said, an offender has tried to search for a victim.

"If your child was missing, wouldn't you want to be careful who it was looking for your child?" he asked.

But the volunteers' wait was a surprise to Bob Walcutt, executive director of the Friendswood, Texas-based Laura Recovery Center.

Walcutt's organization, which helped organize searches after young women vanished in Provo and Reno, Nev., tracks who is searching. But he said it doesn't wait to send people out until background checks are completed.

"With time and resources, you've got to be moving," Walcutt said.

jbergreen@sltrib.com

rrizzo@sltrib.com

mrogers@sltrib.com

* 2 p.m. Monday: Seven-year-old Hser Ner Moo left her apartment in South Salt Lake.

* 4:30 p.m. Monday: Two older brothers arrived home and began to search.

* 6:10 p.m. Monday: A friend of the family called police; officers began going door-to-door in the first search.

* 10:30 p.m. Monday: Police, members of the Attorney General's Office Child Abduction Response Team and about 120 volunteers organized by the Destiny Search Project began a second search, which stretched into the morning.

* 7 a.m. Tuesday: Volunteers began arriving at a command center but were asked to wait.

* 9:30 a.m. Tuesday: An Amber Alert was issued.

* About 11:15 a.m. Tuesday: Volunteer searchers began heading out in force.

* About 7 p.m. Tuesday: The girl's body was discovered in another apartment in the complex where her family lives. Five men were being detained; the Amber Alert was canceled.

Amber Alerts in Utah

* Utah was the ninth state in the nation to activate an Amber Alert system when it began in April 2002. Just two months later, the system was put to the test with the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart, who was rescued from her captors nine months later.

* To date, 22 Amber Alerts have been issued in Utah, including the one Tuesday for Hser Ner Moo. For a complete list, please visit www.sltrib.com

 

 

 

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