KOLD INVESTIGATES: Amber Alerts in southern Arizona

Published: Dec. 23, 2019 at 5:05 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - In the last five years in southern Arizona, there have been three abductions that prompted Amber Alerts.

KOLD Investigates has learned there are issues with two of those three cases.

When three children were abducted from their grandmother’s home in northwest Pima County in July 2017, sheriff’s deputies responded. They learned Bedajii Harnesberry had taken the children she no longer had legal custody of, and she left behind chemicals that could be used to make chloroform.

Investigators searched for the suspect and victims, while they contacted other agencies and prepared the necessary checklist to trigger an Amber Alert.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety activated the alert for radio stations, electronic message boards on the interstate and cellphones statewide. But the buzzing notification on cell phones never happened.

Nobody was hurt when Harnesberry, her kids and two other unidentified children were found near Globe around 1:30 the next morning, roughly 10 hours after sheriff’s deputies first responded to the situation in Pima County.

In the days following the Amber Alert and successful recovery of the abducted children, responses from DPS stated there was a technical glitch with the system that activates cell phone notifications and that troopers would receive additional training.

When KOLD Investigates revisited the issue, details were uncovered.

Harnesberry had taken the children in a car with temporary tags from New Mexico. Trooper Chrystal Moore, the department's Amber Alert coordinator, said there were too many characters in the license plate.

“It didn’t actually hit the system and a wireless emergency alert didn’t go out," she said. "But as soon as we realized there was a problem, there was a workaround created where now if you have a temporary license plate that’s too long there’s a way to enter the information in and workaround that lengthy license plate.”

Despite the technical problem, Moore said the oversight committee that reviews Amber Alert cases in Arizona found this to be a good response from everyone involved.

Before the public learns of an Amber Alert, there are detailed checklists for both the local agency investigating and DPS.

The PROTECT Act of 2003 outlines the following requirements for investigating agencies:

  • A law enforcement agency has determined the child is not a runaway and has not been abducted as a result of a child custody dispute, unless the dispute poses a credible and or specific threat of serious bodily harm or death to the child.
  • The abduction poses a credible threat of immediate danger of serious bodily injury of death to the child.
  • The child abducted is under 18 years old.
  • There is sufficient descriptive information about the child, abductor and the circumstances surrounding the abduction to indicate that the activation of the Amber Alert will locate the child and/or suspect.
  • There is information available to disseminate to the general public, which could assist in the safe recovery of the child and/or the apprehension of a suspect.

Once that information is collected and shared with state troopers, DPS begins a process Moore said typically takes 50 minutes.

That 10-step process is broken down below:

  1. Phone call from law enforcement agency, review criteria and obtain relevant information about abduction.
  2. Verify the child, suspect and vehicle are entered into National and Arizona Crime Information Center and activate Emergency Alert System.
  3. Notify a Child Abduction Response Team of abducted child and advise DPS radio to broadcast info to troopers and other law enforcement agencies of abducted child.
  4. Host a conference call with the investigating agency, KTAR, ADOT and DPS.
  5. Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children with abduction details for activation of Wireless Emergency Alerts.
  6. Send emails out to the after-hours media contacts. This step is considered a redundancy for EAS activation.
  7. Make a Mobile PD entry of abduction information in DPS app.
  8. Email internal DPS work groups, like highway patrol and criminal investigations, about abduction information.
  9. Email Amber Alert recipients, like Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and Criminal Intelligence Research Unit, abduction information.
  10. Double check your work.

Steps five and six are considered redundancies, according to Moore. She said the phone call to NCMEC is just in case there is a problem with a wireless emergency alert, while emails are sent to media contacts in case there's an issue with EAS activation.

“We do create a lot of redundancies in what we do so that we can make sure we keep everyone informed in case something fails," she said.

Luis and Kahmila Ramirez are not where they should be. The little boy and baby girl are the focus of southern Arizona's only recent Amber Alert activation that has not been resolved.

On May 4, 2018, their biological parents abducted them during a supervised visit at Silver Lake Park on Tucson’s south side. Luis and Andrea Ramirez lost their parental rights.

The children's aunt and uncle, Erika and David Ramirez, are their rightful guardians. The couple talks with their own children about the safe return of the abducted brother and sister some day.

"We talk about them as a family...about when they'll return, how we're going to resume as a family," said Erika. "That's all we can do is just wait at this time."

Waiting isn’t enough for the Ramirez family though. Since the abduction of little Luis and Baby Kahmila, they’ve handed out fliers on both sides of the border and routinely pay for boosted posts on Facebook targeted to Mexico.

"We pray for their safety," she said.

A passerby found the caseworker supervising the children's visit with their parents. She was tied up, according to the 911 call. This would prove to be a deciding factor for the Amber Alert activation.

Police reports show the sergeant who handles Amber Alerts took a call from a detective around 11:45 a.m. The detective believed this was worth an Amber Alert. Citing bad cell service, the sergeant told the detective to review the requirements some more. An hour later, the detective still believes it was needed.

That sergeant attended a briefing and spoke with three lieutenants before contacting DPS. One of those lieutenants, Lt. Frank Hand, leads the Special Investigations Section for TPD. He said the sergeant wasn’t asking for permission or second-guessing the case, but simply relaying the case information through the chain of command.

"It took longer than normal because of just the investigative steps that were followed," he said.

Hand explained that investigators had no sign from the suspects in this case were going to harm the children they abducted. That’s one of the requirements for an Amber Alert. Only a special case could convince DPS to activate an alert without all of the necessary info. With an innocent caseworker assaulted, Hand said this abduction was that sort of case.

"If the parents would have just taken the kids, we wouldn't even be talking about doing an Amber Alert" he said. "But the only thing unusual about this is what happened with the DCS worker. It was kind of an unusual situation and that's the only reason we considered doing it."

The alert was activated around 3 p.m. that day. An officer from the Tucson Police Department, in Nogales for an unrelated reason, found the car connected to the Amber Alert, according to police documents.

A parking ticket inside the car showed it was parked there more than an hour before the alert was activated.

While investigators were hard at work searching locations and contacting other agencies, David Ramirez wonders if an earlier alert could have helped inform the public a little sooner.

"I think people would've been more aware," he said. "They would've, I think, significantly made a difference on the chances that...that the kids would've been found."

Following the abduction, the Ramirez's handed out flyers around Nogales. David said they met a parking attendant who claimed to have seen people that matched the faces on their flyer.

"I thought that Amber Alert was going to go out fairly quickly so I had a lot of faith in it," said David. "After the hours started lapsing I knew it wasn't going to be."

TPD has made some changes in how it handles alerts like this, but Hand stressed any change was not done because of this case specifically.

He said any agency will routinely update protocol and that's what has happened since the Ramirez children were abducted. What used to be Hand and a sergeant in charge of Amber Alert forms and practices is now a larger share of officers in the department.

It's better for more officers to be in the loop in case the two primary contacts are unavailable, according to Hand.

Looking back at the Ramirez case, Hand said the department did what it was supposed to do and covered all bases with its response.

"I can't say if it's good," he said. "I can tell you that we did the steps necessary in order to put the Amber Alert in place during the time frame that we had to do it."

The oversight committee for Amber Alerts found this case to be a good response.

It was not good enough for the aunt and uncle still searching for their loved ones. The whole situation has left them wondering what good an alert to the public can do when the international border is so close.

“You’re thinking how long it’s going to take to put that Amber Alert,” said David. “Really, in that case, from Tucson to the border, all those towns...the Amber Alert is useless.”

After the publication of this story, AZDPS followed up with some information about cooperation with their counterparts south of the border.

Moore said Amber Alerts in Arizona are shared with the coordinator for Mexico's Alerta Amber. Though it's not mentioned specifically mentioned in the 10-stop activation process, Moore said the information is shared within the aforementioned 50 minutes typically required to send an alert.

She emailed Wednesday, "We have worked hard to create a relationship with one another so we can share abduction information on these cross border abductions."

The Ramirez case is still actively being worked on by Mexican authorities, according to Moore.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.