Crime

The kidnapper fled in a car. So why didn’t police share details with everyone sooner?

How social media helped capture a suspected kidnapper

Neighborhood residents used social media to share a description of the suspect, his car and a photo of the child he abducted. Fort Worth police did not share that information publicly for another three and a half hours. Music from Killer Tracks.
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Neighborhood residents used social media to share a description of the suspect, his car and a photo of the child he abducted. Fort Worth police did not share that information publicly for another three and a half hours. Music from Killer Tracks.

Penny Morehead was driving to the post office when she saw two police officers going door to door on West Lowden Street and asked if she could help.

“They said there was just a kidnapping,” Morehead said.

She checked Facebook. She saw nothing.

“There was nothing anywhere,” she said.

So she grabbed her cellphone and asked the officer for a description. She quickly typed the information and posted it on the Ryan Place neighborhood Facebook page.

“POLICE ON FOOT LOOKING FOR SUSPECT IN KIDNAPPING IN RP 1 hour ago on 6th Ave,” Morehead wrote.

Her post at 7:47 p.m. Saturday, just a little more an hour after the kidnapping at Sixth Avenue and Lowden Street, included a description of the man: black, 40s, balding, caramel skin, and that the abduction victim was an 8-year-old white girl.

When Morehead asked how she could help, the officer told her to help them find video.

She and others in Ryan Place, a historic neighborhood less than five miles south of downtown Fort Worth, did so much more.

Morehead posted the officer’s request on Facebook. She and others in Ryan Place and surrounding neighborhoods were soon posting updated descriptions of the child and suspect’s car as they learned it from officers. And they kept updating as they drove around in search of the girl and the car, coordinating with one another on the page about what areas had been searched or which ones still needed to be searched.

Neighborhood residents continued to share information on social media for more than two hours before Fort Worth police, at 10 p.m., released to the city as a whole the name and description of the girl, a description of the suspect and the car he was driving on social media and to the news media.

A photo of the suspect’s car was shared on the department’s Twitter page at 11:23 p.m.

That the police department hadn’t shared that information with the general public sooner, Morehead said, shows a need for change.

“There needs to be reform on the policies and procedures on how they do release information,” Morehead said. “I am 100 percent confident that the reason she was found is because we took it in our own hands and went and did something.”

Ryan Place response

Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said police told neighbors who asked how they could help to look at “hotels, motels, parks, dark hidey holes in your neighborhood,” he told the Star-Telegram’s editorial board Tuesday.

“We were quick to share whatever information we had with them, which as you know, ultimately led us to the hotel,” he said.

Kraus said the department is reviewing its handling of the matter. Officials have come up with a plan to streamline who gets information, and when, so officers on the scene “don’t have to rely on somebody to remember to call this group, it’s done automatically ... that way we don’t miss anything.”

Lt. Brandon O’Neil, a police spokesman, said Officer Buddy Calzada was the first public information officer to arrive in the neighborhood, between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m., nearly three hours after the kidnapping. The department’s Public Relations Office often controls what the department releases through its social media accounts and to the media, though former Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald has previously said that supervisors are also permitted to release information to reporters at crime scenes.

O’Neil said he couldn’t provide an answer as to why information was not shared with the media at the scene until a public information officer’s arrival.

“We made sure we gathered our videos, our links, our photos, our information, because our target was the 10 o’clock news,” O’Neil said. “That was very important to hit that timeline for us, as an office. I wish we were out there sooner. In a perfect world, I’d always wish we were ahead of the curve.”

But while the information was not distributed to the media or through the department’s social media accounts earlier, O’Neil said investigators used law enforcement databases and resources to get the word out to officers and other agencies.

Other residents were also posting, including on the neighborhood’s NextDoor page. The posts included descriptions of the abducted child and her clothing and later photographs of the girl. The posts soon spread to Fairmount’s Facebook group and the NextDoor group that covers the Linwood and Monticello neighborhoods about four miles north of Ryan Place.

Tim Keith, president of the Ryan Place Improvement Association, had been among those updating residents about the search on the Ryan Place Facebook page.

Until reached by the Star-Telegram on Monday, Keith said he was not aware that police had not shared that same information with members of the general public until 10 p.m. He said he finds the delay concerning.

“I didn’t sense that while it was happening,” Keith said. “Certainly now after the fact, it’s a different story. We certainly want to investigate that and see what’s going on.”

Keith said City Councilwoman Ann Zadeh had connected him to O’Neil, the police spokesman, who regularly updated him on the search so he could share updates with the neighborhood.

“Whatever we could put out, we wanted to put out,” Keith said.

That included, he said, stressing to residents for everyone to check their motion cameras for possible footage of the suspect’s car.

Amber Alert delay

Keith said his biggest complaint from the night involved the Amber Alert, which was never sent to cellphones.

“The reason I’ve been given is they have hard and fast rules to follow about sending out an Amber Alert,” he said.

“I get it. You can’t have half of a description that fits every car in the state ... but nonetheless, we had 90 percent of the information to put on the Amber Alert, and that needed to be out there quicker.”

Kraus said the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children is hesitant to push out Amber Alerts to resident cellphones for cases where there’s a car involved but no license plate given. Police didn’t have a license plate number for the car Saturday night.

Kraus said the department was told a cellphone alert would have been sent at 6 a.m. Sunday, even if police did not have all the information. Robert Lowery, vice president who oversees the center’s missing children’s division and participation in the Amber Alert program, said the Fort Worth Police Department asked that the cellphone alert not be sent until 6 a.m., which is what the center recommends.

“The reason we do that is people have a habit of disabling the function if we wake them up,” Lowery said.

“When we fire that system that late, the public en masse will turn that system off. In this case everything that was supposed to happen happened.”

Despite there being no cellphone alert, an Amber Alert was active through the missing children center on its website and social media. The center sent a tweet about the alert at 11:30 p.m.

The process for beginning the Amber Alert wasn’t started until two hours and 26 minutes after the girl went missing.

At 9:14 p.m. Saturday, a Major Case Unit detective emailed a notification to the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin, the first step in sending a cellphone message to notify the public about an abducted child in danger. The detective verified the message was received.

A separate alert was bungled because of difficulty with a fax machine, police said. The department said it is responsible for faxing alert information to radio stations. But late Saturday, detectives were not able to successfully use a fax machine they had at the Ryan Place scene.

“The fax step was never completed, and for this we do apologize,” the department said.

While the police department hadn’t yet shared a description of the suspect’s car with the media or on its official social media accounts, Detective J.C. Williams posted the information at 9:22 p.m. on the Fairmount Facebook page. He asked residents to check their security cameras for a gray/dark gray sedan (possibly Kia or Nissan) and to share his post with the Ryan Place, South Hemphill Heights and Rosemont neighborhoods.

“I am a Detective with the FWPD and actively working on the KIDNAPPING case that occurred on the 2800 block of 6th Ave,” he wrote. “... If you have any possible footage, message me.”

One of those residents, Brandon Collins, said he checked his cameras after seeing posts from the detective, who lives in the area, at around 9:30 or 10 p.m.

“I wanted to do all I could to help find this innocent girl, and see if they had driven down my street,” he said. “There was a coordinated effort by the local detective and neighborhood officer on our Facebook group, along with other individuals who were driving street by street to look for her.”

As searchers drove around south Fort Worth looking for any sign of the car, a clerk at the Woodspring Suites hotel in Forest Hill received a call at the front desk from a person who thought he or she saw the suspect. The clerk called police, and at 12:01 a.m., officers from Forest Hill knocked on suspect Michael Webb’s door on the third floor. They didn’t get an immediate answer.

After numerous attempts, they finally spoke with Webb through the door, police said. Eventually, an officer went inside and searched but didn’t find anyone else in the room.

Two hours later, officers returned to that room and found the girl with Webb.

Hotel management released a statement on Tuesday that said: “We are so relieved (the girl) was safely reunited with her mother. We enthusiastically gave our support and resources to the police in helping apprehend the person who took her and will continue to help in any way we can.”

Power of social media

The lack of a general release of information by the police department was concerning for some residents, including Jessica Ottwein, who left a comment on the Star-Telegram’s Facebook page that said, “Think about how long it took them to not only issue an amber alert but also share vital info. The community had that circulating within an hour of the kidnapping — and hours before police were ready to share it.”

Others say it was a reflection of the close-knit neighborhoods.

“Ryan Place and Fairmount has a very strong sense of community, and we’re very active on our local Facebook group,” said Collins, one of the neighborhood residents. “It really shows the spirit and compassion that Fort Worth has, and demonstrates the ability to band together for a greater good.”

Hugh Morris, who lives in Grapevine but spends time with friends in Fort Worth, said folks in those neighborhoods are constantly policing themselves.

“I’ve seen this type of community feel down there before with found or lost pets,” he said in a Facebook message to a Star-Telegram reporter. “Or warning of shady people on Magnolia. Warning of abusive boyfriends etc. That hood protects themselves, and they don’t take crap. They call out when known sex offenders are bar hopping, and refuse service. Then warn their friends to be on the lookout. Car break ins, stolen bikes etc. there’s a ‘stick togetherness’ out there. I like to say I ‘live’ there, I just happen to sleep and shower in Grapevine.”

The case is an example of the power of social media, according to Lowery, an investigator with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and a former law enforcement officer from St. Louis.

“We can reach wide audiences with social media that we weren’t able to before,” he said. “And we can get to those audiences in real time, which is extremely helpful in missing children cases.”

Keith, the neighborhood association president, said the board is assessing the police department’s timing of how it shared details.

“Everybody else wasn’t getting the same information we were and why was that?”

Fort Worth residents celebrated the return of an 8-year-old who was kidnapped Saturday, May 18, 2019.

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For 23 years, Deanna Boyd has covered crime for the Star-Telegram. She digs deep into the stories behind the tragedies and hosts Out of the Cold, a podcast about unsolved murders in North Texas. She is a University of Texas at Austin graduate and has won several journalism awards through the years.
Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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