Crime

Questions about Amber Alert linger amid joy of finding kidnapped child safe

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.

Time was of the essence and communication was key during the hours immediately following the kidnapping of 8-year-old Salem Sabatka.

Members of the community have raised questions about how well the Amber Alert system worked to ensure Salem’s recovery and whether it could be improved. The Texas Department of Public Safety released new details Thursday about timing of the alerts and the standards that are followed.

Salem was walking with her mother near Lowden Street and 6th Avenue on Saturday evening when a man grabbed her and pulled her into his car, police said. The kidnapping was reported to police at 6:37 p.m.

About an hour after the kidnapping, a woman shared information she got from an officer on the Ryan Place neighborhood Facebook page, which included a description of the suspect. Soon after, residents of Ryan Place and nearby neighbors mobilized, posting photos and updated descriptions of the child and the suspect’s car while coordinating search information they gleaned from one another and police.

At 9:14 p.m. Fort Worth police emailed a notification to the Amber Alert Center at the Texas Department of Public Safety Austin office, which is responsible for sending the information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children [NCMEC].

DPS “immediately began the process of determining whether the criteria would be met for an AMBER Alert,” the department said in Thursday’s statement.

While the information provided didn’t fully meet the criteria, DPS decided to issue an alert. DPS told police that because license plate information was not available for the suspect’s car, there would be no notifications on Texas Department of Transportation billboards.

About 11 p.m., the Amber Alert was posted on the @TX_Alerts Twitter account and distributed to law enforcement statewide, including all border stations, according to the DPS statement. An emergency alert system notification was also distributed to television and radio stations through the National Weather Service, but without an alert tone, DPS said.

NCMEC told DPS officials they would send the alert to mobile devices at 6 a.m. Sunday if the child had not been found, which is standard operating procedure. The current practice in Texas is that cellphone alerts are not sent between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., DPS said.

Police issued a statement after Salem was found apologizing for any delay a difficulty operating a fax machine might have caused. Police said they were responsible for faxing the emergency alert information to local radio stations, which include WBAP and KRLD.

But detectives had problems with the fax machine available on the scene and the fax step was never completed. Fax is the only mode that the radio stations can receive the alert information, according to police.

Police said that in the future they will electronically mail the Amber Alert submission to communications division staff who will have the primary responsibility and equipment to ensure the fax is delivered to the appropriate outlets.

But a KRLD official issued a statement Thursday that said the station accepts Amber Alert notifications through all methods of communication. Most commonly, communications are received via email and social media as those are the most efficient, the statement said.

In this kidnapping case, KRLD staff received and verified information from the Fort-Worth Police Department’s official social media accounts, the statement said.

When asked, police issued a statement which said that the standardized official method of communication for regional emergency alert notifications is via fax communication from their office.

Separate Amber Alert notifications are able to be sent through digital notifications. These are two different notifications to a degree, that both deal with public safety, police said. Police officials have communicated with local partners and have been asked to assist in looking at alternative methods to update or modernize the official communication methods, the statement said.

About 2:30 a.m. Sunday, pastor Jeff King and another member of a local church saw the suspect’s car at WoodSprings Suites hotel in Forest Hill and notified police. The church members saw details of the kidnapping on social media and drove around to help find the girl.

Salem was safe after being returned to her thankful parents. Fort Worth police arrested a suspect about eight hours after receiving the initial call and that suspect, Michael Webb, is in federal custody facing kidnapping charges.

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Jeff King, a pastor who spotted the kidnapper’s car, talks to residents after a press conference following a walk to celebrate Salem Sabatka’s safe return Sunday, May 19, 2019, at Ryan Place in Fort Worth. King was instrumental in helping police locate Salem. Yffy Yossifor yyossifor@star-telegram.com

Amber Alert system works, official says

This is how the system is structured to respond, according to Robert Lowery, the NCMEC vice president who oversees participation in the Amber Alert system.

Amber Alert cellphone notifications are sent after the investigating police department notifies the Amber Alert emergency coordinator at the Texas Department of Public Safety, he said. The coordinator then notifies NCMEC to activate the alert.

NCMEC recommends that those alerts go out when the public is awake and driving around, and not while they are asleep because many people will simply turn off the alert and some will go back to bed angry, according to Lowery.

“We always encourage the police departments to follow protocol calling for the issuance of wireless emergency alerts to be done during the public’s normal waking hours, but will do whatever the agency requests,” Lowery said.

Fort Worth police have said they will review their response following the kidnapping, and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she will examine Amber Alert rules to determine if improvements to streamline the system should be considered.

More than 950 children owe their rescue to the Amber Alert system and 56 of those recoveries are because of wireless emergency alerts sent to cellphones.

But in this case the best information law enforcement had early on during the kidnapping was video footage captured by a doorbell camera, Lowery said. Even then it took time to determine whether that was an image that could be shared with the public, he said.

“In a perfect world, the minute that child was taken we would like for an Amber Alert to go out,” Lowery said. “It takes a lot more time than I wish it would, but it does.”

This story includes information from Star-Telegram archives.

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.

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