Florida sheriff calls out TBI for not issuing amber alert sooner, TBI cites policy

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The parents of a four-year-old girl at the center of a three-day amber alert issued an emotional “thank you” to law enforcement Monday.

Monday afternoon their little girl was rescued in Tennessee and the man accused of kidnapping her is in custody.

Investigators said four-year-old Rebecca Lewis was kidnapped from her home in Polk County, Florida Saturday by 31-year-old West Wild Hogs.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said a security guard at a Memphis hospital recognized the vehicle the pair was traveling in and immediately called police.

Despite the good news, things got heated earlier Monday when Judd called out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for not issuing an amber alert sooner than they did.

TBI officials said there are certain steps that must be in place before they issue an alert, and in this situation, like all others, they were just following policy.

“The power of the media, the power of social media, and the fact that there was an amber alert issued in Tennessee added to the success of this very quickly,” Judd said.

Police said West Wild Hogs abducted Rebecca Lewis from her home in Polk County, Florida. From there they traced the pair north through Georgia to a park in Campbell County, Tennessee. As the hours continued they were spotted in the Nashville area, before Rebecca was rescued in Memphis Monday afternoon.

But the sheriff said he believes the rescue could have happened hours before if Tennessee would have issued an amber alert sooner.

“The state of Tennessee chose not to do an amber alert when we asked them to because they said there was no evidence at the time that Rebecca and West Wild Hogs was in Tennessee,” Judd said.

That request came Sunday morning, before Rebecca and her alleged abductor were spotted Sunday night in Tennessee. A point the sheriff made earlier today.

“Here’s a news flash Tennessee. He was there,” said Judd.

A TBI spokesperson said they followed policy.

“At the time the amber alert was requested from Florida we did not have any information or credible evidence that the child was in the state of Tennessee or even headed to the state of Tennessee,” Leslie Earhart, TBI Public Information Officer, said.

Earhart said once they got word of the verified sighting Monday morning, they took action immediately.

“We set about utilizing our processes that are in place to issue an amber alert focusing on the East Tennessee area,” she said.

Eventually Rebecca was found by someone who heard that Tennessee alert and acted swiftly.

“She thought she recognized him. She double checked. And that was indeed him,” a Memphis officer said.

The TBI said at this time they are not looking into changing their policy. They said they are confident the system works and that it has proven itself over and over again.

The following is a statement from the TBI:

“The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is the designated clearinghouse for missing children for the state of Tennessee and the only law enforcement agency in the state that can issue an AMBER Alert.

There are certain criteria that must be met before issuing an AMBER Alert. In a situation where we receive a request from another state, we must have a verified sighting of the child in our state or have credible information that the suspect is planning on bringing the child to Tennessee.

In the case involving Rebecca Lewis, Florida authorities asked the TBI to issue an AMBER Alert Sunday morning. When asked if they had reason to believe Rebecca Lewis and West Hogs were in or headed to Tennessee, they said no. They also stated that West Hogs had no known criminal history. For those reasons, the TBI indicated that an AMBER Alert could not be issued. We did, however, agree to issue a BOLO (Be-On-The-Lookout) for law enforcement, which we did immediately. Tennessee was not the only state to make the decision not to issue an AMBER Alert when first asked. Additionally, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York were asked to issue an AMBER Alert. Based on the information relayed at the time, those states also denied the request.

Early Monday morning, immediately after receiving information about a credible sighting of Rebecca Lewis in Campbell County, we set about utilizing our established processes to expand the reach of Florida’s AMBER Alert, specifically in East Tennessee. That took place at approximately 2:00 CST Monday morning. The notification included interstate signage, social media, website (www.tn.gov/tbi), and secondary notifications – such as cell phone alerts – offered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

At approximately 09:30 CST Monday morning we found out, through local media coverage, that the child and suspect had possibly been spotted at a convenience store near Nashville earlier in the morning. Upon confirming that information, we expanded our AMBER Alert statewide. As a result of the AMBER Alert, Rebecca Lewis was safely located in Memphis Monday afternoon and West Wild Hogs was taken into custody.

It is critical that we follow the policies and procedures that are in place when it comes to issuing an AMBER Alert. Our intention is to reserve AMBER Alerts for verified sightings and specific, actionable information that might result in the successful recovery of missing children determined to be in imminent danger. This is done to ensure the public does not become desensitized to the program and that we do not fatigue our AMBER Alert resources. Our system has a 95% success rate in recovering children. That statistic speaks for itself.”

Copyright 2016 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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