Valley on alert |

Valley on alert

Matt Zalaznick

Descriptions of the child, the suspect and the suspect’s car can be spread immediately via the Amber Alert system, which began operating throughout Colorado earlier this year.

“The quicker you start looking, the better chance you have of finding the girl or boy alive,” says Vail police Detective Sgt. Mike Warren. “This is a really good program.”

With Amber Alert, details of an abduction, such as the names of the victim and the suspect, are broadcast on radio and television. Information can also be posted on traffic information signs along interstates and highways.

Statistics make it obvious how crucial it is to begin looking for an abducted child immediately. Most disturbing is that 74 percent of children kidnapped and murdered by non-family members are killed with the first three hours of the abduction, Warren says.

“The idea is to get the information out as quickly as possible to get as many pairs of eyes looking for the child, because time is of the essence,” Warren says.

But not every missing child will be reported over the Amber Alert system. Only children police believe are in danger of being seriously harmed or killed are reported.

“If you go to a house and parents say the girl was seen being taken into a blue Dodge pickup and the family doesn’t know who this person is, there’s a good chance she’s in danger,” says Kristina Koellner, supervisor of the missing persons unit at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Police can look at several clues to determine if a child is in danger, Warren says.

“We have to figure out if the child is in immediate danger,” Warren says. “If it’s a parent kidnapping, the child is not usually in immediate danger, unless, for example, the parent is on drugs and is driving.”

Police must also have good descriptions of the child and what he or she was wearing to send out an Amber Alert, Warren says.

According to law enforcement statistics:

– Non-family members attempt to abduct children approximately 114,600 times a year.

– There are between 3,200 and 4,600 actual abductions by non-family members every year.

– Of all kidnap victims, 74 percent are girls.

– Children are taken from the street in 52 percent of kidnappings.

– Force is used 87 percent of time.

– Weapons are used in 75 percent of all abductions.

– In 60 percent of abduction cases, at least two hours pass between the kidnapping and when police are notified. The delay often occurs when a child does not return from school or another activity, and a parent or guardian waits for the child to show up.

The Amber Alert, first used in Dallas in 1996, is most effective in cases in which a witness sees the abduction.

The system is named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl kidnapped while riding her bike near home in Arlington, Tex., and later murdered.

If a child was kidnapped in the Vail Valley and determined to be in serious danger, local police would gather information and notify the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which would then issue the Amber Alert. The program was signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens in April.

No Amber Alerts have been issued in Colorado, but the program has worked in other parts of the country, Koellner says.

“It’s been responsible for 22 recoveries,” she says.

Police and experts say parents can prepare their children to protect themselves from a potential abduction. Matthew Bayley, a Vail karate instruction who teaches self-defense, says it’s crucial parents not be afraid to discuss kidnappings with their children.

“Parents tend to want to talk about this subject to children just once because they’re worried about scaring their kids,” Bayley says. “But someone who can talk a child into walking away with them is skilled and practiced at it. We have to talk to our kids about this as often as a child molester would.

“Kidnapping can be discussed so it doesn’t terrorize the child,” he says.

The first 15 seconds of an encounter between a potential kidnapper and a child are crucial. Bayley says if the child isn’t taken in the first 15 seconds, there’s a 95 percent chance he or she won’t be.

“Nobody’s going to grab a screaming child for more than 15 seconds,” Bayley says. “Children have to learn to scream the right things—scream in very loud voice this is not “my parent’ or “a man is trying to steal me.'”

An important part of teaching children to deal with potential kidnappers is for parents to throw out many of their preconceptions about kidnappers, strangers and how children should act around adults, Bayley says.

“We have a tendency to be worried that our children won’t be polite enough. But that’s absurd,” Bayley says. “Children can have respect for adults and stay safe. … Any adult that doesn’t respect that isn’t worth being polite to in the first place,” he says.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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