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Preventing False Amber Alerts
What causes a false amber alert? Who tells police a story about a child being abducted, when it is not true? In the case of 9 year-old Zane Newton in Bakersfield California it was his 9 year-old playmate that told adults the boy had been abducted by a man with a paint ball gun, while the boys played in the front yard of Zane’s home. After being alerted Zane may have been abducted, Zane’s family, neighbors and police began looking for the 9 year-old. Police issued an amber alert based on the description of the man and the car that the playmate provided to authorities.
The amber alert which sounded in two states was cancelled shortly after it began, when searchers found the missing boy. Zane was dead. Tragically Zane died only a short distance from the front yard where the boys had been playing. Police believe the boys may have been digging a hole when Zane fell into the hole and became entrapped. Zane’s playmate then alerted adults that Zane had been hit with a paint ball shot by a man who drove up to them in a black car with a white door. Why would the playmate make up a story about his friend being kidnapped? Police are unsure but think it may have been out of fear he would be in trouble.
Sadly, this fabricated story may have cost Zane his life. Had Zane been found immediately would he still be alive? That question may never be answered for sure. Perhaps the results of Zane’s autopsy will provide some answers, or a better picture of how quickly he died. In reality really the question is a mute point. Zane is dead and we cannot turn back the clock. As parents, however, we can talk to our children about the importance of not digging in holes where they can become entrapped. We can educate children that in an emergency lives depend on immediately telling adults what happened, regardless if the truth will get them into trouble. In the end it is often the truth that sets one free. Had his playmate immediately alerted adults to Zane’s plight, it is possible Zane might be alive today.
Also, as parents we should teach our children about what to look for in the event there is a real abduction or kidnapping attempt. For instance, the description of the car that was given to police by Zane’s playmate was so detailed that police actually stopped one car matching the child’s description on Interstate 95 while the amber alert was active. Teach children to look at license plates and to try and remember the letters and numbers by associating them with something they can remember. If the plate says YFC 789, teach children to associate YFC with something like “your fast cat.” Then the child might practice saying the numbers out loud until he or she can write them down, call 911 and tell a safe adult. Children need to look at the color of the car and if it has any distinguishing marks or coloring.
An accurate vehicle description most likely saved the life of William “Ben” Ownby a 13 year-old boy kidnapped while walking home from his bus stop in Rural Franklin County Missouri. Ben disappeared from Beaufort Missouri after riding home on the school bus with his friend Mitchell Hults. Both boys stepped off the bus at the same stop and parted ways. Although Mitchell Hults did not witness Ben’s abduction, he did witness an older model truck that felt out of place for his small community. Something made Mitchell remember that white truck and later when Ben was reported missing he knew some how the truck was connected.
In the end, Mitchell Hults ability to accurately describe the older model white truck to law enforcement helped police locate both William “Ben” Ownby, and another missing child, Shawn Hornbeck. Shawn Hornbeck disappeared from rural Richwoods Missouri in October 2002, at the age of 11. The boys were found in the Kirkwood Missouri apartment of 41 year-old Michael Devlin. One tip, one truck and one Franklin County Sheriff who choose to follow his instinct and alert the public to the truck’s description. Sheriff Gary Toelke went against the advice of some law enforcement officials who would have chosen not to put out the description of the vehicle since the abduction had not been witnessed by Mitchell Hults first hand.
Sadly we have a little boy Zane Newton dead, at age 9, because his playmate may have panicked when his friend became entrapped in the ground. Hopefully Zane does not have to die in vain, and through his story parents might teach their children how to properly handle an emergency. I pray angels surround Zane’s family in their time of grief and healing in the days ahead. I also pray that the angels help guide Zane’s 9 year-old playmate so that he may better understand how to handle this tragic situation.
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