Amber Alert raises questions of how to react to situation

Tackling laundry and facing piled-up work at the office are the usual worries during a long drive home from vacation. Not this time.

Late Thursday and into the wee hours Friday, my son and I were headed back from northern Idaho. We hadn’t heard much news all week. It didn’t take long on the road before word of a distressing crime was literally flashing in our faces.

All across Washington on I-90, we saw Amber Alert signs. We quickly figured out the reason.

I had read about Hannah Anderson, a missing California teen, and her suspected abductor, James Lee DiMaggio. On Saturday, in central Idaho’s rugged backcountry, the 40-year-old man was shot to death by an FBI hostage team. Hannah, 16, was rescued. Police believe DiMaggio also killed the girl’s mother and brother in California.

Before the rescue, those flashing signs raised anxiety during my late-night drive. Especially when we pulled off at a rest stop or for gas, I looked hard for that car: a blue Nissan Versa, California license plate 6WCU986.

I figured anyone dangerous enough to be the target of a kidnapping and murder investigation wouldn’t hesitate to ditch the Nissan for another car, one that wouldn’t draw attention — say, my white Volkswagen with Washington plates. At an I-90 rest stop west of Ellensburg, it didn’t take much to imagine a gun at my back, or a voice in the night: “Give me your car keys.”

What a relief to make it home to Everett, and then to hear about the California girl’s rescue. Amber Alerts and news reports throughout the West played a role.

“This case should be really eye-opening for the public,” said Carri Gordon, the Washington State Patrol’s Amber Alert coordinator. Gordon, also manager of the Patrol’s Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit, said more than 650 children have been safely recovered nationwide “as a direct result of Amber Alerts.”

“We just had one in June, a child was located in 40 minutes,” said Gordon, who has also worked in dispatch for the patrol.

Stranger abduction is extremely rare, she said. “Over 270,000 children are reported missing a year, and less than 1 percent are true stranger abductions. Often it’s custodial interference, or a family friend. In order to activate an Amber Alert, there needs to be a danger scenario. It’s not just a dad who doesn’t want to bring the kids back,” Gordon said.

Last week’s Amber Alert, which lasted about 72 hours in our state, was the seventh this year in Washington, Gordon said. Amber Alerts are used to find children 17 or younger. If an adult is in peril, the patrol can use a similar endangered missing person advisory.

The Amber Alert program, according to the U.S. Justice Department, is a voluntary partnership between law enforcement and transportation agencies, broadcasters and the wireless industry to issue urgent bulletins in the most serious child-abduction cases.

Named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996, “Amber” also stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

Washington’s law authorizing Amber Alerts was approved in 2003. By 2005, Gordon said, all 50 states had Amber Alert plans.

The alerts are displayed on variable message signs. There are more than 200 of those on interstates and other highways across Washington, according to Alice Finman, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation traffic operations division. “Typically we need make, model, color and a full license plate number, including the state, to be effective in messaging,” Finman said.

Gordon said last week’s Amber Alert originated with a request by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department to the California Highway Patrol. The patrol office in Tacoma is contacted to extend out-of-state alerts.

And what if I had spotted that blue Nissan? I would take Gordon’s good advice.

“Never approach a vehicle. It seems like common sense, but it’s worth a reminder. A lot of times (suspects) are armed,” she said. “Call 911. Never try to follow.”

The patrol had to check out a number of tips during the recent Amber Alert. “The first thing to look for, look at the license plate,” Gordon said. Knowing a plate number can help troopers prioritize tips.

I told Gordon about my rest-stop fears.

“If someone wants to take your property, always give it,” she said. That advice shifts if things take a deadly turn. “If they’re trying to take you, always fight. Do whatever you can — kick, scream. Let them have whatever you have. But if it’s yourself, don’t go.”

Gordon was surprised the California teen was found far from any highway.

“It was a huge relief, and the ending we were hoping for,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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