Could AMBER alert have saved little girl’s life? Tangipahoa Sheriff says three-hour delay is evidence of a ‘broken’ system

TANGIPAHOA — A somber atmosphere surrounds Tangipahoa Parish as new details emerged about the horrifying incidents that resulted in the death of Callie Burnett, 29, and her 3 year old daughter, Erin.

One official investigating the the disappearance of two young girls voiced frustration and concern as questions arise over a delayed AMBER Alert. The alert was released nearly three hours after the girls were reported missing. Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said Friday that they did everything they could to get the alert out and that this is evidence of a systemic issue.

“Something is wrong,” Edwards said. “The system is broken. We need to look to try to fix it.”

A representative for the Louisiana State Patrol said they waited to release the AMBER Alert because they did not have all of the information. Edwards said Friday the state guided them on how to fully fill out the AMBER Alert request form and kept following up. They thought they were good to go, the sheriff said.

“When they provide a form, and you fill out the form, and you call them and say, ‘If you need anything else, let us know’ — I’m not really sure what more we’re supposed to do,” Edwards said.

He said the state never requested any additional information and “ultimately” the AMBER Alert went out.

Unfiltered with Kiran obtained the AMBER Alert request forms and proof of calls and texts through a records request. The documents showed Lt. Elizabeth Russell filled out, and submitted, the documentation and emailed the paperwork in at 10:16 a.m.

“The vehicle hit on [license plate reader] yesterday afternoon at 1800 hrs in Byram, MS can this alert be sent to [Mississippi] as well,” she wrote.

The email included attachments with photos of the children. The picture of the suspected vehicle came from the license plate reader, per Edwards.

Every field was filled out except for a suspect description and any landmarks where the kids were last seen.

It is unclear if the problem was due to a lack of suspect description. The Louisiana State Police website said that detail is desired.

“There must be enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or suspect’s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will assist in the recovery of the child,” the website said.

Edwards said they never heard what, if any, additional details that LSP needed to send the alert out sooner. 

“If they wanted more information, they should have specifically told us, you know, what more they wanted,” he said.

Call logs and emails showed multiple members of the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office tried to repeatedly follow up with state officials in charge of distributing AMBER Alerts.

Read through the AMBER Alert request forms above.

But after submitting the required documents, TPSO’s Lt. Russell received a phone call advising this was not a full AMBER alert, but instead, it was a level II child endangerment. That meant, it only qualified for a media release and not an emergency alert to all phones.

That’s when TPSO’s Chief of Operations Jimmy Travis started making urgent phone calls and text messages with a desperate plea starting with Chuck Hurst with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. It’s also when Chief Travis advised Lt. Ethan Dunn to send out an emergency press release to the media requesting help finding the missing girls since an AMBER alert was not going out at that time. That release was received by the media at 10:34 a.m.

TPSO's AMBER alert texts & calls
Texts between TPSO’s Chief of Operations Jimmy Travis & Louisiana Sheriff’s Association’s Chuck Hurst

Following those communications, Hurst immediately had the State Police Fusion Center’s Jonathan Kemp call Chief Travis back. The Fusion Center dictates if an AMBER alert goes out with Kemp over the center.

In those phone calls, UWK has learned that Chief Travis explained to Kemp at 10:40 a.m. the urgency of why they needed an AMBER alert immediately.

At 10:49 a.m., Chief Travis received a call back from Kemp advising they were working on the AMBER alert and that they had all the information they needed in order to send the alert.

At 12:02 p.m., Chief Travis sends a text message to Kemp for a status update on the AMBER alert. Thats when Kemp called him at 12:07 p.m. telling him they were working on it.

At 12:28 p.m., the AMBER alert went out to everyone.

“Why isn’t an AMBER Alert treated like a 911 call where the operator verifies the caller and takes down all needed information in real time instead of a series of emails? Our detectives were on scene in a rural area on laptops trying to receive and send this information back and forth,” said Chief Travis.

A LSP representative did not immediately return a request for comment.

‘We can’t solve the case before it starts’

Edwards said at 8:30 a.m. on June 13, they knew Callie Brunett was murdered, the children were missing and the car was gone. Investigators wanted the public’s help to look for the girls and the car.

“We can’t solve the case before it starts,” he said. “You know, I don’t know what else they want, but what I’m telling you is the form told them what I just told you. And if that’s not an AMBER Alert that ought to immediately go out, I don’t know what is.”

The AMBER Alert was distributed hours later at 12:28 p.m. It’s unclear if getting the notification out sooner could have meant a quicker rescue, but Edwards said it directly helped the case.

“As soon as the AMBER Alert went out, those people in Mississippi knew him, knew where he lived, and they went over to his house and damn it the car was there,” he said. “And that’s how we found the surviving girl. And that’s how we found Callihan.”

Daniel Callihan is accused of killing former girlfriend Brunett, kidnapping her children and killing one of the girls. He was arrested in a wooded area in Mississippi after a manhunt across state lines. The next day, his current girlfriend Victoria Cox was also arrested. Both are charged with capital murder (first-degree murder) and sexual battery.

LSP said they tried to get the AMBER Alert out as soon as they could.

“In the event of an AMBER Alert, LSP works diligently to gather factual information from the investigating agency in order to disseminate information to the public as quickly as possible,” LSP Trooper First Class William Huggins says.

Edwards said they reported the necessary information to state police around 9:30 a.m. He has called the nearly three-hour delay, “unacceptable.”

A disputed timeline

Louisiana State Police said a part of the delay was an incomplete application sent by Tangipahoa officials after the AMBER Alert was requested. In an email, LSP gave UWK a timeline of yesterday’s events.

· 9:14 a.m. Louisiana State Police – Investigative Support Section reached out to TPSO and asked if assistance would be required from the Louisiana Clearinghouse for Missing and Exploited Children (LSP-LACMEC) regarding the two missing children.

· 9:21 a.m. TPSO requested LACMEC to contact them to begin the AMBER Alert Process.

· 9:27 a.m. LACMEC contacted TPSO and instructed them to complete the AMBER Alert application form and to include pictures of the children.

· 10:30 a.m. LSP-LACMEC received an incomplete AMBER Alert application from TPSO.

  • Note: Once an AMBER Alert application has been received, it must be reviewed to ensure there is enough information, that the information is correct, and that it meets the criteria for an AMBER Alert.

· 11:45 a.m. LSP Fusion Center sent a Level II Endangered/Missing Children Advisory to all law enforcement agencies statewide and the surrounding states.

· 12:18 p.m. LSP Public Affairs disseminates the AMBER Alert press release via email and social media.

· 12:28 p.m. Initial AMBER Alert broadcasted to the emergency alert system.

Edwards disputed this timeline. He said they filled out a form from LSP and sent all of the information at 10:16 a.m. Then TPSO officials kept calling to try to push out the AMBER Alert as soon as possible. Edwards said state officials told his office that “these things take time,” that “it’s on us” and they didn’t need anything else from the sheriff’s office.

Edwards said this case showed the need for state police to investigate how the process can be improved.

“If they don’t say there was something we could have done better, they’re lying to themselves, and they’re lying to the public,” he said.

According to the state police website, the following criteria for an AMBER alert must be met:

  • Law enforcement confirms a child, aged 17 or under, has been abducted.
  • Law enforcement believes the circumstances surrounding the abduction indicate that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • There must be enough descriptive information about the child, abductor, and/or suspect’s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will assist in the recovery of the child.

UWK spoke to Stacey Pearson, former LSP AMBER Alert coordinator, who says it’s important for state police to follow their process before releasing an AMBER Alert and the delay is standard.

“I looked at 154 AMBER Alerts issued in the nation. Of the ones that the reporting times were known, in over 60% of those cases, the time between the children being reported missing and the activation (AMBER Alert) was greater than three hours,” she said. “I can say that an AMBER Alert should never be issued until all the relevant information has been received and confirmed and law enforcement has determined that issuing an AMBER Alert is in the best interest of this abducted child.”

Pearson says the AMBER Alert is one of many tools that authorities use to solve a case involving a missing child. She says, though the first three hours are crucial in any abduction, it’s important to keep the focus on the main two factors in any child abduction case.

Pearsons interview with UWK journalist Megan Kelly

“We have to remember that the two most relevant factors in recovering children are the abductor’s relationship to the children and the abductor’s decision making. A perfect law enforcement investigation can sometimes not overcome the abductor’s decision to harm a child,” Pearson says.

MORE FROM UWK: ‘It runs in the family’: Man accused of kidnapping, killing has troubled history

The AMBER alert system, developed in 1996, is an early warning system to help find abducted children. It is now used in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Indian country, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and internationally in 31 countries.

“As of December 31, 2023, 1,200 children were successfully recovered through the AMBER Alert system and at least 180 children were rescued because of wireless emergency alerts. There are 82 AMBER Alert plans throughout the United States,” according to its website.

Sheriff Edwards said AMBER Alerts are the most effective when they are rare and understands that there needs to be specific criteria before they can be sent out. Otherwise, people may get desensitized and ignore them. But — the process is dialed in “too tight” that prevents sending out necessary alerts.

“The system is is geared in such a way that there’s a tremendous presumption that when a call comes in for an answer to ask for an AMBER Alert to go out, there’s a presumption that it’s not going to meet the criteria,” he said.

Megan Kelly contributed to this report.

MORE FROM UWK: ‘More questions than answers right now’ | Second arrest made in double murder, kidnapping & human trafficking case

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