Local News

Officials Learning Lessons from Amber Alert Hoax

Posted March 11, 2007 4:10 p.m. EDT
Updated March 11, 2007 7:53 p.m. EDT

Police said the kidnapping report that sparked a statewide Amber Alert on Friday was fictitious. The alleged hoax was a first for North Carolina, and officials said they're trying to learn from it.

The Amber Alert had police officers focused on one Durham neighborhood, looking for 15-year-old Natalie Fernandez.

“Investigators, uniformed patrol officers from different districts, we were canvassing the area,” said Durham Police Lt. Howard Alexander. “We had three interpreters on the scene.”

But in the end, investigators found out that Fernandez had not been abducted by two men at gun point. She was found in her boyfriend’s apartment hours after the Amber Alert was issued for her. She, her boyfriend and her two sisters face multiple charges related to the alleged hoax.

While police say they can't put an exact dollar amount on how much the non-kidnapping will cost the city, those who deal with missing person cases said they are hoping to learn from the incident.

The Amber Alert coordinator for North Carolina, Lois Hogan, told WRAL the fictitious story about what happened was a first for the department. Hogan said to her knowledge, there had never been a false Amber Alert issued in the state before Friday.

On average, the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons receives between 60 and 75 calls each year from people wanting to issue Amber Alerts, but less than 20 percent of them actually meet all the requirements.

Department leaders said they're working on making the system even better to weed out false alerts like the one on Friday. But in the meantime, law enforcement officials said they hope that the hoax didn’t damage the overall credibility of future Amber Alerts.

“I just hope it doesn't happen again, because you want this service to be used when it really needs to be used and for people to take it seriously,” Alexander said.

A related alert system in a nearby town also generated controversy during Friday’s incident. Amber Alert information is supposed to be broadcast on traffic signs when possible. Drivers along Interstate 40 in Durham saw the alert, but the message was not up on Cary's traffic signs.

The town spokesperson says the signs aren’t staffed 24 hours a day. Currently they are monitored by the town's traffic management office. But officials said they plan to link the signs to Cary’s 911 center in the near future.