Abduction Hoax Mocked Police Duty to Do All They Can
Posted March 12, 2007 5:34 p.m. EDT
Updated March 12, 2007 7:18 p.m. EDT
Durham, N.C. — When Durham police thought 15-year-old Natalie Fernandez was in danger last Friday, they pulled out all the stops.
“We diverted some of our people from Special Ops. We called in the Gang Unit. We diverted officers on uniform patrol and pulled them off calls where they could've assisted other citizens,” Cpl. David Addison, a police department spokesman, said Monday.
It turned out to be a hoax, concocted by others so her parents would not know she was with her boyfriend. Police say they have no choice but to take every case like this seriously, however. Hindsight of one hoax does not mean they can ease off the next time an abduction is reported.
The department spent hours gathering the information needed to justify issuance of a statewide Amber Alert after Fernandez was reportedly taken at gunpoint when she got off her school bus shortly after 3 p.m. The state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety issued it shortly after 6 p.m.
About two hours later, though, investigators were able to figure out that Fernandez had not been kidnapped. They canceled the alert, and several people, including Fernandez, now face charges.
Addison says the response was expensive for the city.
“To get the Amber Alert up and running and to get all the officers here and posters developed— were looking into the thousands of dollars,” he said.
The state's amber alert coordinator called this the most elaborate story she's heard. However, Lois Hogan said at least one other false report has led to an Amber Alert.
The state law that established North Carolina's Amber Alert system does not provide any punishment for those who abuse it.
“So, prosecutors and law enforcement officers have to look at existing criminal statutes” to deal with cases like that of Fernandez, said Jan Paul, an assistant Durham County district attorney.
In this case, Fernandez is charged with obstructing an investigation. Her two sisters and another teen are also charged. However, they face misdemeanors that carry little, if any, jail time.
Paul points out that instead of time behind bars, a judge could force the teens to pay fines and restitution, but, there is a lot to consider.
“Certainly youth tend not to realize what the ramifications and consequences of their actions can be,” Paul said.
The cost of this statewide search may never be recouped.