Local News

Was Amber Alert System Abused?

Posted October 24, 2007 6:38 p.m. EDT
Updated October 24, 2007 6:59 p.m. EDT

— Broadcasters are crying foul over the use of the Amber Alert system in the death investigation of an 11-month-old girl last weekend.

Harmony Jade Creech was reported missing from her Spring Lake home last Friday morning, prompting Harnett County authorities to issue a statewide Amber Alert as local, state and federal officials scrambled to find her.

Investigators found the baby's body Saturday afternoon, but the Amber Alert wasn't canceled until about 10 p.m. Saturday. Harnett County Sheriff Larry Rollins said he didn't want to compromise the death investigation by tipping the baby's mother that the body had been found.

Johni Michelle Heuser, 25, of 1680 Ray Road in Spring Lake, has been charged with first-degree murder in Harmony's death. She told investigators that she found the baby dead in her crib several weeks ago but hid the death out of fear.

"It would have been very counterproductive had we immediately lifted that in the state we were in," Rollins said.

But Bruce Wheeler, president of the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, said the case raises questions about the proper use of the Amber Alert system.

The state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety oversees the system, but relies on local law enforcement authorities to  decide when alerts are issued and canceled. State leaders plan to discuss the matter at the next Association of Broadcasters meeting in December, Wheeler said.

"It's misleading. If the person has been found, then it's just not accurate at that point," he said of maintaining an alert in the Spring Lake case. "There's the issue of the credibility of our reporting and, ultimately, the credibility of the Amber Alert system."

Greg Baker, who oversees the FBI in Raleigh, said he supports Rollins' explanation for keeping the alert in place to help a criminal investigation.

"Had I been there, I would have made the same call," Baker said. "Where we can immediately cancel an Amber Alert, we should do that. There are a lot of resources at play. But in this case, because of what was going on at the time, it was the right call."

Wheeler said he understands Rollins' motives, but he said the system needs to balance between good police work, accurate reporting and the mission to find the missing.

"The last thing anybody wants is for the public to be skeptical about these reports and to stop looking for these missing persons," he said.