TBI responds to criticism of handling of AMBER Alert for Fla. girl

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN/WATE) – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation addressed the media Tuesday afternoon to discuss its handling of an AMBER Alert for a Florida girl who was found in Memphis Monday afternoon.

Rebecca Lewis was taken from her home by a family friend Saturday morning. The 4-year-old was found with West Hogs in Memphis.

In his press conference Monday, Polk County, Florida, Sheriff Grady Judd criticized TBI’s handling of the case in not issuing an AMBER Alert sooner.

“Here’s a news flash, Tennessee. She was there,” said Judd.

During the brief news conference Tuesday, TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said the agency stands behind its decision in how the alert was issued.

“No one wants missing children home more than the TBI,” he said.

According to DeVine, the TBI did everything it could with the information that was presented to them at the time and that there was initially no reason to believe Rebecca was in the state of Tennessee.

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TBI statement on its handling of the case:

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is the designated clearinghouse for missing children for the state of Tennessee and the only law enforcement agency in the state that can issue an AMBER Alert.

There are certain criteria that must be met before issuing an AMBER Alert. In a situation where we receive a request from another state, we must have a verified sighting of the child in our state or have credible information that the suspect is planning on bringing the child to Tennessee.

In the case involving Rebecca Lewis, Florida authorities asked the TBI to issue an AMBER Alert Sunday morning. When asked if they had reason to believe Rebecca Lewis and West Hogs were in or headed to Tennessee, they said no. They also stated that West Hogs had no known criminal history. For those reasons, the TBI indicated that an AMBER Alert could not be issued. We did, however, agree to issue a BOLO (Be-On-The-Lookout) for law enforcement, which we did immediately.  Tennessee was not the only state to make the decision not to issue an AMBER Alert when first asked. Additionally, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York were asked to issue an AMBER Alert. Based on the information relayed at the time, those states also denied the request.

Early Monday morning, immediately after receiving information about a credible sighting of Rebecca Lewis in Campbell County, we set about utilizing our established processes to expand the reach of Florida’s AMBER Alert, specifically in East Tennessee. That took place at approximately 2:00 CST Monday morning. The notification included interstate signage, social media, website (www.tn.gov/tbi), and secondary notifications – such as cell phone alerts – offered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

At approximately 09:30 CST Monday morning we found out, through local media coverage, that the child and suspect had possibly been spotted at a convenience store near Nashville earlier in the morning. Upon confirming that information, we expanded our AMBER Alert statewide. As a result of the AMBER Alert, Rebecca Lewis was safely located in Memphis Monday afternoon and West Wild Hogs was taken into custody.

It is critical that we follow the policies and procedures that are in place when it comes to issuing an AMBER Alert. Our intention is to reserve AMBER Alerts for verified sightings and specific, actionable information that might result in the successful recovery of missing children determined to be in imminent danger. This is done to ensure the public does not become desensitized to the program and that we do not fatigue our AMBER Alert resources. Our system has a 95% success rate in recovering children. That statistic speaks for itself.

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