Police and relatives of abducted girl Caitlyn Virts credited the use of the Amber Alert system and the quick, eager fingers of social media users with helping authorities find the 11-year-old in Florence, S.C., on Friday.
Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson said at a news conference Saturday that police now have powerful tools to quickly alert large numbers of people about missing children — and dubbed people who see notifications and feed tips to police "keyboard crime fighters."
Daniel Wallace, Virts' grandfather, had a simple message for those who kept a lookout and followed the case on their computers: "Thank them for everything they've done."
Virts was found with her father, Timothy Virts, who allegedly abducted the girl from her mother's Dundalk home Thursday; he is accused of killing the woman. The co-owner of a motel where the pair were staying saw their pictures on Facebook and notified police — one of thousands of tips officers received.
Florence City Police Chief Allen Heidler said the use of Amber Alerts and social media have enhanced crime-fighting abilities.
"It's the kind of outcome that you always want to have in a situation that is as dire as this," Heidler said. "Obviously, I am elated by the way my officers conducted themselves and the individual who saw the Amber Alert."
The Amber Alert was first issued Thursday morning and posted with a picture of Caitlyn to the Baltimore County police website at 11:19 a.m. From there it was blasted across social media platforms and, under a program running since January 2013, directly to cellphones.
By Thursday evening, the alert was extended to include West Virginia and on Friday afternoon, North Carolina. Later Friday, the Twitter account for the FBI's most wanted list posted a link to a picture of Timothy Virts, alerting its 9,000 followers.
Only Maryland State Police can authorize an Amber Alert, and cases must meet strict criteria: Officers must believe a child has been taken and is in danger of serious harm, and must have some information about a victim or a suspect.
From there, as it did in Virts' case, alerts can quickly spread across Twitter and Facebook.
David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire expert on crimes against children, said people who might once have snatched a child are now less confident that they can get away with it.
"People always worry about the negative effects of technology, but this is one of the positive benefits," Finkelhor said.
One of the virtues of the Amber Alert system, he added, is that it is infrequently used so people take it seriously.
"They seemed to have figured out there's some pretty high threshold before they issue one," Finkelhor said. "Some people get quite angry they don't issue Amber Alerts when their kid is missing."
The system is named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman who was abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996. Maryland signed on in 2003. Since then, there have been 118 requests for an alert and 34 have been issued, according to the state police.
Robert Hoever, director of special programs in the missing-children division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said alerts have helped safely return 679 children across the country.
In about 10 cases a year, he said, abductors turn themselves in to authorities after seeing the alerts.
In the past year, eight alerts to mobile phones have helped authorities locate children. In Minneapolis, a teenager saw an alert flash on her phone and then saw the car mentioned across the street. An 8-month-old infant was found in that case.
"You never know who has information," Hoever said. "Somebody somewhere knows something about that child."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.