On Friday afternoon, Baltimore police said a man abducted his girlfriend's two daughters, ages 3 and 5. A few hours later, police in Elkton said a man took his estranged wife's 4-year-old daughter. Saturday night, Prince George's County authorities reported that an acquaintance had taken an 11-year-old girl.
And on Monday, Howard County police said a teenager in foster care had run off with the 15-month-old girl she had been baby-sitting.
In just two cases - the abductions from Prince George's and Cecil counties - did officials broadcast an Amber Alert, which flashes emergency information on highway billboards and breaks into television shows to enlist the help of viewers.
So why did two missing children get full-blown statewide alerts using the Emergency Broadcasting System while the others did not? In the cases this weekend, both alerts interrupted Olympic coverage.
Police in Baltimore City and in Howard County say the cases from their jurisdictions did not meet all the steps required to issue an Amber Alert, set up in 1997 as a voluntary partnership among law enforcement agencies across the country to warn about child abductions using the same broadcasting tools used in natural disasters.
Local authorities investigating a missing child must go down a checklist to decide whether to ask for an Amber Alert, but a final decision is up to the Maryland State Police. Among the criteria, police must confirm that a child has been abducted, must believe the child is "in danger of serious bodily harm or death," and must have "enough descriptive information about the child, abductor and /or suspect's vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help."
Anthony Guglielmi, the chief spokesman of the Baltimore Police Department, said that although the suspect had threatened to harm one of the children, officials did not seek an Amber Alert because there was no vehicle description to broadcast. In fact, police don't believe that a vehicle was involved.
That meant putting information on highway signs would have been useless. And Maryland State Police fully agree.
"If there's no vehicle, there's nothing for us to pursue," said state police Sgt. Tracy Hart, the headquarters duty officer on Monday. "The only way we send out Amber Alerts is if they're connected to a vehicle. That way, we get all eyes on them."
The Amber Alert network began after the 1997 abduction and murder of a 9-year-old girl who was taken while riding a bike in Texas. Most child abductions, such as all the ones in Maryland over the weekend, are connected to estranged relatives or acquaintances, and are not stranger-on-stranger crimes. Most children are quickly and safely recovered.
The two girls taken from a home in Baltimore's Westport neighborhood were found 90 minutes later on Howard Street. The child from Elkton was soon found at a convenience store in Delaware, and the girl from Seat Pleasant was located at a truck stop in Tennessee. Suspects were arrested in all three cases. The Howard County toddler was found Monday.
Police in Baltimore say many cases in the city do not involve cars, so statewide alerts on highway signs don't make sense. But police in Baltimore City and in Howard County issued quick statements to the news media complete with names and photographs of the people involved.
Cecil and Prince George's counties gave detailed descriptions of vehicles, in one case down to the black tape on a car roof and, in another, an orange flatbed Freightliner tractor-trailer with Virginia plates.
Sherry Llewellyn, spokeswoman for the Howard County police, said their case wasn't close to meeting the criteria. "It must be clear that it is an abduction," she said, "and we don't know that to be the case." The suspect was baby-sitting the child over the weekend and failed to return.
"This was an arranged situation with an approved caregiver," Llewellyn said. "Second, an Amber Alert requires that a child be in danger of bodily harm or death. We do not know that to be the case." In addition, the spokeswoman said, they, like Baltimore City authorities, do not have a vehicle description.
"If they're traveling," Llewellyn said, "we believe it is by bus."
Hart of the state police said a bus description could meet the criteria for issuing an Amber Alert, but police in Howard County had only information that the suspect had been given bus fare, and nothing to suggest she ever got on a bus, much less which one. Criteria for issuing an Amber Alert • Law enforcement officials must have a reasonable belief that an abduction has occurred • Police believe that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death • Enough descriptive information exists about the victim and the abductor, and/or suspect's vehicle, to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help • The victim of the abduction is a child age 17 or younger • The child's name and other critical data have been entered into the National Crime Information Center system Source: Maryland State Police and the U.S. Department of Justice