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New missing-person alert unveiled

A new system aimed at finding missing people who don't fit the criteria for an Amber Alert was unveiled Monday by the Utah Attorney General's Office.

The Endangered Person Advisory is designed to spread information quickly on a child or adult who is missing without clear proof of an abduction.

A child missing under suspicious circumstances, a 19-year-old kidnap victim or an elderly Alzheimer's patient who is missing would all qualify for the new advisory.

An Amber Alert is only issued for children under the age of 18.

Many times law enforcers are faced with situations in which they have a missing child but an Amber Alert is not issued because only parts of the alert's criteria are met, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"It's usually an all or nothing," he said on using the alert.

An Endangered Person Advisory can be issued if a person is missing under suspicious circumstances, may be in danger because of age, health, mental or physical disabilities, or if public information could help find that person and the scenario does not meet Amber Alert criteria.

That information is distributed in what Shurtleff described as a "super-sized press release" to local media, law enforcement, ports of entry and businesses.

"The most powerful tool in the justice system is information," said Bureau of Criminal Identification chief Ed McConkie.

The new advisory could have been used in the cases of Lori Hacking or Brennan Hawkins, the 11-year-old Boy Scout who was lost for four days in the High Uintas before being found alive earlier this year.

Jody Hawkins, Brennan's mother, said Monday an Endangered Person Advisory "would have been very instrumental" in helping find her son because Brennan did not fit the criteria for an Amber Alert.

The Endangered Person Advisory will not be flashed on digital freeway signs. Shurtleff said he wanted to make sure there remained a clear distinction between an Endangered Person Advisory and the more pressing Amber Alert so people don't become desensitized.

"There is already talk of 'crying wolf.' We don't want people to get too used to Amber Alerts," he said.

In the three and a half years since Utah implemented the system, 12 Amber Alerts have been issued. The state predicted more Endangered Person Advisories likely would be issued in the future.

Some recent Amber Alerts have been questioned, including the case of a girl allegedly forced into a van near a Salt Lake Walgreens store on July 26. No victim or suspect were ever found, and no girl was ever reported missing.

But after a review of that incident, Utah Broadcasters Association President Dale Zabriskie said Salt Lake police were correct in issuing the alert. Even today, that scenario would still fall under the criteria for an Amber Alert and not an Endangered Person Advisory, he said.

AG spokesman Paul Murphy said it will be up to law enforcement and the public in many cases to use their best judgment on whether an Amber Alert or Endangered Person Advisory are warranted.

From there, radio and television will decide whether to broadcast the advisory.

"You have to decide, 'What am I going to do with this information?' " Murphy said.

Monday also marked the 23rd anniversary of when Rachael Runyan's body was found. The 3-year-old Sunset girl was kidnapped from a playground near her home in 1982. Her body was found 24 days later in a creek in Morgan County.

Utah's Amber Alert was originally called the Rachael Alert in honor of the little girl but was later changed to conform with the rest of the nation.

Twice a year, on May 25, Missing Children's Day, and Sept. 19, the day Rachael was found, the state tests its Amber Alert system.

Elaine Runyan-Simmons attended Monday's news conference and Amber Alert test to show her continued support for the system.

"We do not stop trying to find better ways to fight these perpetrators," Rachael's mother said. "This is so important to have a plan in place.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com