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Wash. Response Team to Focus on Kidnapping

Ann Marie Burr. Carla Wright. Jennifer Bastian. Michella Welch. Teekah Lewis. Zina Linnik.

They are among children abducted in Tacoma over the years. Some were found slain. Others are still missing.

Many of their cases remain open.

"We've had over a dozen child abductions," Tacoma police detective Lindsey Wade said recently. "That is pretty frightening."

Now, Wade and others in the Police Department are putting together a specially trained team and a detailed plan for the next time a child is kidnapped in the city.

The department first explored putting together what's known as a Child Abduction Response Team, or CART, in late 2008, and has been working on the concept since.

Detectives and others have been sent to training, an investigative plan has been pulled together, and protocols -- enough to fill several 4-inch-thick binders -- have been written.

So far investigators have not needed to put their plans into action.

The expanded effort wasn't in direct response to the city's most recent child abduction -- the 2007 kidnapping and slaying of 12-year-old Zina -- officials say. "This is refining what we've already had and making us even better," said police Sgt. Bob Maule, who supervises the homicide detectives. "We are just getting stronger."

Zina Linnik was taken from her Hilltop neighborhood the night of July 4 and found dead eight days later. Her killer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

However, the Police Department was criticized for how it handled the Amber Alert for Zina.

There was a delay in issuing the Amber Alert because police spokesman Mark Fulghum, the only officer then authorized to activate an Amber Alert, fell back to sleep instead of issuing the alert as requested during a 4 a.m. phone call to his home.

In the months that followed, the city did not disclose those details when asked what caused the delay.

Amid controversy over how the department handled the case, Mayor Marilyn Strickland ordered an independent review last year.

The report by consultant Mark Simpson referred to the department's work on adopting the Child Abduction Response Team concept.

"The fact that the ... concept requires routine review and analysis of its resources and response capabilities, and requires ongoing training and asset development, will (ensure) that the capability of the Tacoma Police Department to respond to and investigate child abductions will not diminish over time," Simpson wrote.

The concept of a Child Abduction Response Team was developed after the 2004 abduction of an 11-year-old girl in Florida.

Law enforcement officials discovered they needed trained experts to respond immediately, assist the lead agency and bring additional resources. Child abductions are unlike many other investigations detectives handle. For one thing they often start with a missing-person report and no witnesses.

To try to learn what happened, patrol officers and detectives interview family members and friends to see whether the missing child has run away, failed to return home when he or she was supposed to, or could be the victim of foul play, Wade said.

For instance, Ann Marie Burr, 8, vanished from her parents' house in the middle of the night in 1961. Carla Wright, 14, was last seen walking to school. Michella Welch, 12, and Jennifer Bastian, 13, had gone out for bicycle rides in 1986 and were found slain in two city parks. Teekah Lewis, 21/2, disappeared from a bowling alley in 1999 with her family nearby.

"You are trying to figure out what this is," Wade said. "It does take time to sort through everything to know what we have."

Investigations ramp up quickly and require tremendous amounts of manpower, including patrol officers, detectives and search and rescue members.

Meanwhile, time is working against the investigators. About three-quarters of the time, children abducted by strangers are killed within the first three hours. "It takes a lot more resources in a short amount of time," Maule said. "The only way to solve these things is to get these resources going really fast."

The CART concept has gained favor among law enforcement agencies in recent years and builds on the Amber Alert program.

The electronic messages are displayed on highway reader boards and broadcast by the media when a child is abducted. Neither kind of alert is required of law enforcement agencies.

CART training, offered by Fox Valley Technical College through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, provides team members with resources and tools that can be useful when a child is taken.

Training covers search, canvassing and recovery techniques, forensic response, investigative strategies and specialized investigative techniques.

The Tacoma team is comprised of about 30 representatives from Tacoma police, the Law Enforcement Support Agency, Pierce County Prosecutor's Office, King County Medical Examiner's Office, FBI, the Child Advocacy Center, Child Protective Services and the state Department of Corrections.

Within Tacoma police, detectives, forensic specialists, search and rescue members and crime analysts are part of the team.

The department's mission is to "quickly and effectively recover a child who is abducted or missing under suspicious circumstances," Wade said. Its model for child abduction cases weaves in CART training and resources.

Under the model, the criminal investigation is divided into six teams, each led by a detective.

The teams oversee all aspects of the investigation, including setting up a tips line and answering phone calls; coordinating search and rescue efforts; providing services to the victim's family; gathering intelligence; canvassing the neighborhood; contacting registered sex offenders; and working with forensics, the prosecutors and the crime lab. Among other duties, team leaders are responsible for contacting the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to get their help. They already have the numbers for those contacts and know who to call if a child abduction happens during the day or in the middle of the night, Wade said.

"If it does happen again, we are not scrambling around to find resources," she said.

The department has been developing the model, and members attend training within normal work hours. They took part in a three-day training session in February in Burien. The training sessions have been free to team members.

The department plans to bring the team together four times a year for training and to make sure their contacts are updated. They hope to be certified by the U.S. Department of Justice by the end of the year.

To be certified, the department must show it meets 31 standards for CART teams. It also must take part in a full-scale training exercise. There's no re-evaluation once a team is certified.

Tacoma police say they are committed to maintaining the training and plan so they're ready to respond quickly to the next missing child.

"It will be up to us to maintain our standards," Wade said. "You don't get a lot of opportunity to practice these, thankfully."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service