NewsInvestigations

Actions

Local missing child case sparks conversation over AMBER Alert criteria

Codi
Posted at 5:30 AM, Feb 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-09 08:24:15-05

HAMPTON, Va. – Every moment a child like Codi Bigsby is missing, the likelihood of finding them safe and sound becomes grim.

“Each day it becomes harder to believe Codi Bigsby is alive and well,” said Hampton Police Chief Mark Talbot during a news conference about the four-year-old’s disappearance last week.

Talbot said the Hampton Police Department enlisted the help of the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies early in the investigation to find Codi Bigsby. However, several in the community expressed concerns over the lack of an AMBER Alert in the toddler’s case. Talbot explained that because investigators didn’t find evidence of an abduction, Codi Bigsby’s case didn’t qualify for an AMBER Alert.

“I will say AMBER Alert is a great tool,” said Talbot. “It was created in 1996. In 2022, we're all connected. I don't think that we had any difficulty getting the word out about this missing child.”

An AMBER Alert would have activated the Emergency Alert System, blaring a message to cell phones, over the radio, on television and VDOT message boards.

The News 3 team of investigators learned a police chief alone cannot make the call to issue an AMBER Alert. Virginia State Police ultimately make the call to trigger the alert. According to state and federal law, all four of the following criteria must be met:

  1. The abducted child must be 17 years of age or younger or currently enrolled in a secondary school in the Commonwealth, regardless of age, and the reporting law enforcement agency believes the child has been abducted (unwillingly taken from their environment without permission from the child’s parent or legal guardian).
  2. The law enforcement agency believes the missing child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  3. A law enforcement investigation has taken place that verified the abduction or eliminated alternative explanations.
  4. Sufficient information is available to disseminate to the public that could assist in locating the child, suspect, and/or the suspect’s vehicle.
  5. The child must be entered into the Virginia Criminal Information Network (VCIN) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) missing person files as soon as practical.

Related: Volunteers search Hampton woods, hoping to find 4-year-old Codi Bigsby

While the final decision on AMBER Alerts isn’t up to local law enforcement, the agencies can control the amount of help they enlist to find a missing person.

“We have every resource out here that we can think of to bring Codi home safely,” Talbot said.

“Manpower, drones, [and] search teams, that is very vital, because time is of the essence,” said Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation.

Wilson applauded the Hampton Police Department for calling in the FBI as early as they did to help search for Codi Bigsby. She said bringing in help from larger agencies isn’t always done to find missing people of color. However, she told News 3 Codi Bigsby’s case points to a need to relax the criteria for an AMBER Alert.

“Just because he's missing out of Virginia doesn't mean that he's in Virginia,” said Wilson. “He can be in North Carolina. He could be in South Carolina. He can be in Florida. When you activate an AMBER Alert, it brings awareness to this child is […] missing and everyone is vigilant within their communities to try to bring him home.”

Codi Bigsby’s case isn’t the only one from the Hampton area that sparked debate about AMBER Alert criteria. There was no AMBER Alert for two-year-old Noah Tomlin when he disappeared from the Buckroe Beach community in Hampton three years ago. Hampton police eventually arrested his mother for murdering the toddler.

Hampton police did not initially issue an AMBER Alert for Keir and Chloe Johnson when they vanished from Buckroe Beach in Hampton in 2017. However, ten days after the mother and her baby girl were reported missing, police announced there would be an AMBER Alert, citing new information that they were abducted. They are still missing.

“We believe an abduction was involved in this case and at that point the minute that that occurred that tripped the AMBER Alert system,” said former Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult in 2017.

There was no alert when 19-year-old Ashanti Billie disappeared from Virginia Beach in 2017. Police later learned she was abducted and murdered. Billie was too old for an AMBER Alert and too young for a Senior Alert. Her parents worked with lawmakers to create the Ashanti Alert for abducted adults.

“There's always room for conversation as to whether there may be other endangered child advisories,” said Leemie Kahng-Sofer, the director of case management within the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

According to NCMEC, nearly 1,100 children have been located thanks to AMBER Alerts nationwide. Virginia State Police have triggered 23 AMBER Alerts in the last five years.

In addition to the AMEBR Alert and the Ashanti Alert, Virginia State Police also manage the Endangered Child Alert, which is a component of the AMBER Alert used “when a missing child incident fails to fulfill all AMBER Alert criteria”. While this is alert “provides the news media of Virginia with an opportunity to contribute to the communities they serve,” it does not mandate the same Emergency Alert System response.

Codi's case timeline: