NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexicans’ cell phones buzzed eleven times so far this year with an AMBER Alert, signaling a child is in danger. The emergency alerts, issued by New Mexico State Police, are intended to disrupt whatever you’re doing. An AMBER Alert provides details of an alleged kidnapping and asks the community’s help to safely locate the child victim.
“It’s such an urgent situation that we need our media partner’s help, we need our community member’s help, to be on the lookout,” Lt. Mark Soriano explained.
After receiving the 9-1-1 call and confirming an abduction, local police agencies reach out to NMSP, requesting assistance from the statewide AMBER Alert System. It’s been sounded 11 times so far in 2021. That’s more than double the number of times it was issued in 2020.
Digging into the details behind 2021’s AMBER Alerts, the majority have one thing in common. The accused kidnappers have all been parents or relatives.
Police say in 9 of the 11 cases, the children were kidnapped by a parent. Seven of those moms or dads did not have custody of their child.
“There’s already a system in place for custody disputes. It’s called law enforcement,” said Dr. Timothy Griffin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Reno.
He started looking into the effectiveness of the AMBER Alert System in 2004. Seventeen years later, Dr. Griffin’s research continues and he teaches his work to students at UNR. He told KRQE News 13 he doesn’t believe the emergency alert should’ve been triggered for some of New Mexico’s recent cases. “I would not at all be surprised to learn that a huge proportion of the population tunes these things out,” he explained.
Dr. Griffin said his nearly two decades of research show when a parent is taking a child without legal permission, it’s typically to get back at the other parent. “And once they have the child under their control, then their desires are satisfied and they are no longer a threat,” he added.
The professor pointed to the most alarming case in 2021 — the alleged abduction of 2-year-old Italy Hernandez. Belen Police and NMSP issued an AMBER Alert for the young girl in September, saying her non-custodial Dad stabbed her mother’s boyfriend and then kidnapped Italy from her Grandma’s house. Eight hours later, police located an unharmed Italy.
“The vast majority of the time familial abductors are not a threat. But in fairness, there are a few cases where they are,” Dr. Griffin explained. “But, it’s so statistically rare. It simply does not make sense to make that a public policy priority.”
Overuse of the AMBER Alert System is a concern shared by the Department of Justice. The DOJ’s Guidelines for issuing AMBER Alerts warn “Overuse of the AMBER Alert System will undermine its effectiveness as a tool for recovering abducted children.” The DOJ also reminds police of the reason the system was created in the first place. “Clearly, stranger abductions are the most dangerous for children and thus are primary to the mission of an AMBER alert.”
But, in New Mexico, non-custodial abduction has been written into the AMBER alert law. Lawmakers approved the change to the alert system’s criteria in 2013. “At the end of the day if that child is in imminent danger, it is the goal of law enforcement and the goal of State Police to safely return that child,” Lt. Mark Soriano shared.
Slideshow of AMBER Alerts issued this year by New Mexico State Police
Belief the child is in imminent danger, as in harm or death is likely or imminent, is another box that must be checked before an AMBER alert can be issued. So if a child is in harm’s way, they’ve been taken against their will and the whole state has been asked to look out for them, the accused abductor should be held criminally responsible, right? That’s not exactly how this year’s cases panned out.
In the Hernandez case, police did issue a warrant. But none of Francisco Hernandez’s charges are connected to the AMBER alert. Belen Police shared “Kidnapping/abduction did not meet the requirements to charge Mr. Hernandez.”
“BPD was consulting with the DA’s office on what charges would be brought forward on Mr. Hernandez. Kidnapping/abduction did not meet the requirements to charge Mr. Hernandez. The basis of the Amber alert came upon Mr. Hernandez’s violent nature and the violent act he had committed of stabbing another man just before taking Italy and the concern for Italy’s safety was a priority.”
Belen Police Department
That’s a noticeable trend among the eleven cases. Only once was the alleged kidnapper charged with kidnapping. Farmington Police arrested Destinee Sweeney on the charge, after saying she took off with her girlfriend’s daughter. Just a month later, the DA dismissed the case. The court record explained, “it is in the best interest of justice.”
Johnny Gallegos‘s charges connected to an AMBER alert in June were also dropped. His court records reveal that’s because of the state “not having enough evidence.” But, court documents also show he admitted to taking his son.
At worst, the accused abductors who were charged were hit with custodial interference. The 4th-degree felony carries a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison.
In Clorisa Covington’s case, the Bernalillo County DA’s Office said they asked for the max sentence for custodial interference. Covington took a plea deal and received a sentence of probation.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office issued the following statement about how cases prompted by AMBER alerts are handled.
Amber Alerts could potentially trigger criminal charges, such as false imprisonment or custodial interference, both of which are fourth degree felonies with potential sentences of up to eighteen months in prison. Other charges might be appropriate depending on the specific circumstances of each case. Every criminal complaint that is submitted to our office is thoroughly reviewed by our prosecutors before making a charging decision. Our office considers Amber Alerts when evaluating a defendant’s danger to the community, which could result in us filing a pretrial detention motion.
Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office
Jose Lujan, who does have custody of the daughters he’s accused of kidnapping, also received a plea deal and probation. Court records show he’s already violated his probation.
In the cases of John Lerma and Julio Cesar Ruiz-Salas, court records don’t show any charges connected to the issuance of an AMBER alert for their alleged actions.
Moms, Michelle Nolasco and Renee Garcia do not have custody of their children they were accused of kidnapping. Each woman was charged in connection to the AMBER alert. But, Nolasco stopped showing up to court and Garcia has not been caught yet.
It appears the emergency alert, accusing Andres Pinto of abducting two teenage girls in March, was falsely issued.
The latest AMBER alert was issued Wednesday. The Albuquerque Police Department said non-custodial mother, Lia Chavez, accused of kidnapping her 1-year-old son on Tuesday night has not yet been charged.
While Dr. Griffin sees the results of these cases as more evidence the AMBER alert system is overused, he said it’s easy to understand why NMSP would adopt a stance of better safe than sorry. “You don’t get the benefit of hindsight when you’re making that decision when you’re working for the New Mexico State Police,” he explained. “They’ve been put – in my opinion – in an unbelievably difficult dilemma.”
Lt. Soriano made it clear, “If it meets the criteria for an Amber Alert we’re not second-guessing that.”
New Mexico State Police are reminding the community to double-check you’re receiving AMBER Alerts on your cellphone, so you have the information that will help you keep an eye out in the emergency.