Lawmakers in Texas voted Wednesday to approve a bill for a localized version of the Amber Alert system that would enable police to notify people within a 100-mile radius as soon as a child goes missing.
The so-called Athena Alert bill is named after Athena Strand, the 7-year-old girl who was allegedly abducted and killed by a FedEx driver delivering a package to her house in rural Wise County on Nov. 30. Her body was found Dec. 2, less than 10 miles from her father and stepmother’s home. Tanner Horner has pleaded not guilty to capital murder and aggravated kidnapping charges and is being held on a $1.5 million bond.
The legislation now goes to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who must sign it before it becomes law. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
GOP state Rep. Lynn Stucky, who authored House Bill 3556, told the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety that Wise County’s sheriff would have been able to issue a localized alert almost immediately had the Athena Alert been in place at the time.
“I am grateful to my colleagues in the Senate for sending my bill, HB 3556, to @GovAbbott’s desk,” Stucky tweeted Friday, using the governor’s Twitter handle. “Special thank you to Athena’s mom, Maitlyn Gandy, for coming to Austin to testify in support.”
“If this alert had been in place when my daughter disappeared, I have no doubt that the Wise County Sheriff’s Office would have activated it,” Gandy, the mother, was quoted as saying in a press release issued by her attorneys.
“Unfortunately, their hands were tied because my daughter’s disappearance didn’t immediately meet the strict criteria for a statewide AMBER alert. It was a helpless feeling that I wouldn’t wish on any parent. My hope is that every state will follow Texas’ lead and amend the law so that no other parent has to wait when their child is missing.”
Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin told HuffPost that his office “deeply appreciates” Stucky’s efforts with the Athena Alert bill.
“With its passage, law enforcement will be able to make a local judgement call and send out an alert that may help bring a child home to hisher parents,” Akin said. “Hopefully, we will never need to make that judgement call, but if it does happen again and if so decided, we have an additional tool to help us recover a missing child.”
On the day of Athena’s disappearance, her stepmother spent “about an hour” looking for the girl before reporting her missing to police at around 6:40 p.m., authorities said, but an Amber Alert wasn’t issued until the following afternoon.
At the time, Akin said that Athena’s stepmother had told police that she and the girl had had an argument. Authorities didn’t suspect foul play and believed she might have run away, the sheriff told CBS last year.
“At first we thought it was just another missing child, a missing child who would be found in a matter of minutes,” Akin told HuffPost on Friday. “But, that was not the case. We were not able to post an Amber Alert because, at that time, the case specifics did not meet the criteria set by the Texas Department of Public Safety.”
The state’s Amber Alert criteria include “a preliminary investigation [that has] verified the abduction and eliminated alternative explanations for the child’s disappearance,” and a determination by law enforcement that the child is in “immediate danger of sexual assault, death or serious bodily injury,” among other factors.
Athena’s father, Jacob Strand, was not at home when Athena disappeared and Gandy, her mother, lived in Oklahoma. Athena was visiting her father and due to return to Gandy’s after the Christmas break, the mother said.
Authorities said that Horner, 31, confessed to strangling Athena after hitting her with his truck and told them where to find her body.
Athena’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Horner, FedEx, and the subcontractor who hired Horner, BuzzFeed News reported.
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