Cyber-Link Triggers 1st Vermont Amber Alert

The search for a 12-year-old girl who police fear may have been taken by someone she met online has triggered the state of Vermont to issue its first Amber Alert.

Brooke Bennett of Braintree, Vt., has been missing since 9 a.m. Wednesday, when an uncle dropped her at a Cumblerand Farms convenience store in nearby Randolph. The girl had told her family she was being picked up by a female friend to visit the friend's relative at a hospital just across the state line in New Hampshire.

But that apparently never happened.

Authorities now believe the story was a lie concocted by Brooke to conceal her real plan: an arrangement to meet up with someone she had met online, perhaps, her father thinks, through the social networking Web site MySpace. "Through investigation it was learned that Ms. Bennett was communicating with an unknown individual online," the Vermont State Police wrote in a lengthy press release that accompanied the Amber Alert announcement.

Surveillance footage from the Cumberland Farms store, which police have so far declined to release, showed the girl being dropped off. Instead of meeting the friend, she is seen walking away from the store, alone, toward the village of Randolph, police say.

She was not reported missing by family members until 9 p.m. Wednesday night.

Early Thursday, clothing similar to what the girl had been wearing was recovered in Brookfield, 10 miles north of Randolph.

The discovery triggered an intense ground search of the area by the state police search and rescue team and dogs from two different departments. "The items have been sent to the Vermont Forensic Laboratory for examination," according to the release.

Dive teams will search Sunset Lake today, a body of water near where the clothing was found, according to the State Police .

Fliers featuring Bennett's image have been posted in towns throughout the rural stretch of Vermont by police and volunteers.

They have not yet determined who Brooke may have been talking to online, but they are looking at Brooke's computer . "Members of the Computer Crime Unit are currently examining the computer used by Ms. Bennett in an attempt to isolate and identify whom she was speaking with online before being reported missing."

Authorities announced the Amber Alert yesterday afternoon, 18 hours after Brooke was reported missing and more than 30 hours after she was last seen. In the interim, police were able to gather enough information to meet the necessary criteria for an Amber Alert designation. In this case, it was the fact that she may have had a relationship online with an unknown person.

That criteria for triggering a Amber Alert varies from state to state, but the general idea is consistent: someone under 18 is missing and in danger and authorities have discovered some detail of information that could assist the public in helping them find the child. Sometimes that includes a picture of a suspected abductor or a vehicle description and license plate number.

Vermont adopted its Amber Alert system in November 2004, according to the state's public safety Web site. The program was created after the 1996 abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl. The goal is to provide the media and public with relevant information that can help in the search.

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