June 27, 2008 -- 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.
In 2007, 68 of the 278 children who were part of an Amber Alert were found, a nearly 24 percent success rate. Since the program was first implemented in December 1996, 393 of the approximately 1,000 Amber Alerts activated — 39 percent — have succeeded, Bob Hoever, associate director of training for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told ABC News for a story in April about the dilemma law enforcement often faces in calling the Amber Alert.
Law enforcement officials know they will be subject to scrutiny if they wait too long, a child is found dead, and they have not transmitted information as widely and quickly as an Amber Alert allows. But they also face criticism if they make a call too early, whipping law enforcement, media and the public into a frenzy. Dee Anderson, the sheriff who devised the idea in Hagerman's case, told ABC News that more than 65 percent of children are dead within the first 48 hours of an abduction, a statistic adding another layer of pressure to the decision.
Brooke's father, James Bennett of Bethel, Vt., told The Associated Press Thursday that he had not seen his daughter in two weeks and that she lives with her mother. His daughter just finished the 7th grade at Randolph Union High School's junior high, the girl's father said.
His daughter had been disciplined for abusing her MySpace privileges, James Bennett said, and the computer password had been changed to prevent her from using it. The girl, however, reportedly found another computer to set up a new account.
Bennett was last seen wearing blue jeans, a pink sweater and white sneakers. She is described as 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs approximately 100 pounds. She has purple highlights in her hair, a distinctive scar on her calf, and both ears are pierced at the top and bottom.