Even though 4-year-old Rebecca Lewis of Lakeland was found safe Monday, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd was furious that at least one other state didn't help sooner. Judd says Lewis could have been reunited with her parents quicker with more cooperation.
"The state of Tennessee chose not to do an AMBER Alert when we asked them to because they said there was no evidence at the time that Rebecca and (alleged abductor) West Wild Hogs were in Tennessee," Judd said.
"Well here's a news flash, Tennessee: He was there."
A park ranger at Cove Lake State Park, about three hours east of Nashville, said he saw Wild Hogs and a child that looked like Rebecca between 10 and 11 p.m. Saturday night.
"The communication from Tennessee somehow got to this park ranger," Judd said. "It was just too late (to apprehend the two)."
Though the two were eventually found in Memphis Monday, Judd is frustrated Tennessee would only agree to a "BOLO" which is a "Be On The Lookout alert" and not an AMBER Alert, at least not at first.
The AMBER Alert system isn't nationwide, and there are multiple steps involved in issuing one. Law enforcement contacts the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which contacts individual states. But it's up to those states to make the call on relaying the alert.
Mike Murphy works for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which delivers the Amber Alert warning message through several different ways like mobile phones and social media posts. Murphy says they've expanded the reach of those alerts too. We found Rebecca's Amber Alert information scrolling across a Florida Lottery board inside a Tampa convenience store.
Murphy says besides highway message boards and billboards publicizing the alert, United States Postal Service workers are given the information as well as truckers. Murphy says all those layers are working.
He says, "We want to make sure the AMBER Alert is given to the right people in the right places at the right time - we don't want to overuse the system."
Murphy says overusing the system can be dangerous when people start tuning out and ignoring the alerts. Tennessee's Bureau of Investigation admits until there was a sighting and Hogs' bank card was used in their state they wanted to use an "abundance of caution."
"We are confident we have done everything possible," the agency said.
More than 830 children have been safely returned due to the AMBER Alert system.
Here's the entire statement from The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation:
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is the designated clearinghouse for missing children for the state of Tennessee and the only law enforcement agency in the state that can issue an AMBER Alert.
We have issued a statewide AMBER Alert, after a verified sighting of Rebecca Lewis and West Hogs shortly before 2:30 CST this morning in the Nashville area, of which we became aware at approximately 9:30 CST this morning.Early Sunday morning, we received a phone call from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, asking our agency to issue an AMBER Alert in connection to this case, which was apparently part of an effort to encourage states across the southeast to do the same. We indicated that since there was no specific information the child was in Tennessee at the time that we were not able to issue an AMBER Alert. We did, however, agree to issue a BOLO (Be-On-The-Lookout) for law enforcement, which we did immediately.
Early Monday morning, immediately after receiving information about a possible sighting of Rebecca Lewis in Campbell County, we set about utilizing our established processes to expand the reach of Florida's AMBER Alert, specifically in East Tennessee. That notification included interstate signage, social media, website (www.tn.gov/tbi), and secondary notifications - such as cell phone alerts - offered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.As mentioned above, the situation escalated in Tennessee when authorities verified use of a bank card connected to Hogs in the Nashville area this morning. Tennessee issues AMBER Alerts regionally (East, Middle, & West) and has activated in all three regions in this instance out of an abundance of caution. Our intention is to reserve AMBER Alerts for verified sightings and specific, actionable information that might result in the successful recovery of missing children determined to be in imminent danger. We would urge anyone who happens to see Lewis or Hogs - or the vehicle in which they may be traveling - to contact 911 immediately.
We are confident we have done everything possible - within the bounds of our established policies and practices - to assist authorities in Florida, given the information available to us throughout this event. We remain in constant contact with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and stand prepared to assist in any way as this ongoing search effort continues.