No 'Amber Alert' for adults
07:56 AM EDT on Saturday, September 29, 2007By Karen Lee Ziner
Journal Staff Writer
Four Rhode Island highway billboards began broadcasting electronic messages yesterday, notifying the public that Katherine N. "Katie" Corcoran, of Lincoln, is still missing, and posting a private 24-hour tip line. The Lamar Advertising Company is running those messages for free as a public service, a spokesman said.
Lamar Advertising is donating space and time on its electronic billboards posting information about Katie Corcoran, a 35-year-old woman missing from Lincoln.
The Providence Journal / Bill Murphy
Corcoran's family representatives contacted the Lamar company after learning that under Rhode Island law, Amber Alerts (an early warning system to prevent child kidnappings) do not apply to adults in Rhode Island.
A recent spate of local missing persons has underscored the difficulties faced by law-enforcement agencies, family and friends in such cases, particularly when the missing adult is mentally ill or is otherwise mentally or physically impaired, conditions that add to their vulnerability.
The cases involve Corcoran, 35, who disappeared Sept. 5, after leaving Butler Hospital, where she was receiving treatment for postpartum depression; Marian Edmonds, 53, of Providence, reported missing two weeks ago and said to suffer emotional problems; and Vicky L. Connolly, 33, of Woonsocket, last seen Sept. 6.
In another case, Anthony Smith left the Johnston Police Department foyer on Sept. 11 and was found last Sunday in Connecticut, where he had apparently walked. His case received widespread attention after advocacy groups accused Johnston police of racial bias both in stopping Smith's uncle, who is African-American, on a minor traffic violation and for questioning, then detaining Smith, who was a passenger in the car, after he gave conflicting answers. Family members said Smith is mentally disabled.
State police Maj. Stephen O'Donnell said missing persons reports are evaluated "case by case."
"It's situational. It all depends on the factors and situation presented to us," O'Donnell said. "If someone is missing and there's suspected foul play, we're going to send out our investigators looking. It's different than if you're 18 and you walk away from home," said O'Donnell. Among many other considerations, "always, when you're dealing with adults, it's a question of if they're endangered."
O'Donnell said municipal police departments report missing persons to state police, who enter them into the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) data base, available to law enforcement agencies nationwide.
O'Donnell said local police also issue missing persons messages and distribute reports and photographs to local media, and call on other departments for mutual aid.
O'Donnell said there are strict criteria for Amber Alerts in Rhode Island. Those include that law enforcement confirm a child has been abducted and believes that the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
The Katie Corcoran case illustrates how involved family and friends sometimes become, and the obstacles they face.
Michael Akkaoui, president and CEO of Tanury Industries in Lincoln, where Corcoran's husband works, is acting as a family spokesman, and along with Tom Tanury is leading the volunteer search for Corcoran.
To date that has included actual searching, distribution of thousands of "missing" posters; establishment of a 24-hour tip line; telephone and e-mail campaigns; checking on potential leads; and hiring a private detective.
But Akkaoui said they hit a roadblock when the state police turned down their request for an Amber Alert.
"Their response was that it's really reserved just for children, and they didn't feel they had the ability to use it for adults. We understand their reservations," he said, "but it certainly would have been a great assistance to us."
Yesterday, the owner of Lamar billboards stepped in and volunteered to post electronic messages, for free, which Akkaoui said "was kind of our way of getting around it." The electronic messages are being shown once a minute at four billboards, on Routes 146, 10, 195 and 95.
State Rep. Edith Ajello said she and state Sen. Rhoda Perry have twice introduced legislation — unsuccessfully — to add persons with Alzheimer's disease to the Amber Alert criteria. They intend to reintroduce the bill, she said.
"The opposition really came from the police and the Department of Transportation," which she said expressed concerns that posting missing adults would overburden the Amber Alert system.
"I think what these stories are pointing out is there's a somewhat larger group of people that could be helped with this," particularly mentally impaired people, Ajello said. "... The immediacy of highway signs, as opposed to TV and print, could be really helpful. ... You could be doing an Amber Alert at the same time you're warning of congestion or an accident ahead."
Akkaoui credited Lincoln and Newport police (where a woman believed to be Corcoran was sighted in several locations more than a week ago) for their painstaking efforts. But he said, "As hard as the authorities try, and we appreciate everything that they've done, there doesn't seem to be one central coherent location where strategic plans are made for finding someone."
"If it was a criminal, yes. If it was an adolescent, yes. If it was a kidnap, yes. But when it's a missing adult, there doesn't seem to be a program you can reach out to and say, 'Here's a coordinator.' Or 'Here's a contact.' "
Several resources include the National Center for Missing Adults ( www.theyaremissed.org ) created in 2000 as a national clearinghouse for missing adults in the United States, as well as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill ( www.nami.org), whose Web site offers guidelines for families of missing mentally ill persons.
The Corcoran family and friends are offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to her return. People with information can call a 24-hour tip line at (401) 439-7988; or Lincoln Police at (401) 333-1111.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Vicky L. Connolly, of Woonsocket, is asked to call Woonsocket detectives at (401) 766-1212.
Anyone with information on Marian Edmonds is asked to call Providence detectives at (401) 243-6406.
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