My name is Jennifer Price-Lehmann, and I am currently the program manager for the AMBER Alert training and technical assistance program with the National Criminal Justice Training Center at Fox Valley Technical College. Prior to that, I was the director of special operations for the Wisconsin Department of Justice in the Division of Criminal Investigation and have been in law enforcement for twenty-four years.
My interest in law enforcement began in kind of an interesting path. When I was in college in the early 1990s, I was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Apparel Design program, because I really wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to make clothes for a living and live in the big city, but all of that changed during my college years. I had a family tragedy and that really changed the trajectory of my career path and my interest in law enforcement. I had never really had an interest in law enforcement growing up.
My 14-Year-Old Cousin is Missing
I vividly remember the day. I was working at the Athletic department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I held a job as a college student, trying to make some extra money on the side. My mom called and told me that my cousin Chris was missing. He was fourteen years old, and he went missing on July 4th, 1994. I immediately started working on how I could help try to find him. He was certainly old enough to run away and just not reach out. But we knew that wasn’t the case here.
There was evidence at the home that there had potentially been some forced entry. There was also evidence that Chris left perhaps not necessarily by force but under circumstances that could be concerning. He left late at night and was gone in the morning.
My mom sent me a missing person poster and for the next several days, I was getting ready to get posters up all around campus, thinking somebody might know something. My cousin lived about forty-five miles from Madison, Wisconsin. He wasn’t old enough to drive, but I thought, “I’ve got to do something here.”
I still remember the day when my mom called and said, “If you’ve already put up posters, don’t put any more up because they found Chris’s body.” Chris was found deceased in the river in the next county over.
At the time, we didn’t know what happened since he had been in the water. So initially, our thought and the law enforcement’s response was that he went into the water on his own and drowned. It’s a fast-moving river. There’s a lot of undercurrent.
Fast forward now to July of 1995. So it’s a year after Chris died, and a boy in Baraboo named Thad Phillips, who was thirteen at the time, went missing.
It was late at night, Thad was groggy, and he left with a young man named Joe Clark who was seventeen at the time. Thad thought that Joe was someone else, maybe an uncle of his. So Joe takes Thad to Joe’s house and over the next couple of days he tortures Thad, breaking his bones and his legs in several places.
Thad can’t walk and he realizes that the situation is not good. He’s in a lot of pain; he’s stuck in this horror that he can’t get out of because Joe’s not letting him leave. Then, while Joe and his parents were gone, Thad basically army crawled down the steps from Joe’s bedroom to the main level of Joe’s house. Picture in your mind this thirteen-year-old boy: it’s been a couple of days, he’s tired, he’s hungry, and he’s in pain. He’s got broken bones. He was able to get the phone, grab the cord, get the phone off the wall, and he called 911. Thank goodness he did, because who knows what would have happened to Thad had he not been able to get the strength to call for help.
Reopening the Case
Here’s where my cousin’s case comes into place. While Thad was being tortured by Joe Clark, Joe talked about my cousin Chris, so Thad mentioned my cousin to the responding law enforcement and to the detectives. It was at that point that my cousin’s case took a whole different direction. My cousin’s body was exhumed, and law enforcement learned from their investigation into reopening my cousin’s case that my cousin’s legs were broken in the same manner that Thad’s had been broken. And so began a homicide case into my cousin’s disappearance, and law enforcement was able to then determine what really happened with Chris.
I don’t want to say he was necessarily abducted by Joe—not really in the true sense of the word that we think of when we hear “abduction.” That wasn’t the case when Chris went missing. He never, ever, of course, was expecting that he would never come back. Joe wasn’t a friend of Chris’s; they were acquaintances.
What we soon learned was that Chris was tortured much in the same manner as Thad. My cousin was put into the water by Joe, and he drowned because his legs were broken and he couldn’t swim. That is a difficult image for me to get out of my head as a person who investigated missing children for many years. But as a surviving family member, that’s not something that you can ever release.
Joe was arrested in July of 1995 and was charged and later convicted of not just my cousin’s murder, but also for the torture and abuse, mental harm, child enticement that he committed against that Thad Phillips. Joe Clark is now serving a hundred-year sentence in the Wisconsin state prison sentence system.
That was how I came into law enforcement; it was at that point that I realized that maybe being a fashion designer wasn’t what I was meant to do. So, I changed my major to criminal justice and behavioral science and law, graduated two years later, and from there, I applied at police departments in Wisconsin. I then started my law enforcement career as a patrol officer at the Wausau Police Department in Northern Wisconsin.
I worked there for a few years before I saw a posting for a job at the Wisconsin Department of Justice as a special agent. I knew going into my law enforcement career that I wanted to work cases involving missing children because of what happened with my cousin Chris. So, I applied and got that job. I was so excited to be a special agent, but I didn’t start working on missing children’s cases. It was 1999 and there was no AMBER Alert program; there was no child abduction response team in Wisconsin or in the U.S., for that matter, when my cousin was murdered, when Thad Phillips went missing and was tortured, or when I started with the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
I started out as a narcotics agent investigating drug crimes and did that for six or seven years. Then, an opening came up in our Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit. I was really passionate about that work, and I was lucky to be able to transfer into that unit as a special agent.
It was at that point that I really started working with our Wisconsin Clearinghouse manager and getting an understanding of what the AMBER Alert program really was in Wisconsin and nationally. I continued to work on child exploitation and Internet Crimes Against Children for several years and was promoted to special agent-in-charge overseeing ICAC and the ICAC Task Force. From there in 2008, I—along with a handful of other colleagues—developed the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Child Abduction Response Team (CART).
Later, I was promoted to the director of Special Operations. Two of the programs that were in the bureau that I led were our AMBER Alert program in the Clearinghouse for Missing Persons and also the CART Team. I then became the commander of our CART Team and led the team through a number of deployments and activations to missing children throughout the state of Wisconsin.
I felt that was really where I was meant to be. I first started in the ICAC unit and was field training with one of our most experienced special agents not only in the ICAC unit but in the entire division at that time. I shared with him the story about my cousin Chris, how I started my college career thinking I was going to be a fashion designer. I’ll never forget—we were in the car on the way to have lunch, and I was sharing this story with him and he looked at me and he said, “This is your destiny. This is what you were meant to do.”
Child Abduction Response Teams
Child Abduction Response Teams respond to missing and endangered children. In general, a CART Team is a multidisciplinary team of individuals who receive specialized training in missing endangered and abducted children to more effectively respond to a missing child case in a timely manner.
When a child goes missing, time is of the essence. We know that we are up against the clock when trying to find this missing child. A CART Team is made up of individuals who are able to swiftly respond as a team and in a coordinated manner to really focus on efforts to find a missing child.
Missing child cases can sometimes take many hours and days, and they’re very resource heavy. Most law enforcement agencies, even the largest agencies, don’t have the resources to be able to sustain a missing child investigation that can go into days, or in the case of Jayme Closs, weeks and months. So that’s what the child abduction response team does is really enhance the efforts of the initial law enforcement response and provide a coordinated effort to be able to focus on finding that child.
A few years ago, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s CART Team became the first U.S. DOJ-certified Child Abduction Response Team in Wisconsin. Since then, there’s been another team that has been certified with the U.S. DOJ, and there will certainly be more teams in Wisconsin that will also become certified. Nationally, there are many CART Teams who are certified through the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the program that I’m working for now: the AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program.
Difference Between CART and AMBER Alert
What is the difference between CART and AMBER Alert? People are familiar with AMBER Alerts, as they’ve received the alerts on their phones. They’ve seen them on TV, heard them on the radio. That is a quick way to get the information out to the public on the missing child, a suspect, or vehicle information.
Just because there’s an AMBER Alert doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a CART activation and deployment. Sometimes the law enforcement agency of jurisdiction doesn’t need the assistance of an outside CART. Maybe they have their own CART or maybe the investigation doesn’t necessarily warrant a CART at that point. Not every AMBER Alert comes with a CART deployment, and not every CART activation and deployment results in an AMBER Alert.
All fifty states have an AMBER Alert system. And while some of the criteria may differ a little bit from state to state, in Wisconsin, the AMBER Alert criteria is the following:
1) There is a missing child age seventeen or younger.
2) The child is in danger of death or great bodily harm.
3) There is enough information about the child, the suspect, and/or the vehicle that putting that information out to the public might aid in finding that child.
In Wisconsin, when a law enforcement agency has a missing child and they think that the criteria is met for the activation of an AMBER Alert, the local law enforcement agency of jurisdiction requests an AMBER Alert from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. There are law enforcement supervisors from the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) who are on call 24-7, 365, to field to any requests from local law enforcement for the activation of an AMBER Alert. When DCI approves an AMBER Alert activation, there are a number of steps that immediately go into play to make sure that the AMBER Alert is activated as quickly as possible.
There are a number of ways that the AMBER Alert is broadcast. There is the traditional Emergency Alerting System that is seen on the TV with the message scrolling and the loud notification on the radio. There is also the Wireless Emergency Alert that is received on a mobile device. Then, there is secondary distribution through platforms like social media or, in Wisconsin, through our partnership with the Wisconsin Lottery that displays the missing child information on the lottery terminals throughout the state. We also have a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. So when there’s an AMBER Alert, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation posts the vehicle information on their dynamic messaging boards throughout the state. This allows anyone who’s driving a vehicle on any of the highways where those messaging signs are located to see the AMBER Alert information right away, including the vehicle description. There’s no better way, in my opinion, to get vehicle information out on a suspect in a vehicle that might be traveling in our state than through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s dynamic messaging signs. Not everybody’s going to be listening to the radio while they’re driving. They may have the AMBER Alert notification silenced on their phone, but they will see that message board. What a great way to be able to get information out to the public, especially when we have vehicle information for a suspect that has abducted a child.
Tips and Leads
In terms of tips and leads management in a missing child investigation, it is so critically important to follow up on every single lead that comes in. It’s not uncommon for CART Teams to receive tips and leads from psychics who would report, for example, they sense that this child is drawn to water and you need to search this body of water. We may think, “Well, that’s not the information that we’re getting in our investigation. There’s no indication that the child is drawn to water,” but law enforcement still has to follow up on that because you just never know. I can tell you that my cousin was not drawn to water as a fourteen-year-old teenager, but guess what? He was found in the water.
It’s so important when you’re going through the tips that are coming in through your tip line to follow up on every single one and to have a system of managing those tips and leads so that law enforcement knows which tips have been followed up on which ones still need to be followed up on. And in doing so, then you know that there aren’t any tips and leads that are going on untouched.
Comprehensive Law Enforcement Search and Canvas
Another area that is really vital in a missing child investigation and for the CART Team is a comprehensive search and canvas. Time is of the essence when you have a missing child investigation. So, for example, when you know the place where the child was last seen, you want to be able to focus your initial search efforts in those areas. It might be, for example, in the middle of a neighborhood in an urban community. It may by a two-hundred-unit apartment building, and it may seem daunting. The child may have been last seen in the parking lot of this apartment complex. There may also be single-family homes that surround this apartment complex and also businesses. So how in the world is all of this going to get done? And that’s really where the CART comes in, to supplement the ongoing efforts of law enforcement and their initial response.
Every door needs to be knocked on. If there’s two hundred units in that apartment building, then you have to knock on all two hundred units—every single door. And if you knock on the door and no one answers, you have to go back. It’s much like the tips and leads; you can’t leave any stone unturned.
In the case of a search and canvas, when you don’t go back to a residence or an apartment where you didn’t initially get an answer, that’s a stone that’s unturned, and that might just be the apartment where the child is being held captive. Imagine if it was your child? You would want law enforcement to go back as many times as it takes to find your child.
We can’t discount businesses. There are a lot of leads that you can glean from businesses in the area where a child goes missing from, whether it be from surveillance cameras or witness interviews. There’s all kinds of resources that are available. But when it comes down to those search efforts and being able to hone in on the areas where the child may have been seen by somebody or something like a camera, get that video footage and continue to work your case that way.
AMBER Alerts and Social Media
Another area that is really important to follow up on is social media. Children, even at younger and younger ages, are getting on social media platforms using mobile devices and sometimes still using a traditional computer or laptop. That really should be considered another lead that needs to be pursued.
Just like a child can leave their fingerprint at the scene, they can leave a digital fingerprint as well. So it’s very important to follow up on where the child was in the moments and the hours leading up to the child’s disappearance to try to identify if there is a connection between the child’s social media activity and their disappearance. Did the child meet someone online? Did they meet that person in-person and then leave, whether willingly or by force? Those items can give you a lot of information on where to focus some of your efforts, so it’s important to follow those leads.
If a child goes missing on a Monday, you don’t want to just look at the child’s social media activity over the weekend leading up to their disappearance. You need to determine if they are still active on their social media now that they are missing. For a child who’s really, really active on social media leading up to their disappearance, and then following their disappearance they have no social media presence at all, that’s concerning. Why is the child not able to connect to their social media? That can give a lot of information about the child itself and his/her patterns of behavior, and then looking at after the child goes missing, what sort of patterns or behaviors are still present in their social media or absent?
Approving AMBER Alerts
In order to approve any AMBER Alert request that comes in to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the case has to be evaluated, and there’s a whole spectrum of missing children. Cases can include your true non-family stranger abduction where you have a child who is forcibly removed from their setting by a stranger. Then you have, for example, a biological parent that may take the child from the parent that has custodial rights and physical placement. The other parent is left reporting the child to law enforcement, and the evaluation is the same. Is it a child age seventeen or younger? Is there a danger of death or great bodily harm? And is there enough descriptive information about the child, the suspect, or the vehicle to put out to the public?
The age and the descriptive information about the child are easy. We have that information from the parent that is reporting the incident to law enforcement. We probably have a description of the clothes the child was wearing. We also have the other parent’s (the one who took the child) name and information as well as the vehicle they’re driving.
So the first two criteria are met. It’s the third criteria that can be very difficult, particularly when you have a missing child who is taken by a biological parent. So even though it’s a biological parent, we know that sometimes parents kill their children. And in evaluating whether to activate the AMBER Alert, we have to think about the endangerment and the danger that the child is in even though they’re with their parent.
I continued my work in AMBER Alerts and CART Teams through the rest of my career at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. In 2020, an opening became available at the National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) in the AMBER Alert, Training, and Technical Assistance Program. I have had contact over the years with NCJTC through their training and technical assistance because I was a recipient of the training that they offer.
I thought to myself that I’d been in law enforcement, at that point, twenty-three-ish years and that this was the next step: to take my experience of having a family member—a child in the family—who went missing and was murdered, my experience in law enforcement leading an AMBER Alert program and CART Team, and really taking it to the next level in sharing what I think I had to offer on a national stage. And that’s what I did.
AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program Manager
My current role with the AMBER Alert training and technical assistance program is as a program manager. In my role, I work with a team to deliver training to law enforcement and other criminal justice practitioners in the area of missing children. This training is to leverage any technology to enhance their capabilities and competencies of law enforcement in the safe recovery of missing and endangered children.
We can’t forget the AMBER Alert in Indian Country program that we have through the AMBER Alert, Training, and Technical Assistance Program. Through that initiative, we work directly with the tribal communities across the country to make sure that they have the training and technology to be able to enhance their capabilities to respond to a missing, exploited, or endangered child.
Maintaining Your Well Being
One area that is often overlooked in law enforcement personnel who are working in child exploitation, missing and abducted children, and human trafficking is the well-being of the individuals who are working these cases. As I described my cousin’s case, you may have felt a sense of emotion or sadness. Your imagination was probably thinking how horrific it was. All of these missing children cases are, but some are more so than others. So it’s important to not overlook the value and the criticality of wellness offerings for not just law enforcement, but anyone who is working on missing and exploited or endangered child cases, because these types of cases can change your soul.
So if you’re working child exploitation full-time, day in and day out, that takes a toll on your psyche. It takes a toll on who you are as a person, how you respond to your family and friends, how you respond to strangers, what you think about the world. And it’s important to be able to have healthy outlets to keep yourself healthy not just physically but to also keep your mind space healthy and your mental health in check.
There should be no stigma anymore. We’ve reached a point, particularly in law enforcement, where well-being and wellness initiatives are becoming far more commonplace than they were when I started twenty-four years ago. You just didn’t talk about what things were bothering you back then, because you just didn’t do it. So whether you’re just going into this field or if you’ve been in law enforcement for a long time, don’t forget to keep yourself well.