WASHINGTON – Jay Etheridge, who has been in Florida law enforcement for 23 years, says one thing sticks in his mind about the abduction and murder of Carlie Brucia: Her mother said she wished police hadn’t spent so much time scrambling for help in the hours after her 11-year-old daughter disappeared.
Carlie's abduction near a Sarasota car wash was captured on videotape on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004. Her body was discovered five days later. Her killer, Joseph Smith, was sentenced last month to die for Carlie's rape and murder.
The car wash video helped identify Carlie's abductor, but those five days also provided a valuable lesson, said Etheridge, an assistant special agent in charge with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"With every passing minute, you can’t spend time looking for, OK, where are we going to get the bloodhounds from?" Etheridge told FOXNews.com. "We want to spend that time looking for that child."
Etheridge said he began devising a plan for just such an event even before Carlie's disappearance. After seeing other high-profile missing child investigations, like the Elizabeth Smart case in Utah, Etheridge came up with a program to prepare police departments before an abduction and gather experts in one place to aid in the investigation. In late 2004, the plan became reality and was introduced statewide.
Now, after what Justice Department officials say is a year of proven success in Florida, the Child Abduction Response Teams program will be rolled out nationally, beginning with training in San Diego in January and $1.5 million in federal money to back the start-up of 10 such programs nationwide.
The idea is simple in some ways, and complex in others, Etheridge said. In practice in Florida, the program relies on little more than a telephone tree.
CARTs are designed for the average municipal police departments with fewer than 100 patrol officers and little money to spend on highly-trained personnel who deal regularly with victims services, media, specialized interrogation or complex crime scene processing.
Once a local police department has determined that an abduction may have taken place, the police chief calls in the CART. Several such teams are assembled in Florida and broken down by region. Generally, the teams have about 50 members, including state investigators, parole and probation representatives, legal advisers, nonprofit organizations and victims advocates.
"We tried to imagine anything and everything you would need," Etheridge said, including already having a toll-free phone number on reserve to operate a crime tip line.
Etheridge said that over the past year in Florida, CARTs have been activated 13 times and police found 11 children alive. The two other cases, including one involving Jessica Lunsford, whose alleged abductor confessed in March 2005 that he kidnapped and buried Jessica alive, were not so fortunate.
The first successful case of a recovered child since Florida launched the CART program was in October 2004, when a seven-year-old girl disappeared from her Winter Garden, Fla., home near Orlando. After investigators in the 50-officer Winter Garden police department found signs of foul play in the hours after the girl was reported missing, Etheridge said the CART received a phone call at about 8 a.m. By 9:20 a.m., 47 members of the team were in the area working the case.
It turned out the girl's kidnapper, 19-year-old Brent MacKinder, was in his nearby home. CART investigators trained in child abduction cases had already spoken to MacKinder once, and suspicious of his responses, were preparing for a follow-up interview when two bicyclists found the girl — alive but beaten and naked — emerging from nearby woods.
The girl was able to identify the suspect at the police station, and in June, MacKinder was sentenced to serve three consecutive life sentences on charges of kidnapping, two counts of sexual battery and attempted murder.
Linda Drane Burdick, the lawyer who prosecuted the case, said many factors led to a successful prosecution, some of which cannot be attributed to the CART: the bicyclists who found the girl, the girl's DNA found on MacKinder's clothing.
But Burdick credited the CART with putting a large police presence in the area, which probably alerted the bicyclists and sped along the investigation.
"Moving quickly, getting [MacKinder] into the police station was fortuitous," Burdick said. MacKinder had agreed to go for the follow-up interview. "I’d say, yeah, it allowed things to progress much more quickly than ordinarily they would."
Not every aspect of CART is perfect, Burdick said. For one, the response teams add a layer of bureaucracy. "It kind of creates a paperwork nightmare" due to the number of agencies involved, and certain problems arise "when you have too many people stirring the pot," she said, acknowledging that those problems might have been ironed out by now since that case was the first time the CART had been used.
Etheridge noted a potential for typical territoriality when a larger police agency swoops into a small town, and admitted that cops have some of the largest egos. He said he combats that by saying "picture us as a toolbox," not as a competitor.
Federal officials are eager to get the program started nationally because they say it fills gaps where the popular Amber Alert program can fail. Amber Alerts can be issued only when certain criteria are met, like when a suspect or vehicle description is available.
Often no such clues exist in the minutes and hours after an abduction when leads are most important. One widely-cited study funded by the Justice Department in the late 1990s said that 74 percent of child abduction-murder victims die within the first three hours after the abduction.
"I think everybody sees [the CART program] as a very positive step forward" that builds on the Amber Alert program nationalized in 2002, Acting Assistant Attorney General Cybele Daley said. "We should never ignore a parent calling."
Daley will be heading the program for the Justice Department, and said officials hope the program will only be needed infrequently.
"You hope you never get a call from a parent on an abduction, but if you do, you want a plan," she told FOXNews.com.
But even with a good plan, CARTs might be difficult to nationalize. Daley said she hopes that by the end of 2006, 500 to 600 people will be trained in the national CART program, which will fill out 10 programs.
James Beistle, the executive director of Team Amber Alert, a Texas-based nonprofit advocacy group for missing children, said he hopes the federal government will be watchful of making sure the CART programs are evenly spread out throughout the states, a problem the Amber Alert programs suffer from in the nation.
He said each state has a different Amber Alert plan, and some are run by law enforcement and some aren’t. Some use emergency broadcasts while others don’t.
Daley said the CARTs will be based in the each of the 10 regions into which the country is divided, and acknowledged that geography might keep some of the CARTs from immediately reaching ground zero in an abduction case. For instance, a northern California incident could be several hours from a CART team based in San Diego.
That is also a concern for Beistle. He said the level of service for such a program should be the same in small-town America as it is in the booming metropolises.
"We need standardized response, but it needs to not just be for the big cities," Beistle said.
"That is always a concern" about getting on the ground quickly, Daley said, but her unit, the Office of Justice Programs, is offering the most resources it can to cover the widest territories possible. Even if those trained in the program aren't available immediately in person, they will be reachable by phone, she said.
Daley also said she hopes the new programs will spark interest by other law enforcement agencies to start local programs, and she believes the Florida program will convince local police departments that CART is a worthwhile program.
"It’s really hard to look at the success of Florida and not want to get on board right away," Daley said.