Texas House Approves Alert System for Missing Adults

Alison Steele, mother of slain teenager Cayley Mandadi, in her camper van at an Austin-area state park on Thursday. (CNS Photo/Daniel Conrad)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A year and a half after her 19-year-old daughter was killed, a Texas mother scored a major victory in her fight to ensure no other parent suffers what she did: on Friday, the Texas House passed a bill that would establish an adult alert system, similar to Amber Alerts, that could deter kidnappings and facilitate recovery efforts in emergencies.

“My daughter, I believe, might have been recoverable prior to her death if this type of instrument, and the training that naturally would go along with it, had been in place, on that day: Oct. 29, 2017,” Alison Steele said in an interview Thursday. “Her situation involved a known suspect, in a known vehicle, in a known location.”

A sophomore at Trinity University in San Antonio, Cayley Mandadi was a cheerleader and sorority sister when she attended Mala Luna Music Festival with Mark Howerton. A nearly four-month investigation by the Texas Rangers concluded that he drove Mandadi toward Houston before violently sexually assaulting her behind a gas station and dropping her off at a Luling hospital.

She was transported to a trauma center in nearby Kyle, where she was declared brain-dead on Oct. 30 and removed from life support the next day. Her death was ruled a homicide.

Howerton has been charged with murder and sexual assault and is awaiting trial.

Friends had seen the pair leave the festival, and reported the incident to the police when Mandadi did not answer their phone calls. But the police department’s hands were tied – an alert could not be issued even after friends reported Mandadi as missing.

“There’s no way for law enforcement to call an emergency broadcast alert for you, even if they know the circumstances of your disappearance,” Steele said. “We have to have a procedure, a protocol, and we have to have training and education of the people who have to deploy that stuff.”

In an April 3 hearing before the Texas House of Representatives Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, bill author Greg Bonnen, R-Galveston, explained the need for a new emergency broadcast system.

“There is no system in place for a missing or endangered adult between the ages of 18 and 65. Texas adults, and especially women, face the threat of violent crime but lack the support of an alert system like Amber,” Bonnen said. “Texans who are too old for an Amber Alert and too young for a Silver Alert are left stranded in the gap.”

Steele, 54, also testified before the committee that day.

“The very fact we have no adult alert implies that adults don’t really get kidnapped,” Steele said. “This suggests that something, maybe magical, happens around age 18 that suddenly eliminates or at least reduces that risk, and of course that simply isn’t true.”

Bonnen and Steele began work on House Bill 1769 last June and filed the legislation in mid-February. In the months since, Steele has taken time away from her environmental consulting firm so she could drive her camper van from her Houston-area home to state parks near Austin. She stays overnight in campgrounds and 24-hour parking lots in order to remain close to the legislative action, available to meet with Bonnen’s staffers on short notice should the need arise.

The bill — co-sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats — carries no formal name. The proposed adult alert system would be branded by the implementing agencies, but Steele privately refers to them as CALE Alerts, for Civilian Abduction or Life Endangerment.

Steele hopes the name, which echoes one of her daughter’s old nicknames, will help reduce confusion between existing Amber Alerts and her proposed adult alerts, which would be distributed through the same electronic methods as the existing alert systems.

When Steele sought advice and support from Beth Alberts, CEO for the Texas Center for the Missing and director of the Houston Area Regional Amber Alert System, this was the first concern on Alberts’ mind.

“I’ve always been very protective of the Amber Alert program. I don’t want anything to water it down, I don’t want the Amber Alert to have to compete,” Alberts said. “The more we talked, I learned about [Steele’s] story. … This is a fairly narrow scope of a program to possibly save the lives of these endangered young adults.”

By surveying statistics published by the Texas Council on Family Violence, Steele was able to estimate how many new alerts her proposed system could introduce.

“Sometimes parties are on the move. They’re on the road, they’re in vehicles,” Steele said Thursday. “I’m guesstimating that maybe this would result in about half a dozen alerts being called statewide per year.”

Amber Alerts are issued less frequently in Texas, Steele says, because their ubiquity has created a deterrent to criminals. This “paradigm shift,” as Steele calls it, has been effective in deterring child abductions, and could reduce adult kidnappings as well.

“Nobody gives it a try,” she said. “If you think you’re gonna grab that woman and get away with it, you’re sorely mistaken, because every Texan between here and El Paso is gonna be looking for you.”

Evidence supports the claim. On March 14, Texas withdrew an Amber Alert after a man, suspected of abducting two young children and their mother at gunpoint turned himself in once he noticed the alert.

Steele says an adult alert broadcast could also contribute to the state’s efforts to stamp out human trafficking.

Now that the bill has passed the House in a 139-0 vote Friday, it needs to go through the same process in the Texas Senate.

“Monday morning, first thing, I get with the senator who we believe will be the sponsor of the Senate bill,” Steele said Thursday.

The bill will be workshopped and written, taken to a committee for a hearing, and then to the Senate floor for a vote. Finally, if passed, it would cross Governor Greg Abbott’s desk to be signed into law.

“It’s always a great story, when something positive comes out of a horrible tragedy,” Alberts said. “To save one person’s life — isn’t that pretty much all anybody can hope for, in this life?”

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