Three hours before dawn broke Wednesday, about 60,000 people got the call.
An automated voice told those roused from bed that a 16-year-old Tacoma girl with special needs had walked away from a bowling alley Tuesday evening with a 21-year-old sex offender. An Amber Alert was in effect.
Briana Troyer and Terrence Powell were missing, and police wanted the public’s help finding them.
“We were hoping to get tips to help the investigation move along, which is what it did,” police spokesman Mark Fulghum said.
Many who received the 4:20 a.m. call were thankful when Briana later was found safe, but displeased about the decision to wake them with an emergency they were unlikely to be able to help with.
Some accused the police department of showing favoritism for a fellow officer. Briana, who is developmentally disabled and has the mental capacity of a 9-year-old, is the daughter of Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.
Although Troyer is the county’s Amber Alert coordinator, police said he played no role in deciding to issue the alert.
Troyer “stayed in the parent role,” Fulghum said.
The decision, Fulghum said, originated with police investigators who were concerned for two reasons: Briana has special needs and was with a known sex offender.
Powell is a Level 1 sex offender, which is the lowest classification, often reserved for first-time offenders. That means he is the least likely to reoffend. There are more than 2,400 sex offenders in Pierce County, about 1,700 of whom are Level 1 offenders.
Powell was convicted in Pierce County in 2004 for a sex crime. Details are unavailable because the case has been sealed. He was charged with communicating with a minor in 2010, but the charge was dismissed because the victim’s family didn’t want to proceed, according to the Federal Way City Attorney’s Office.
Tuesday’s incident started at Tower Lanes on Sixth Avenue, where Briana had gone to participate in a league matchup. The girl was on Wilson High School’s team, which went up against Lincoln High School at 3 p.m.
The game ended just before 5:30 p.m., when witnesses told police they saw Briana and Powell leave the bowling alley and walk west on Sixth Avenue.
Student athletes are supervised during games, but it is the family’s responsibility to get them to and from matches, Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel said. The district learned Briana was missing Wednesday morning when police called a school resource officer for information about the girl and the event.
Troyer said a friend was supposed to bring Briana home. When Briana’s ride realized the teen was missing, her family was notified and began calling around trying to find her. They notified police about 7:30 p.m.
Bowling alley employees watched surveillance video and found witnesses to identify the man Briana left with. Then they matched his photo with his bowling card, giving detectives a positive ID.
“It went from bad to worse real quick,” Troyer said, adding how helpless he felt knowing his daughter was with a sex offender.
Patrol officers canvassed the area around the bowling alley. A search and rescue team used bloodhounds and other tracking dogs. Detectives interviewed friends and other witnesses who were at Tower Lanes. Once Powell was identified and police had a better sense of what they were dealing with, police issued the Amber Alert shortly after 3 a.m.
At that point, the Police Department’s Child Abduction Response Team took over and instructed Pierce County Emergency Management to send out the automated phone calls to everybody who had a land line in Tacoma or had signed up for the county’s emergency alerts.
“Basically we work in support of their team,” Emergency Management spokeswoman Sheri Badger said.
This was the first real-life case the newly formed CART team has worked on. It hopes to be certified within months.
“I’m really glad the Tacoma Police Department has been doing the training they’ve been doing, as should every other parent,” Troyer said.
The agency has three databases to choose from when they send out an automated call. The largest includes all the land lines in the region; the second largest is all the phone numbers listed in the White Pages; the smallest is of people who have asked for county alerts.
Officials considered Briana’s case a “life-saving emergency.”
“In this scenario, we used the 911 database for all of those people in the city of Tacoma,” Badger said.
The system tried to call 148,000 numbers. It reached about 60,000.
Those who answered the phone learned of the missing girl. Those who picked up after their answering machine did heard mechanical sounds. The recording was not left as a message because it would have backed up the system due to the large volume of people it called, Badger said.
Several people called Emergency Management to complain about the early morning call, she said, and some wanted to opt out of future calls. That is not an option. Residents can remove themselves from the list to receive county alerts, but cannot opt out of hearing about life-saving emergencies in which the 911 caller database is used.
Police said they don’t know whether the automated call or the Amber Alert prompted the tip that led officers to Briana and Powell. The two were found asleep at a North End home belonging to an acquaintance of Powell’s.
Detectives were interviewing the two to determine what they did after leaving the bowling alley and whether a crime was committed. Powell was expected to be released while the investigation continued.
Troyer said his daughter was doing OK but had never really been away from home overnight, especially under these circumstances.
“I think she’s had a shock to her system,” he said. “She’s confused as to what happened still. We’ll get through it.”Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 email@example.com