RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The abduction and slaying of a 19-year-old Norfolk woman prompted General Assembly approval of legislation to create an Amber Alert-like system for “critically missing” adults.
The “Ashanti Alert” called for in HB 260, sponsored by Del. Jerrauld Jones, D-Norfolk, was approved by the Senate on Thursday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.
Ashanti Billie was abducted in 2017 from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because Billie was an adult, she didn’t meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.
“Once Ashanti went missing, we became more aware of other situations where something like this had happened but there was no mechanism in place,” said Jones, who represents the 89th House District, where Billie lived. “This is a public safety issue, not a partisan issue.”
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Eric Brian Brown, described by authorities as a retired Navy veteran who worked at the base with Billie, has been charged with kidnapping in Virginia and in connection with her death in the Charlotte area.
Members of Billie’s family connected with Jones through their friend Kimberly Wimbish, who had worked with the delegate on his election campaign last year. They asked him to draft a bill to help those who currently don’t qualify for missing persons alerts.
Wimbish, who initially used Facebook to publicize the young woman’s disappearance, said the case raised awareness about missing adults, especially in the Norfolk area where people had connections to Billie.
“Everyone said she would give them her last. That she was always helpful and friendly,” said Wimbish, who serves as the family’s spokeswoman. “We have to know and believe her kindness was taken for granted.”
Jones said the bill gives Virginia State Police the power to set criteria for the “critically missing adult alert.”
Currently, Virginia has three alerts for missing persons:
.Amber Alerts and Endangered Missing Child Media Alerts, for missing persons under age 18.
.Senior Alerts, sometimes called Silver Alerts, for persons 60 or older.
That leaves a gap for adults between 18 and 60 years old.
If approved by the governor, the Ashanti Alerts will be modeled on the Amber Alerts. An Amber Alert includes issuing emergency messages over public broadcasting networks, displaying electronic messages on highway signs and sending texts to all cellphones within range of the cellular carrier towers in the affected area.
Amber Alerts are also spread voluntarily by other state agencies, the news media and nonprofit organizations. For example, a program called A Child Is Missing can make 1,000 telephone calls with a recorded alert within a minute, according to Virginia’s Amber Alert Plan.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that Amber Alert systems nationwide have helped in the recovery of more than 540 children.
Last year, the General Assembly declared April 29 as “Missing Persons Day” to recognize the 600 Virginians missing at that time, and their families. Advocates are getting ready for the second annual Virginia Missing Persons Day.
This story was produced by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.