COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — About four hours after a Columbus woman allegedly abducted 5-month-old twin boys when she drove off in a stolen car, an Amber Alert sounded on Ohioans’ phones early Tuesday.

Before the alert reached Ohioans, the Columbus Division of Police assessed the situation, which was first reported to them around 9:45 p.m. on Monday. More than 50 officers began a grid-pattern search of the area near the Donatos Pizza on North High Street — where the car and children were reported missing — and even called in a police helicopter.

Around 10:30 p.m., Columbus police alerted the Ohio State Highway Patrol and other agencies to the abduction. Investigators searched the suspect’s previous addresses and three different homeless camps where she may have stayed.

Columbus police asked the OSHP to issue an Amber Alert at approximately 11:41 p.m. Monday, and an hour later — after determining whether criteria existed for an Amber Alert — the OSHP began the process of issuing an alert. It wasn’t until 1:38 a.m. Tuesday that the Amber Alert officially dinged on Ohioans’ cell phones.

Reserved for the most severe of missing children cases, issuing an Amber Alert is few and far between in Ohio, according to Newburgh Heights Police Chief John Majoy, who has served as the chairman of the Northeast Ohio Amber Alert Committee since 2014. It requires patience, diligent fact-finding, and the adherence to a strict, four-point checklist, Majoy said, often involving multiple agencies across the state.

“An Amber Alert is kind of like calling all cars, we’re ringing the bell for a real big emergency,” Majoy said.

One of the first steps a law enforcement agency takes is accessing a database called LEADS, the Law Enforcement Automated Data System, Majoy said. It’s a one-stop shop where agencies process drivers’ licenses, enter search warrants and missing persons reports, and access other information.

If enough evidence exists within LEADS that points to the need for an Amber Alert, Majoy said agencies can enter a missing juvenile report using what’s called an Amber Alert code within the system. Doing so automatically notifies the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations and the FBI.

“The agency would then notify the Ohio State Highway Patrol,” Majoy said, “And what the Ohio State Highway Patrol will do then is they will determine whether or not the criteria meets and Amber Alert.”

Four criteria must be met before the OSHP can hit the button to issue an Amber Alert, Majoy said:

  1. The child must be under 18 years old
  2. Credible information exists to suggest the child was forcibly/intentionally removed or lured away from their location and remains missing
  3. The law enforcement agency believes the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death
  4. There is enough descriptive information about the child, abductor and the abductor’s vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help

Majoy said it can be a tough call for law enforcement agencies to determine whether to issue an Amber Alert. Issuing too many alerts could incense Ohio residents, causing them to turn off the notifications, Majoy said. Further, agencies are bound by Ohio’s “strict criteria.”

For example, “a parent hasn’t returned a child from a custody visit. OK, not a problem (arising to Amber Alert level). But all of a sudden, their social media post says they’re suicidal, then that‘s a different story. There’s all kinds of different variables,” Majoy said.

Agencies can always release an Endangered Missing Advisory if the circumstances of the case don’t meet the strict Amber Alert criteria, Majoy said. Unlike an Amber Alert, the EMA is not automatically distributed statewide, focusing instead on a smaller geographical area.

Majoy said a fair question he often receives from the media and the public surrounding Amber Alerts is, “Why did it take so long?” The answer, he said, is because law enforcement wants to be certain that all the criteria are met, and that’s not always an immediate process.

He pointed to a case out of Cleveland, where a mother allegedly abducted a child from a hospital room. It took responding law enforcement agencies and the hospital “a while to put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” resulting in a four-hour delay between the abduction and the Amber Alert. “There’s not a boiler plate model,” he said.

“There’s some that come out really fast and some that take a little while,” Majoy said. “This is why the message to the public is that law enforcement is not doing a poor job. Law enforcement is making sure 100% that it’s an Amber Alert before they ring the bell.”

“Once they sound the alarm,” Majoy said, “Get ready because the floodgates will open.”