Search for missing 12-year-old girl widens
A day after her disappearance triggered Vermont's first-ever Amber Alert, investigators focused on someone Brooke Bennett may have met online, the head of the Vermont State Police said.
"This case is about a MySpace visitation," said Col. James Baker. "Our focus is on the communications Brooke may have had via that media."
Police are asking for help from the public. Anyone who was in Randolph Wednesday morning is asked to call the state police, even if they don't think they saw anything significant, Baker said. They're especially interested in talking with people in the store at the same time Brooke and her uncle were there.
Brooke, of Braintree, vanished Wednesday after being dropped off at about 9 a.m at a convenience store in Randolph, where she was supposedly going to meet a friend and then go to a hospital to visit a relative of the friend.
She was seen in Randolph as late as 9:45 and possibly later, Baker said
Police now believe Brooke was not planning to meet a friend and that she may have been going to meet someone she'd been communicating with online. Video from an interior surveillance camera at the store -- released Friday -- showed the girl and her uncle walk into the store and then leave, each going in separate directions, with Brooke walking away by herself.
She was seen about 45 minutes later inside the Randolph Village Laundromat, police said.
Baker wouldn't say whether she was alone at that point, nor would he say whether police suspect foul play.
"We don't know if Brooke left with someone voluntarily. We don't know if Brooke is in another state camping and has no idea that this whole thing is going on," Baker said. "We're not ready to say that she was kidnapped, but we made the decision yesterday to put that Amber Alert out, take a very liberal interpretation of what kidnap meant."
Brooke was reported missing about 9 p.m. Wednesday, and an Amber Alert -- the first ever in Vermont -- was issued Thursday.
On Friday, state police dive teams searched Sunset Lake, near where items belonging to Brooke were found Thursday by a family member. Baker said the divers found nothing.
Meanwhile, investigators from the Vermont State Police, FBI and other agencies were trying to track Brooke's movements after she was dropped off by her uncle and cousin.
During the day Friday, the FBI brought in agents from New England as well as experts in behavioral science from Quantico, Va.
A major focus of the investigation was centered on her online activities.
"As we all know, warnings have gone out countless times, in this world that we live in today, there are folks that visit places, social networking spaces such as MySpace, whose intentions are not good. And they come from far away," said Baker.
Investigators aren't ruling out the possibility Brooke may have left Vermont.
Police want to hear from anyone who was in Randolph on Wednesday between 9:45 a.m. and 11 a.m., even if they don't think they saw anything, Baker said.
Baker said the Amber Alert wasn't issued sooner because investigators had to determine if her disappearance met the criteria for one. Officials didn't decide to issue the alert until they knew the MySpace activity could be related to it, he said.
Baker said MySpace officials -- who posted the Amber Alert on their web site -- were being helpful.
"MySpace takes the safety of our users very seriously," its chief security officer, Hemanshu Nigam, said in a statement released by the company. "We are assisting the Vermont State Police Department and cannot comment any further as it is an ongoing investigation."
Experts in missing children say the Internet can be a dangerous place.
"The reality is that the internet is the predator's new playground. They don't have to lurk in bushes anymore, they can lurk in cyberspace," said Marc Klaas, founder of the Klaaskids Foundation, of Sausalito, Calif.
"It provides them with a much greater degree of anonymity. It enables them to create any kind of a fantasy or fake life they want so they can use their well-honed manipulative skills to get close to the particularly vulnerable," said Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in 1993 and later found slain.
Bob Hoever, associate director of training for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said child abductions related to the Internet are on the rise.
The public's help can be key in solving them.
"When a child disappears, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he said.
"The more eyes and ears we have out there looking, the smaller that haystack becomes. Thanks to public help, 400 children have been safely rescued and returned to their families specifically because of the Amber Alert program and the public's help."
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