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Late-night Amber Alert helps find missing toddler

Thousands of North Carolinians were awakened about 1 a.m. Friday by a piercing alert from their cellphones: a statewide Amber Alert for a missing toddler.

The mobile alert was part of a new nationwide system that began this year and is surprising some phone owners.

On Friday, the alert achieved exactly what it was supposed to: the safe return of a child within hours.

Late Thursday, 17-month-old Shylin Olanda Neal was sitting in a 2003 Chevrolet Suburban when it was stolen from a Food Lion parking lot in High Point. Family members told WXII-TV that the child’s godfather had left the keys in the car when he ran into the store.

Because the child was in a vehicle and law enforcement officials had no idea where the Chevy Suburban might be taken, authorities decided to issue a statewide Amber Alert.

Hours later and 13 miles from the Food Lion parking lot, UNC Greensboro student Mary Rizkalla, 19, spotted the vehicle as she was walking to classes about 8:30 a.m. She told the Greensboro News & Record that she recognized the Suburban from the message she saw on her cell phone.

Shylin was inside, and police said she was not injured. She and her family were reunited Friday. High Point police are looking for the person who stole the vehicle.

“This is the eighth alert we’ve issued this year with the new system,” said Sgt. Jeff Gordon, spokesman for the N.C. Highway Patrol. “In some cases, we issue the alert for specific areas. In this case, because we didn’t know where the vehicle might be headed, we decided to make it statewide.”

Gordon said he answered several calls from people Friday who wondered about the alarm.

“I’m sure some people might have been startled because it came in the middle of the night,” he said.

The mobile phone alerts are part of the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, which was approved several years ago by then-President George W. Bush and went into effect Dec. 31. The program is administered by FEMA and can include emergency weather alerts.

The program includes several levels of alerts, other than about missing children and severe weather. One is the Presidential Alert, issued by the White House in cases of major emergencies, Gordon said. Another is an Internet Alert, warning the public of possible large-scale Internet outages or hacking.

Cellphone customers can contact their carrier and ask to opt out of the Internet and Amber alerts, but not the Presidential Alert system. Some cellphones also have a setting that allows people to choose whether the free emergency notifications are accompanied by sound or vibration.

Gordon said he assumes some people thought the early morning alarm was an intrusion in their lives. But he added, “If it were your child who had been taken, you’d want to do everything you could to get the word out.”

Nationally, some people who support the program are concerned that too many people will opt out of the Amber Alerts. Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped from her California home in 1993 and later found dead, spoke out after California’s first statewide alert earlier this month.

“It’s an incredibly harsh sound,” Klaas said. “And it provides you with almost no information.”

“I think the intention is good, but the application itself is pretty awful,” Klaas said.

The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press contributed.

Steve Lyttle: 704-358-6107 Twitter: @slyttle
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