Greg Abbott

‘Athena Alert' Passes, Provides Faster, Regional Alerts on Missing Kids

Texas Senate passes House's “Athena Alert” bill, allowing local police to quickly issue a regional alert when a child vanishes without needing to confirm an abduction

Varghese Summersett Law Group

A bill that will allow local police to quickly issue a regional alert about a missing child, without having to wait for investigators to confirm an abduction, is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

The new law, informally known as an "Athena Alert," fills the gap between when a child disappears and how long it may take investigators to confirm an abduction has taken place -- which is the current threshold for officials to issue an AMBER Alert.

The Texas DPS said on July 6 that the new law allows local police to request an alert as soon as they know a child is missing, but clarified the alerts will still be sent under the AMBER Alert name.

"It is important for Texans to understand that the legislation did not create a new alert, and all alert messaging will continue to be referenced as an AMBER Alert," the DPS said.

With the new alert, police can use the existing AMBER Alert system to quickly distribute a localized alert to people within 100 miles of the reported disappearance, and to adjacent counties, notifying them a child is missing.

The sooner we can get the word out locally, the more chances we have to save a child’s life.

Benson Varghese, attorney representing Athena Strand's mother Matilyn Gandy

The law is named after Athena Strand, a 7-year-old North Texas girl who vanished from her father's Paradise home in November 2022 and was found dead two days later. A package delivery driver confessed to accidentally hitting Athena with his vehicle and then strangling her when she said she was going to tell her father about the incident.

The "Athena Alert," aka House Bill 3556, was authored by state Rep. Lynn Stucky (R-Sanger). It was passed by the Texas House of Representatives on May 9 and sent to the Texas Senate where it was sponsored by state Sen. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound). The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday.

“I am so grateful to Texas lawmakers for fast-tracking the 'Athena Alert' and for everyone who has supported this legislation,” said Athena’s mother, Maitlyn Gandy. “It means so much to know that my daughter’s life will have a lasting impact.”

As the bill was debated in the Texas House, Gandy testified before a select committee on April 25, recalling how she asked for an AMBER Alert to be issued as soon as she found out her daughter was missing.

“Unfortunately, I kept getting met with the same response that she, in her case, did not meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert to be issued,” Gandy said in April. “I don’t want someone to feel how I feel. I don’t want a mother to have to carry home an urn with her children’s ashes. I don’t want to watch another grandparent mourn the way my dad did.”

An AMBER Alert was eventually issued in Athena's case, but not until about 24 hours after she disappeared and not until after investigators said she'd been killed. Strand's body was found the following day about six miles from her home.

“If this alert had been in place when my daughter disappeared, I have no doubt that the Wise County Sheriff’s Office would have activated it,” Gandy said. “Unfortunately, their hands were tied because my daughter’s disappearance didn’t immediately meet the strict criteria for a statewide AMBER Alert."

NBC 5 News
Maitlyn Gandy, the mother of Athena Strand, speaks in Wise County on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

“It was a helpless feeling that I wouldn’t wish on any parent. My hope is that every state will follow Texas’ lead and amend the law so that no other parent has to wait when their child is missing," Gandy said.

Gandy’s attorney, Benson Varghese, said the governor is expected to hold a signing ceremony in honor of the slain girl. Once signed, the law will go into effect Sept. 1.

“The support for this bill has been overwhelming,” said Varghese. “It’s a common-sense bill that will save lives without creating a financial burden on taxpayers or an operational burden on law enforcement."

Gandy is an intervening plaintiff in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in March against her daughter's accused killer Tanner Horner, his employer, contracted carrier Big Topspin, and FedEx.

If convicted, Strand's accused killer faces either life in prison without parole or the death penalty. The Wise County DA said they plan to seek the death penalty in this case.

The AMBER Alert system was named after 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped near her Arlington home in January 1996 and later found brutally murdered. Amber's killer has never been found.

TEXAS STATEWIDE ALERT PROGRAMS

There are eight kinds of alerts that can be issued for missing or endangered people in Texas. They are listed below with links to a page with more information.

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