Suffolk and New York State Police said Thursday they will review Amber Alert procedures after a Coram man armed with a hunting rifle abducted his 2-year-old son before both were found dead in rural Virginia.
“As is standard procedure, both agencies will review the steps and guidelines to ensure that best practices were followed,” said a joint statement from both agencies sent by Suffolk police. “We want to reassure the public that every aspect of this investigation will be thoroughly reviewed.”
Authorities in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on Thursday confirmed the identity of the bodies found early Wednesday as John Ligurgo III and his son, Jovani. Both were found in a burning vehicle near Raphine, a small village in western Virginia, said Capt. Tony McFaddin of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.
The causes of death are under investigation by the Virginia chief medical examiner’s office in Roanoke. McFaddin said each body had a single gunshot wound but investigators have yet to determine if the deaths resulted from a murder-suicide.
“All the evidence, everything points in that direction,” he said.
Suffolk police had requested state authorities send an Amber Alert Tuesday night for Jovani after the toddler’s father failed to return him that afternoon to the boy’s mother in Smithtown. Suffolk police believe Ligurgo set fire to his condominium and fled with Jovani and the hunting rifle in his 2013 Jeep Cherokee.
Although Suffolk investigators said Ligurgo set fire to the condo and was armed, State Police said they declined to issue the Amber Alert because Ligurgo did not have a criminal record or a history of violence. By the time the agency was notified about the abduction, State Police said Wednesday, Ligurgo and his son had crossed the George Washington Bridge, shifting the investigation to New Jersey law enforcement.
Maria Busone, Jovani’s mother, criticized both agencies Wednesday for failing to issue the Amber Alert. Busone said then that she met up with Suffolk officers responding to the Coram fire Tuesday and told them Ligurgo lived there and had failed to return Jovani about 90 minutes earlier.
Thursday’s joint statement said both agencies worked through the night and into the next morning to find Ligurgo and Jovani.
“The priority of all involved was to locate the child and father and ensure their safe return,” the statement said.
While the agencies check protocol and procedures of the alerting system as it relates to Tuesday’s abduction, they should look at improving ways to identify risk factors that could put a child in danger when they are taken without authorization by a parent, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former NYPD officer.
“It is not always foreseeable who may or may not be in danger,” O’Donnell said. “But the police have gotten a better handle on missing-persons cases and you can expect more particular inquiries when a parent, guardian or relative is implicated.”
On Wednesday, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart defended the department’s efforts, including sending information about the missing son and father to a national alert system for law enforcement.
“We followed protocol,” said Hart, the former senior supervisory resident agent in the Long Island office of the FBI who took the helm of the 2,500-member department in April. “We provided the necessary information and details to the State Police, and at that time they made the determination not to issue the Amber Alert.”
Busone had called Suffolk police at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to tell them Ligurgo had failed to bring Jovani to her home as planned, police said. She then drove to the condo she at one time shared with Ligurgo and spoke with Suffolk investigators at 5:30 p.m., who then determined the fire had been intentionally set.
Minutes before, at 5:27 p.m., the Jeep had crossed into New Jersey, although the NYPD did not inform Suffolk police until more than two hours later, officials said. Suffolk called at 7:53 p.m., requesting the Amber Alert, said State Police spokesman William Duffy.
State Police returned the call at 8:04 p.m. but later determined that an Amber Alert was not warranted.
Even if the agency had issued an Amber Alert — an urgent bulletin in child abduction and missing cases that relies on the public’s cooperation — it’s far from certain it would have been enough to save Jovani, said Timothy Griffin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada who has studied 15 years of Amber Alert data.
Griffin said the system is often not fast enough to be effective in abduction cases.
“The system is being oversold to the public,” Griffin said. “I doubt if an Amber Alert had been issued in this case it would have made a difference.”
Since the inception of the Amber Alert program in 1996 through the end of 2016, 867 children have been safely recovered as a result of an alert, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
In 2016, 179 Amber Alerts were issued nationwide for 231 children, according to a report from the center. Of those cases, 155 resulted in the safe return of the children, 43 as a direct result of an Amber Alert, the report said.
Another 13 children were found dead and as of February 2017 three were still missing, the report said.