CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — When 10-year-old Lily Peters' father first reported his daughter missing Sunday evening around 9 p.m., Chippewa Falls Police immediately called in neighboring departments and launched a frantic search for the Parkview Elementary fourth grader.
Together, these agencies searched the woods with a drone, knocked on neighbors' doors overnight and notified the public early Monday morning of Lily's disappearance through a press release. However, due to strict federal guidelines and Wisconsin state law, law enforcement did not issue an AMBER Alert.
"The Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigations was contacted and, at this point, the incident does not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert," Chippewa Falls Police Chief Matthew Kelm wrote in his press release Monday morning, referring to rules that require police in Wisconsin to have evidence of an abduction and specific information about a suspect or vehicle.
Within hours, police would find Lily's body near a walking trail in the woods, and they would later arrest a 14-year-old suspect in her killing.
While it is not clear whether an Amber Alert would have impacted the investigation or saved Lily's life, the circumstances of her death have prompted questions about the alert process, leaving many in Chippewa Falls to wonder why they did not receive a notification on their phone about Lily in the early hours of the investigation.
Eric Henry, a lifelong Chippewa Falls resident, started an online petition to push for the creation of a "Lily alert," to give police the option to issue an additional notification "with less regulations around it so we can respond quicker to missing children."
In an interview with KARE 11, Henry said he does not claim to have all the answers or the solutions, but he said he hopes the petition serves as a starting point for conversation.
As of Friday evening, more than 74,000 people have signed the petition, providing various comments alongside their signatures. "There is no reason the public was not made aware so we could help look for her last night," one user wrote on Monday. Another stated: "There needs to be more done as soon as a child is reported missing."
"There are a lot of scenarios that clearly don't meet the requirements for an AMBER Alert," Henry said. "The petition was just to get the ball rolling, and just get a discussion in place. To see, could we do more?"
The petition has already commanded the attention of Wisconsin's state legislature, including Rep. Jesse James, a Republican and former police chief who represents the Chippewa Valley in the Assembly.
"It's huge. We've had stakeholders from across the country reach out to us as legislators, and there are ideas generating," James said. "People have many, many ideas. We're looking at other legislation that other states have."
In particular, James pointed to Hailey's Law in Missouri, which strengthened aspects of the Amber Alert system in that state.
In Madison, meanwhile, lawmakers have also looked for advice internally by reaching out to the legislators who drafted the state's original AMBER Alert rules.
Since the system went into effect in 1996, every state in the country has implemented Amber Alert plans, based on minimum guidelines set by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice argues that "for an AMBER Alert to be effective in recovering a missing child, the law enforcement agency must have enough information to believe that an immediate broadcast to the public will enhance the efforts of law enforcement to locate the child and apprehend the suspect," based on descriptive information about the suspect or a vehicle involved in an abduction. Using an Amber Alert without that information "could lead to abuse of the system and ultimately weaken its effectiveness," the DOJ has said.
"What we're trying to do... is not impeding or changing anything about the Amber Alert system in the state of Wisconsin, but let's look at the big picture when it comes to any report of a missing child," Rep. James said. "If there needs to be drafted legislation, and what that would look like."
Henry initially drafted the document specifically to State Senator Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls).
Bernier's office has not yet responded to KARE 11's request for comment. She told a local newspaper this week that "I appreciate the heartfelt, sincere desire to do something, but before approaching legislation, you need all the facts to come out. To react, due to this tragedy, with another law, which wouldn't make a difference? I don't want to do a knee-jerk reaction before all the facts are fully out."
Henry said he also contacted Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat. His office also did not respond to a KARE 11 inquiry on Friday.
Even so, Henry's petition has already accomplished his goal of starting a conversation.
"I wasn't even expecting a thousand people to take notice of it, and now I think it's at like 72,000 signatures," Henry said, not knowing that another 2,000 would sign within the next few hours. "I'm completely blown away. This has taken off like a wildfire."
Henry doesn't know what the future holds for potential legislation, but he's hopeful his petition will help enact change in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
"I'm just saying that as a community, we would like to help out, and we want to do our part," Henry said. "Just to make sure that missing children don't slip through the cracks due to Amber Alert requirements and restrictions."