A Wisconsin family is struggling to come to terms with the death of their 5-year-old and the fact that authorities declined to issue an Amber Alert when he disappeared.
Prince McCree was found dead in a Milwaukee dumpster on Oct. 26, just one day after he disappeared from a multifamily home.
Now, as two people face charges in his death, Prince’s family and local advocates are questioning the Wisconsin Justice Department’s decision not to issue an Amber Alert. Some say the state’s guidelines for putting out the alerts, which are meant to help find missing endangered children, are too strict. State Sen. LaTonya Johnson and other critics have expressed concern that the rigid criteria for Amber Alerts may keep authorities from recovering missing children, especially in a country where Black children go missing often with little media attention and apparent police apathy.
Police sent out a “critically missing” alert to media outlets but not an Amber Alert, a Milwaukee police spokesperson said.
“We did consult with the Department of Justice; however, we did not meet the criteria for an amber alert,” the spokesperson said in an email. The state Justice Department denied the police request, the spokesperson said.
Some say the bar for issuing an Amber Alert is too high
Under the state’s Amber Alert program, missing children must be 17 or younger and in danger of serious bodily harm or death, and there must be enough “descriptive information about the child, the suspect, and/or the suspect vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help locate the child,” according to the Justice Department’s website.
Johnson said she believes the Justice Department may have denied the request because there was no suspect description or vehicle involved when Prince disappeared.
“This tragedy is just horrific and sad in all proportions,” said Johnson, who lives near the family. “His family, they are taking it extremely hard. They’re struggling.” She said she and Prince’s family were confused when they learned an Amber Alert would not be issued the day he went missing.
“I found out that one would not be issued because he didn’t qualify,” she said. “That pissed me off. Something is wrong when a 5-year-old does not qualify for an Amber Alert.”
The Justice Department declined to explain why it declined the request, telling NBC News that “given this case is not our investigation and is now a part of litigation, Wisconsin DOJ is not releasing law enforcement sensitive information.”
Wisconsin has issued 57 Amber Alerts since it implemented the program in 2003, 50% of which have played roles in recovering children, according to the Justice Department.
Johnson said Prince’s family initially believed race played a role in denying the Amber Alert. “If this was a little white boy, more would be done,” she recalled hearing family members say.
“I felt that way, too, at first,” she added. “I explained to them that they were trying, but the system won’t allow them to do it.”
Racial disparities do not seem to factor into the state’s Amber Alerts. Authorities issue less than three a year. Of the 41 alerts sent out from 2003 to 2020, 18 were for Black children, USA Today reported. Residents are still concerned, as the number of alerts issued pales in comparison to the hundreds of children who remained missing in Milwaukee alone, the state’s Blackest city, in 2022.
The family’s suspicion comes with a level of context. The national crisis of missing Black children is well documented, and advocates have long said missing Black children are less likely to receive law enforcement resources and even Amber Alerts to find them. That was among the complaints in Milwaukee in 2020 when residents put together a civilian search party to find two Black teenage girls, who had been missing for three days, USA Today reported. They disappeared amid the George Floyd police violence protests, and tensions between Black residents and local police were running high in cities and neighborhoods across the country. Like Prince’s, their cases also did not meet criteria for Amber Alerts, the newspaper reported then.
The hourslong search for the girls erupted in civil unrest, with residents clashing with police in the streets because of frustration that police were not doing enough to find the girls. The girls were found safe later that day by one of their mothers. Police said in a statement then that they searched a home where many believed the girls had been taken but that they were not there, so officers continued the search. Police clarified that the situation did not qualify for an Amber Alert under the state’s guidelines; they did not specify why. The situation underscored perceptions of law enforcement apathy when it comes to missing Black people in Wisconsin and specifically in Milwaukee, where most of the state’s Black population lives.
Meanwhile, advocates and concerned residents have long criticized the strict criteria for issuing Amber Alerts in Wisconsin. Last year, Chippewa Falls resident Eric Henry started a petition to ease the criteria after a local 10-year-old girl, Lily Peters, disappeared and was found dead the next day. The petition asked legislators to create a “Lily Alert” for cases that do not meet the Amber Alert requirements. It is unclear why the Justice Department declined to issue the alert in Lily’s case, but local law enforcement officials said at the time that it most likely was denied because there was no suspect vehicle or suspect description to report initially.
“We need something more. Any parent would agree that when a child is missing even for a short amount of time and they need help then help should be sent,” he wrote in the petition. “We can do better as a community and must be more proactive. We need an alert with less regulations around it so we can respond quicker to missing children.”
The petition has more than 195,000 signatures.
‘You did this to my baby’
Police found Prince’s body bound in a garbage bag in a dumpster near the multifamily home he and his family shared with several other people, including Davie Pietura, 27, and Erik Mendoza, 15, who are both charged in his death.
Pietura was arrested and charged with first-degree homicide, physical abuse of a child, hiding a corpse and being party to a crime, jail records show. An attorney for Pietura did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mendoza appeared at a juvenile court hearing on Oct. 31, and Prince’s father addressed him through tears, WISN-TV of Milwaukee reported. “You did this to my baby,” he said. “Erik, you broke us.”
No motive was discussed at the hearing, but according to a criminal complaint, Pietura told police that “Mendoza never liked” Prince, and “discussed wanting to kill” him. Mendoza is charged as an adult with first-degree intentional homicide, physical abuse of a child, hiding a corpse and recklessly endangering safety, according to NBC affiliate WTMJ of Milwaukee.
Neither have entered pleas, and they are expected to appear for preliminary hearings later this month.
According to the criminal complaint, Prince’s mother kept him home from school Oct. 25 because he was sick. She let Prince play video games with Pietura in the basement, which he often did, while she napped.
When she woke up, Prince was gone, and Pietura and Mendoza initially denied seeing him, according to the criminal complaint obtained by NBC News. The family called the police, who used K9 units to find Prince. Soon, they discovered blood in the basement where Pietura and Mendoza were and security video from a nearby resident’s front doorbell camera, which allegedly showed Pietura and Mendoza carrying a garbage bag through an alleyway, the complaint says.
According to the complaint, Pietura and Mendoza told police that Mendoza choked Prince and beat him with a golf club until he was barely conscious. They bound and gagged him and continued beating him until they believed he was dead.
“Prince’s dad, he’s not doing well at all,” said Johnson, the state senator, adding that she spoke with the father the day Prince vanished, before his body was discovered. “The reality of his son being gone was setting in. He was feeling to the point that he failed to protect him. It’s just not a burden any parent should have to bear.”
As the family prepares for Prince’s funeral on Tuesday, Johnson has set her sights on addressing the state’s Amber Alert system. She said in a text message that it may be too difficult to make adjustments to the federal Amber Alert system, so “our next obvious choice is to create a system locally that mimics the amber alert without the suspect criteria.”
She told WISN of her plans, “Even if that wouldn’t have saved Prince, it does have the possibility of saving another child in the future.”
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