DALLAS, Texas — A new bill influenced by the murder of 7-year-old Athena Strand unanimously passed through the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety Tuesday night and is headed to the House floor.
HB 3556 would allow law enforcement to sidestep the requirements for a statewide AMBER Alert and instead allow them to issue a regional alert to people within a 100-mile radius of the location where the child is believed to have gone missing or was last seen.
That way, via an 'Athena Alert,' the information about a missing child can be delivered to the public much faster if the case doesn't fully meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert.
In Strand's case, law enforcement struggled to prove at first that the little girl had been abducted, which is a threshold for an AMBER Alert to be issued.
"Texas led the way by creating the AMBER Alert System. It's time for us to lead again by leveraging technology to save children's lives," said State Rep. Lynn Stucky, the bill's author, who represents Wise County and a portion of Denton County.
"HB 3556 is a reasonable expansion of the AMBER Alert System that I believe will get people to pay closer attention to these messages. People are more likely to engage on these alerts when coming from the area where they live."
According to law enforcement, Strand was abducted from her home on Nov. 30 in rural Wise County and killed by a contract driver for FedEx.
The driver confessed to police that he was delivering a package to Strand's home and accidentally struck her with his vehicle, panicked, then strangled her to death in his delivery vehicle in fear of the consequences that would follow.
The driver, Tanner Horner, then dumped Athena's body in a rural area and led investigators to the location after his capture and confession. He has since been indicted on capital murder and aggravated kidnapping charges.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Her family last saw Strand on the afternoon of Nov. 30. An AMBER Alert wasn't issued for her until nearly a day after she was last seen.
At the time of her disappearance, the case didn't fully meet AMBER Alert criteria — the most challenging hurdle: proof that Strand had been abducted.
Per investigators, Horner struck Strand and left with her without being seen.
By the time law enforcement began investigating, Athena was missing, but the public wasn't widely alerted.
The sheriff of Wise County told media it wasn't out of the possibility that Strand had wandered off.
Under HB 3556, if a child is missing, but a local law enforcement agency hasn't verified the criteria needed for an AMBER Alert, that agency's chief law enforcement officer can issue a regional alert within a 100-mile radius of the child's last known location. That area can also include adjacent counties from where the alert is originating.
Since the alert system is already in place, the bill requires no funding.
Strand's mother, Maitlyn Gandy, tearfully testified before the committee Tuesday night alongside her lawyer Benson Varghese.
"I don't want someone to feel how I feel," Gandy said. "This could have made a difference in my child's life. I'm asking you to support this bill. Not for Athena, because we can no longer help her. But for your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and all the children you haven't met."
Varghese echoed similar thoughts Thursday.
"This bill came from Maitlyn's pain, loss, and hope that no one else would feel that loss. The ability to send out an alert immediately is so valuable," Varghese said. "The sooner we can get the word out, the more likely the child can be found."