Amber Alert twist: Police in Ontario bend the rules for missing grandfather and it pays off

An Amber Alert is displayed on sign over westbound Highway 401 near Keele St. in 2014. (File photo from Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star/Getty Images)
An Amber Alert is displayed on sign over westbound Highway 401 near Keele St. in 2014. (File photo from Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Residents in Ontario were awakened early on Thursday morning to an Amber Alert of a different nature than the ones police typically issue.

This alert was issued not for an abducted child, but for two young boys and their grandfather, Leo Easton, who York Regional Police believed was confused and disoriented. Police located Easton driving down Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard with his grandsons later that morning. All three were in good health.

Typically, an Amber Alert is only issued under a narrow set of criteria. Thursday’s case didn’t quite meet those criteria, but York Regional Police say this was a case where eschewing the guidelines paid off.

What is Amber Alert and when is it used?

Amber Alert is an urgent warning system adopted first in the U.S. and later in Canada to quickly alert the public in the event of a child abduction.

The goal is to broadcast as much information about the child, the abductor and suspect vehicles as quickly as possible so the public can respond with any relevant information that might lead to the safe return of the child.

Using Canada’s public alerting system, police can leverage highway message signs, radio, television and people’s mobile devices to broadcast an alert.

Police in Ontario issued six Amber Alerts in 2016, five in 2017 and just one in 2018. This year so far, police in Ontario have activated five Amber Alerts. Four of these resulted in the safe return of the child or children, and one resulted in the arrest of an abductor.

The system is named for nine-year-old Amber Hagerman, whose brutal kidnapping and murder in Texas in 1996 prompted her community to establish an emergency response program designed to prevent tragic outcomes like Amber's in the future.

In Canada, only law enforcement can issue an Amber Alert, and each province has its own set of criteria,, although they are very similar across the country, including in Ontario:

  • Police have confirmed that an abduction has taken place

  • The victim is a child, or of proven physical or mental disability

  • There is reason to believe the victim is in danger of serious physical injury

  • There is information available that, if broadcasted to the public, could assist in the safe recovery of the victim

According to an Amber Alert fact sheet on the Toronto Police Service website, the alert system is not intended for cases involving parental abductions, or runaways except in life-threatening situations.

These stringent criteria for activating an Amber Alert are reflected in systems across Canada and the U.S., and act to limit the number of cases eligible for the alert.

When asked why Amber Alerts are not issued more frequently in missing children cases, York Regional Police could not provide a response by deadline, neither could the Ontario Provincial Police when contacted.

However, various sources including the U.S. Department of Justice have cited not wanting to desensitize the public as one of the main reasons for not issuing Amber Alerts more freely.

When to bend the rules

York Regional Police Const. Laura Nicolle told Yahoo News Canada that while the case involving Easton and his two and four-year-old grandsons was not an abduction, police considered activating an Amber Alert the best course of action for locating them quickly and safely.

“In this case we had concerns for the safety of the grandfather and the children, no we didn’t believe the grandfather had the children with the intent to harm them,” Nicolle said. “But his vulnerabilities and concerns that developed as the time progressed caused the significant fears for their safety.”

Easton and his grandsons had been missing for more than 13 hours when police decided to issue the alert.

His wife had expected him to wait for her in a parking lot near Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket after he dropped her off at the hospital at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Instead, he drove away with the boys in the back of his in his blue 2006 Pontiac Montana van. Based on his actions and other information they had, police believed Easton was confused, lost and vulnerable. They had sufficient reason to believe that his life and the lives of the two children were in danger.

At 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, an hour and a half after the alert was activated, Easton and his grandsons were found alive in Toronto.

“Not every case meets the threshold,” Nicolle said. “But in this case, as you saw, [an alert] was issued and thankfully lead to them being found safety.”