Cristina Harbison woke up on June 9, 2005, stunned to find blank freeway signs -- and no statewide Amber Alert for a troubled mother from unincorporated Walnut Creek and her 5-year-old daughter.
Harbison, a Walnut Creek patrol officer at the time, had received a disturbing call the night before about a missing 39-year-old mother, Mary Alicia Driscoll, who had told family members she planned to harm herself and her daughter, Jineva.
But the next morning, colleagues informed Harbison that the California Highway Patrol had denied the request for an Amber Alert. Because Driscoll had sole custody of Jineva, they said, this did not qualify as an "abduction" under CHP guidelines.
"My heart sunk," said Harbison, now an Alameda County District Attorney's Office inspector. "You want every possible thing to be done that can be done."
A day later, the bodies of the mother and daughter were found in an unincorporated area of Sonoma County; police ruled the deaths a murder-suicide.
In the eight years since then, Harbison has fought to change the law's criteria, to make clear that the taking of an endangered child -- regardless of the child's custodial status -- could qualify for an alert. California's Amber Alert program is staggeringly effective: More than 96 percent of the victims who are the subject of one have been found safe.
On Sept. 23, Assembly Bill 535 was signed into law, ending an emotional rollercoaster ¿of a journey for Harbison that included help from the law enforcement community, a state assemblyman and Driscoll's family -- none of whom could shake the image of the missing-person photo of Jineva, a Murwood Elementary preschooler, wearing a swim mask and snorkel.
What had initially been a lower priority missing person case took a drastic turn on June 8, 2005, when Harbison fielded a call around midnight from Driscoll's sister, Tricia Ramia. Driscoll had mailed alarming letters to family members, Harbison said, telling them "their bodies would be found" in Mendocino County.
"When I received that call, it was very clear it was an urgent and very, very dangerous situation," Harbison said.
Deputies sent an Amber Alert request to the CHP's state warning center, where requests are weighed against a checklist of criteria required to put information, such as license plate numbers and car makes and models, on highway billboards and across television screens. While this case met most "Amber" conditions -- a victim under 17 facing imminent danger, information available that could locate her -- the CHP turned it down.
"I think this was something where they felt their hands were tied, and they were following the letter of the law," Harbison said. "I can only imagine the frustration on their part."
Even without an Amber Alert, Joe Gorton -- then a Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office sergeant and now the interim San Ramon police chief -- drove up the California coast with his partner, searching for Driscoll and her daughter, finding themselves "steps behind."
On June 10, as Gorton was driving to Fort Bragg following up on a tip, he got a call he says he will "forever remember."
The bodies of Driscoll and Jineva had been found in their white Dodge Durango off Lakeville Highway near Petaluma. A firearm lay on Driscoll's body.
Would an Amber Alert have helped?
"I don't know. I really don't know," Harbison said. "We'll never know."
With no one to prosecute, the case was closed -- but for Harbison, the frustration festered. In 2007, she wrote letters to politicians pushing for changes to the Amber Alert system, with little success.
Once she started working in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, she tried again, meeting with District Attorney Nancy O'Malley on Dec. 14, 2011, and relaying Jineva's story.
With the help of O'Malley's in-office legislative committee, Harbison eventually drafted a proposal, and in February Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, sponsored the bill.
By that time, a similar case had arisen in South San Francisco, where again an Amber Alert was turned down because there were no legal restrictions on the custody of the father who snatched his two children. Fortunately, in that case the children were found unharmed.
Quirk's bill passed the Legislature in late August and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown soon after. It's difficult to tell how broad its impact will be.
Since the inception of the Amber Alert program in 2002, the CHP has issued 216 alerts and denied 365. The agency says it does not track why requests are denied; it did say that nearly half of all alerts, 92, involved parental abductions.
The most common sort of parental abduction involves an estranged father or mother, often with limited custody of a child. But while the old law was clear that Amber Alerts could be issued in such cases, it was less clear about what happened when no custody decree was being violated, as was the case with Driscoll.
The new law says that an Amber Alert can be issued when "a child has been taken by anyone, including, but not limited to, a custodial parent or guardian."
A state Senate Appropriations Committee analysis estimated only a couple of additional activations each year owing to the change, in part because the CHP was interpreting the law liberally in most cases. However, CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee believes there will be more.
The new law will take effect Jan. 1.
When she heard Brown has signed the bill, Harbison called the same woman she spoke to more than eight years ago, Jineva's aunt, Tricia Ramia, of Walnut Creek.
"I walked outside and started thanking God, and I was just grateful because it had been a long, long time coming," Ramia said. "I think this is a beautiful example of something that was a huge tragedy, but as a society we came together, identified a hole and fixed it to help others and hopefully avoid a future tragedy."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Since 2002, California law enforcement has had the ability to issue Amber Alerts for missing and endangered children. Here are Amber Alert statistics in its decade-plus existence:
Amber Alert activations: 216
Amber Alerts denied: 365*
Number of victims abducted: 264
Victims recovered or deemed safe: 254
Suspects apprehended: 124
Stranger abductions: 41
Parental abductions: 92
Acquaintance abductions: 58
*Reasons for denial are not tracked
Source: California Highway Patrol