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Faulty data prompts U.S. senator Warner to call for closer look at Ashanti Alert system

Virginia Beach case underscores senator’s concern

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WAVY) – Sen. Mark Warner has called for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration to reexamine the system used to help locate missing adults, after a 10 On Your Side investigation helped to uncover incorrect data being used by the state.

Warner issued a letter to the governor’s office Tuesday saying he’s “concerned about recent use of the system.” He shared that letter exclusively with 10 On Your Side.

At an event in October, Warner touted stats about the number of missing people who were safely located after Ashanti Alerts were issued for them.

But the data he shared with the public, and the data 10 On Your Side was provided from Virginia State Police, were different. As it turns out, both sets of data were incorrect.

“I don’t think it was malicious, I think it was an honest mistake. But we’ve got to have criteria in place where we can catch these mistakes. People have been saved by the Ashanti Alert, but there also have been questions raised.”

The discovery of the mix-up is what prompted Warner to reach out to Youngkin.

“Some of this letter goes back to the meeting we had when you talked to me in Portsmouth a number of months ago,” Warner said. “I thought you had totally wrong data. We go back and we look, and we find that the state did. You were more right than wrong.”

The Ashanti Alert was created in 2019 and is named for Ashanti Billie, who was abducted in Norfolk and found dead 11 days later. At the time, no alert system existed for adults who were too old to qualify for an Amber Alert and too young to qualify for a Silver Alert. Since then, four people have been safely located after an Ashanti Alert was issued on their behalf.

“People have been saved by the Ashanti Alert, but there also have been questions raised by family members or people who lost people that have been murdered, Warner said.

This includes the case of Virginia Beach’s Marie Covington, 40, who was found dead just two hours after an Ashanti Alert was issued, but her family had reported her missing two days earlier.

Warner, in his letter, said Covington’s case underscores his concern.

In a statement, the Virginia Beach Police Department said “all evidence points to Ms. Covington’s murder happening before (VBPD) were notified. However, the review determined that two of our officers failed to meet the Department’s standards and expectations in this incident … (and) to have separate, individual breakdowns necessitates the Department determine if there are issues with our current process regarding missing persons, especially when foul play is suspected.”

Virginia Beach Police Chief Paul Neudigate has, as a result, established a process improvement team to assess its current procedures and processes for missing persons, and it will “recommend changes if warranted.”

“Our thoughts go out to the Covington family as they continue to grieve,” Neudigate said in a statement to 10 On Your Side. “We failed to meet the family’s expectations in trying to locate their loved one, which is why I implemented a process improvement team to review our procedures related to missing persons.

“It is my expectation that every time we are contacted about a potential missing person where there are specific, articulable facts that indicate one may be at risk, that we respond with the appropriate urgency.”

Warner, responding to the Virginia Beach Police statement about the Covington investigation, said in a statement Wednesday that he was “pleased to see the Virginia Beach Police Department working proactively to assess whether procedural changes must be made to improve the department’s handling of missing persons cases.

“It is also crucial that the Commonwealth take a meticulous look at the statewide criteria governing the deployment of the Ashanti Alert so Virginia can lead by example as other states look to implement this lifesaving measure.”

The parents of Ashanti Billie say they’re proud to have the alert named after their daughter, but want to make sure there’s enough awareness surrounding how it can save lives.

“We know we went and fought, with the help of Sen. Warner, to have this bill passed, and yet there’s still some glitches and some disconnects, it’s still not as effective as we would desire it to be,” said Meltony Billie, Ashanti’s father.

“We need a push. The alert is there, we just feel it’s not out there enough,” he said.

Warner says his letter isn’t meant to be a “gotcha” to the Youngkin administration, but a way to keep Virginia residents safe. It’s his hope that a reexamination of the criteria, and more accurate tracking, will help to save more lives.

“It’s your job to hold us accountable, and finding out the State Police data was wrong, you know, I’m not sure but for you stirring the pot, that I would’ve found it,” Warner said.