Grandmother of Nalani Johnson, local lawyer team up to change Amber Alert laws

We all know the ending, the FBI searching Pine Ridge Park for little Nalani Johnson and the heartbreaking headlines that followed. On the eve of her second birthday, Nalani Johnson was abducted and murdered, allegedly at the hands of her father’s girlfriend, Sharena Nancy. She was left dead in an Indiana County park, still strapped into her car seat.

Now, her grandmother, Taji Walsh, is taking a stand, saying this didn’t need to be Nalani’s fate and doesn’t need to be the ending for another child.

“She didn’t have a voice, she couldn’t act on her own, she was at the mercy of an evil person,” Walsh told Channel 11′s Amy Hudak.

Walsh said Nalani’s murder could have been prevented and she doesn’t want her death to be in vain.

Working with lawyer and former prosecutor Eric Chaffin, Walsh helped to draft an amendment to the current Amber Alert Law. It’s called the Nalani Johnson Rule and could prevent what happened to Nalani from happening to another child in imminent danger. To understand how it works, we first need to see what failed in Nalani’s case.

This is the timeline we put together from law enforcement on the abduction of Nalani Johnson and the subsequent Amber Alert.

  • 5 p.m.: Nalani Johnson’s father calls Penn Hills Police to report his daughter was abducted by Sharena Nancy
  • 5:23 p.m.: Police say Sharena Nancy is seen on surveillance video at a Sheetz on Route 22 in Murrysville
  • 6 p.m.: Police place Sharena Nancy about a mile from the crime scene where Nalani’s body will be found days later
  • 7:30 p.m.: Police pull over Sharena Nancy in Penn Hills and take her into custody. Nalani and her car seat are gone
  • 7:35 p.m.: Two-and-a-half hours after Nalani Johnson was abducted, after the suspect was taken into custody and after the toddler was murdered, WPXI is notified of an Amber Alert
  • 8:10 p.m.: An Amber Alert is blasted across cellphones.

Walsh said she was in disbelief when she learned how long it took to issue the Amber Alert.

“Over 2.5 hours for this to come out - there was a fighting chance for Nalani had it come out sooner,” she told 11 News.

Chaffin said the current system is failing children like Nalani.

“It’s failing those car seat children, those kids who are completely helpless at the mercy of a stranger or acquaintance,” he said.

In extremely rare cases like Nalani’s, cases that are roughly 1 in a 1,000, where a child is abducted by a stranger or acquaintance, Chaffin said there are two procedures that must change to save the lives of children:

  1. The verification system
  2. Direct reporting by State Police

In these rare abductions where time ticks and the endings are often tragic, Chaffin said local police departments should not verify every detail a parent reports. If they have the necessary information, Chaffin said it needs to be handed over to state police immediately so they can activate an Amber Alert.

Chaffin added that within 10-15 minutes of Nalani’s abduction, the Amber Alert process should have been underway, but the verification system failed her.

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“You have a father with a witness identifying the vehicle, [the] suspect and the child [that] has been abducted and there’s no action,” Chaffin says. “There is a long period of time to verify: is the father telling me accurate information? What’s the relationship? Asking questions that really weren’t pertinent to just get the alert out. There is so much that could have been done from a public awareness perspective, someone could have called in.”

There is no doubt that timing is critical, but local police have specific criteria they have to meet before state police can be called to issue an Amber Alert. We asked Penn Hills Police to be a part of our story, but they declined because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

Walsh and Chaffin are now working with local leaders and elected officials to change the law at a state level.

“Be able to take a story like Nalani’s and say this isn’t going to be another meaningless child where the Amber Alert system failed but we’re going to try to make a change,” Chaffin said.

“They have to sit down and look at this and say, ‘The things of the past aren’t working for at least this population of kids abducted,’” Walsh said with tears in her eyes. “Focus on the kids who are stuck in that car seat and they can’t unbuckle that car seat and get out and ask for help. In the end, something big will happen from this and Nalani’s name will carry on and save other people.”