Former dispatchers weigh in on Cherish investigation

By Vic Micolucci, General assignment reporter, vic@wjxt.com
Published On: Sep 20 2013 09:50:05 PM EDT
Updated On: Sep 21 2013 11:22:22 AM EDT

VIDEO: A Channel 4 investigation takes a closer look inside the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and its handling of Cherish Perrywinkle's kidnapping and murder. In the wake of the tragedy, an internal investigation by JSO was released and two prominent detectives were reprimanded: Lieutenant Rob Schoonover and Detective Lonnie Mills.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

Channel 4 dug deeper Friday night, into the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's investigation into how their own officers handled the Cherish Perrywinkle kidnapping and abduction that occurred in June.

Detectives said the 8-year-old girl was taken from a northside Walmart by a known sex offender, Donald Smith, who is now accused of raping and killing Perrywinkle.

Police released their results Thursday night of an internal investigation stating that several officers were reprimanded and some were even transferred out of their units because the Sheriff's Office procedures were not followed in a timely matter the night Perrywinkle disappeared.

Among the members of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office who are being blamed for problems are the Sheriff's Office dispatchers.

Channel 4 spoke with a former dispatcher Friday night about the internal investigation and the Sheriff's Office's decision to take disciplinary action.

Penny LaBelle is no longer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Communications center, but she told Channel 4 that she remembers her time there very well.

LaBelle looked over the Internal Affairs Investigation, where several dispatchers are named as making critical errors in the handling of Cherish Perrywinkle's abduction.

"Shocking because as much training as we go through as dispatchers, 'A stranger took my daughter,' that's automatically an abduction. That's a kidnapping, not a missing person," said LaBelle. "A missing person is my daughter didn't come home from school, I think something might have happened."

LaBelle said dealing with hundreds of 911 calls a day, dispatchers can become complacent and that could be dangerous.

"You never know what is true and false. And you have to treat everything like it's real," said LaBelle.

According to the Internal Investigation report, Cherish's mother, Rayne, had an 11-minute conversation with dispatcher PL Robinson to report the girl's abduction. Robinson had concerns that the story wasn't true. LaBelle said the dispatcher should have left her opinions out of it, and followed long-standing Sheriff's Office procedure on how to deal with the case.

"You can have your opinion, but you need to have that opinion outside of that call, not while it's happening and not treat it as if she's lying," said LaBelle.

LaBelle believes there were issues all the way up the chain of command, she pointed out that the public will never know how things would have turned out if the tragic case was handled differently, but lessons should be learned for the future.

Josh Askew, now a private investigator, trained in missing persons cases and was also a dispatcher in a sheriff's office. Askew believes problems started when a dispatcher took the 911 call from Cherish Perrywinkle's mom and heard that Cherish disappeared with a man and she was in danger.

"When you have a case of this type that is an abduction, you want as many officers or people on the ground that are attempting to locate this missing child," said Askew.

Askew said he thinks most of the officers tried as hard as they could to do a good job, but the kind of mistakes outlined in the internal affairs report should never happen again.

"The biggest problem is getting that call changed to an abduction and getting those resources out there," said Askew.

Police said in a statement to the media Friday that they would not comment about the investigation any further than what they said at Thursday's press conference.

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