To Meltony and Brandy Billie, their daughter Ashanti would always be their little girl.
But when the 19-year-old was abducted from her job on a Norfolk military base, they were shocked to learn she was slightly too old to qualify for an Amber Alert that would have tapped the nation’s telecommunications network to broadcast her disappearance.
Eleven days later, Ashanti Billie’s body was found behind a church in North Carolina. Her parents turned their grief into determination to create a missing persons alert for adults.
Currently, it’s up to law enforcement agencies to publicize the news of a missing or endangered adult, and the methods and effectiveness vary widely. Under the Ashanti Act, a bulletin would be broadcast through TV, radio, road signs and cellphones.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) on Wednesday spoke on the Senate floor about legislation that would establish a nationwide Ashanti Alert system for missing adults generally between the ages of 18 and 65. He plans to introduce a version of the bill before the end of the year.
A House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) passed in September. If successful in the Senate, the bill would go to President Trump’s desk.
There’s no way to know whether such an alert would have saved Billie, but her family said that more people may have been on the lookout for her and that they would have taken comfort in knowing everything was being done to find her. They say the legislation would be their daughter’s legacy.
“It would mean her sacrifice was for a greater good just like Jesus’ sacrifice was for a greater good,” said Meltony Billie of Hyattsville, Md. “This alert will keep us lifted.”
At the time of her disappearance on Sept. 18, 2017, Ashanti Billie had recently moved to the Hampton Roads area to study culinary arts at the Art Institute of Virginia Beach.
Family described her personality as bubbly and open.
“Ashanti was like the modern-day Punky Brewster. She never met a stranger,” said her mother, Brandy Billie of Oxon Hill, Md.
Her father approved of her job at a Blimpie on Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach because he considered it a secure workplace, what he called “a safety net inside of a safety net.”
Working at the naval base was also Ashanti Billie’s way to support the military, since her childhood diagnosis of epilepsy prevented her from enlisting as her parents did.
Her parents, who are divorced but remain friends, served in the Army and were stationed in Texas and Germany together.
She considered it her “opportunity to serve those who serve,” her father said.
In November 2017, a suspect was charged with kidnapping Billie. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found incompetent to stand trial earlier this year.
This summer, Virginia created the Critically Missing Adult Alert Program, nicknamed the Ashanti Alert, that established criteria for local, regional and state police for sending out alerts about missing adults who are in imminent danger.
The federal legislation integrates the Ashanti Alert into an existing network set up for the Blue Alert, which is intended to notify the public when someone who assaulted or killed a police officer is still at large.
It was created in honor of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, New York City police officers ambushed in December 2014.
The Fraternal Order of Police and National Association of Police Organizations say that they support the mission of the Ashanti Alert but that combining the two risks confusion.
“The Blue Alert’s success depends on officers, departments and the public recognizing that a Blue Alert is solely an officer safety issue,” NAPO Executive Director Bill Johnson said in a statement.
“The urgency is different because we’re talking about a life-threatening situation that endangers not just police officers but the public at large,” FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco said in an interview.
Under the House bill, the Justice Department would hire a national coordinator to create criteria for the use of an Ashanti Alert, given that overuse could dilute its effectiveness, and figure out how to protect the privacy and autonomy of missing adults.
Within a year, the coordinator must report to Congress how many states opted to implement Ashanti Alerts, how many alerts were issued and how long it took to find the missing person after the alert was issued.
Warner’s office is revising the U.S. House version of the bill to take into account law enforcement’s concerns about how the Ashanti Alert would be administered.
Robert Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which manages the Amber Alert program for children, said the center works to make sure those alerts don’t become routine.
“We’re always concerned about the car alarm effect, that we would have a desensitized public due to overuse of the system, which is why the criteria is important,” he said.
Fewer than 200 Amber Alerts are issued every year and most are resolved with the safe recovery of the child, he said. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has not taken a position on the Ashanti Alert Act.
The new alert “will create a legacy for her but also literally save lives,” Taylor, the congressman, said in an interview.
Warner said the alert gives law enforcement agencies another tool in finding missing adults.
“Right here in Washington, D.C., we’re having an overdue conversation about the plight of missing teens, many of them who are women of color, and many of them who fall into the same age group as Ashanti,” Warner said in the floor speech. “I think about my three daughters who are 23 through 29. God forbid if they were abducted, where would I turn to get the word out?”
Meltony Billie keeps a copy of the Ashanti Alert bill on his desk.
“If this bill can get passed,” he said, “I can take it from sitting on my desk and frame it.”