Officials push bill to help track missing people through their cellular phones

ST. PAUL -- The assistant St. Paul police chief says authorities may have found an 18-year-old Eveleth man's body quicker last year if they had tracked his mobile telephone.

Looking of support
Greg, left, and Missey Smith, center, on Thursday encourage Minnesota legislators to back a bill to require mobile telephone companies to help law enforcement agencies track phones of missing people. Also pictured is Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth, the bill's chief Senate sponsor. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The assistant St. Paul police chief says authorities may have found an 18-year-old Eveleth man's body quicker last year if they had tracked his mobile telephone.

A bill making its way through the Legislature was written to make the job easier by requiring mobile telephone companies to tell law enforcement officers the whereabouts of missing people's mobile phones.

Last April 5, Dan Zamlen went missing in St. Paul. More than 1,000 fellow Iron Rangers searched for him along the Mississippi River, but his body was not found until nearly a month later. His death was ruled an accidental drowning.

"Perhaps with this bill ... we could have gotten on this even quicker," Assistant Chief Nancy DiPerna said Thursday, just before a Senate committee unanimously approved the bill.

A House committee takes up the measure this morning.


Federal law allows mobile telephone companies to share phone location information with law enforcement officers, but the Minnesota bill requires companies to share when there is a risk of death or serious injury.

Phone companies back the bill, as they did in Kansas, which has enacted the measure, and Nebraska, which is considering it.

Mobile telephones can be used to track people, but Greg and Missey Smith said that Verizon Wireless refused to help when their daughter disappeared three years ago. Their 18-year-old daughter, Kelsey, was missing in Kansas four days before police could get Verizon to provide her telephone's location. Forty-five minutes later, her body was found.

The Smiths testified to a Senate committee led by Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth.

"In these situations, minutes matter," the senator said.

A Verizon official told the Smiths that the procedure to track telephones was adequate.

"If their actions were adequate, I would hate to see what inadequate is," Mrs. Smith told Prettner Solon's committee.

Mike McDermott of Verizon refused to answer any committee questions about the Kelsey Smith case.


Mobile telephones have been prominent in several Minnesota cases, including the 2003 death of Dru Sjodin near Crookston. Her boyfriend received calls from her telephone after she was kidnapped.

In an on-going case, police have not found Sylvester McCurry, an 18-year-old Duluth East High School senior, after tracking his mobile telephone. He remains missing after disappearing Jan. 17.

Mr. Smith, a former police officer, said his daughter's death in Kansas inspired the couple to form a foundation to protect young people. He is the foundation executive director.

He said he understands telephone companies' concerns about violating privacy rights, but the bill Minnesota lawmakers are considering relieves companies from liability for releasing that information to law enforcement officials. The information could not be given to family members or anyone else.

The bill comes a year after Minnesota lawmakers passed a bill into law that requires police to quickly begin missing-persons investigations in cases involving young people.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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