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Milwaukee County officials raise questions following murder-suicide of 7-year-old and her mother

'We failed to prevent this,' Milwaukee County supervisor says

Milwaukee County public safety building, Milwaukee Sheriff's Office
Gretchen Brown/WPR

Some Milwaukee County officials are worried mistakes were made preceding the death of a 7-year-old and her 25-year-old mother, both of whom were pulled out of a vehicle submerged in Milwaukee’s Northridge Lake last week in an apparent murder-suicide.

A spokesperson for the Milwaukee Police Department said the death of 7-year-old Tyrielle Jefferson is being investigated as a homicide, while her mother Khalilah Brister’s death was ruled a suicide.

The day before their bodies were discovered after the car was spotted in the water, law enforcement responded to a 911 call that Brister was suicidal and threatening to drive her and her daughter into a lake. But law enforcement were not able to locate the pair after the call was canceled by the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

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Now, the victims’ family is asking why an Amber Alert wasn’t issued.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said “the ball was dropped” regarding the incident.

“I am really interested in seeing what really happened and where the ball was dropped,” Crowley said. “I think all of us are trying to figure out what exactly happened.”

Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy said he was also critical of the response from law enforcement.

“It looks like to me, that between OEM (Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management) and law enforcement, that we failed to prevent this,” Clancy said.

“I am perplexed as to why that didn’t result in an AMBER alert,” he added.

Clancy also used the incident to call for more mental health resources for the community.

“It’s frustrating to me that we know that many people in distress don’t have family to reach out, so it’s even more tragic that when somebody did, that we failed them,” Clancy said.

What happened?

A statement from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office said the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management’s 911 call center received a call on the afternoon of Dec. 7 regarding a possible suicidal subject who was threatening to drive her vehicle into the lake near Bradford Beach.

The OEM dispatch center sent officers to that location, but before officers arrived at the scene, the call was canceled “because the subjects had left the scene, that they were believed to be enroute to another jurisdiction, and that the call had been transferred to that jurisdiction’s dispatch center,” the department stated.

A deputy sheriff who responded to the call still looked for the vehicle but was not able to locate it.

On the morning of Dec. 8, Brister’s mother called the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division, stating that she had still not spoken with her daughter since the previous day.

“Additional measures were unsuccessful in locating the adult subject, her daughter, or the vehicle in question,” the press release said.

The vehicle was located hours later on Dec. 8, submerged in Northridge Lake.

A statement from the Office of the County Executive said a dispatcher with the Office of Emergency Management relayed information that the vehicle might be traveling towards Brown Deer after the call was canceled.

“Once a disposition is provided, it is standard best practice for dispatch to advise additional, voluntary squads that they can return to or remain in service. This does not serve as a cancelation of the call in its entirety,” that statement said.

Amber Alert has to meet certain criteria

The family of the victims assumed an alert was going to go out after 911 was called, according to a report from WISN-12.

But no such alert was issued.

A spokesperson for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to Wisconsin Public Radio’s request for comment.

In Wisconsin, three criteria have to be met in order for an Amber Alert to be issued:

  • Child must be 17 years of age or younger.
  • Child must be in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • Initiating agency must have enough descriptive information about the child, the suspect and/or the suspect vehicle to believe an immediate broadcast alert will help locate the child.

Melissa Marchant, Wisconsin’s Amber Alert Coordinator and Missing Persons Clearinghouse manager, said some state’s Amber Alert programs require an abduction to take place.

“One of the things that is a little bit different about Wisconsin, is that we do not require the abduction component,” Marchant said.

Amber alerts also must be requested by a law enforcement agency.

“The endangerment part of the criteria is probably the most difficult for us, because every situation is very unique,” Marhcant said.

Marhchant said some children may be missing, but families or law enforcement aren’t sure if they’re in danger or if they’re just missing.

“That is a difficult part of the criteria to work through,” Marchant said.

If an Amber Alert is not issued, an endangered person alert could be issued. That alert isn’t as widespread as an Amber Alert.

In 2021, Wisconsin saw a record 11 Amber Alerts across the state. Of those 11, six were in Milwaukee.

There were 29 total requests for an Amber Alert in Wisconsin last year. Marhcant said in some instances, the child was found before the alert went out. In others, the situation did not meet the “endangerment” criteria.

Do you need help?

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.