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Baby's Safety Was No Thanks to Cellular Firm

Sprint's refusal to help track a stolen SUV prompts official to seek moratorium on towers in Riverside County.

January 10, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

After her husband's SUV was stolen from the driveway with her 10-month-old son still in the back seat, Stephanie Cochran of Riverside County thought the global positioning system in her husband's cellphone -- still inside the car -- would help her or the police locate her baby.

It felt like it was "my last string of hope," Cochran said of their wireless provider, Sprint, about the Dec. 23 incident.

But a Sprint operator told Cochran, who lives near Corona, that the company couldn't release the information. When a Riverside County sheriff's detective called for the location, the company said it required a subpoena and a $25 fee before it could release the coordinates, Cochran said.

Because of that, county Supervisor John Tavaglione today is proposing a moratorium on permits for new Sprint cellular towers in the county until officials determine how Sprint and other cellular companies' GPS tracking devices work in emergency situations.

"My point is to send the message to the provider that we need to do things differently when a child's life is at risk," Tavaglione said. "The bureaucracy and the hoops that everyone has to jump through need to be minimized."

On the morning of Dec. 23, Jason Cochran, 30, had just buckled son Wade into his car seat and ran inside to bring his 3-year-old son, Blake, from the house, where his mother was getting him ready for day care. When Cochran stepped outside with the toddler, the beige Lincoln Aviator, with Wade inside, was gone.

After 2 1/2 hours, deputies found Wade, unharmed, in the Lincoln about a mile from the home -- without the aid of cellular data, officials said.

"We would have preferred a smoother, more effective ability to access the information that Sprint possessed" when searching for the boy, said Tom Freeman, executive officer for the Sheriff's Department. "Time is critical in an investigation where you've had an abduction of a child."

Sprint is investigating the incident to determine what happened, said company spokeswoman Kathleen Dunleavy.

Sprint has in place emergency procedures in which law enforcement officials can fill out a special form and fax it back to the company within "a matter of minutes," said Dunleavy, in Los Angeles.

"If proper procedure is followed, Sprint acts very quickly," Dunleavy said. Sprint requires a subpoena in nonemergency circumstances "to protect our customers' privacy," Dunleavy said.

The department has specific protocols for working with wireless companies, and "the cell providers as a group have been very cooperative and very helpful," Freeman said.

The trouble with Sprint appears to be an isolated incident, Freeman said.

The Board of Supervisors may not have the legal authority to take action against Sprint, because federal communications law would preempt a county moratorium on the company's cell towers, said county counsel Joe Rank.

"Whether I'm on solid legal ground, I don't know. I'll let the attorneys tell me that," Tavaglione said.

The Cochrans' other car, a GMC Envoy, was stolen Dec. 27; the same thief apparently used a set of keys found in the Aviator to steal the Envoy, according to sheriff's reports.

Gilbert Raymond Ibarra, 21, of Rubidoux was arrested after a high-speed chase in the Envoy in Rubidoux on Dec. 27. He was arraigned Dec. 29 and pleaded not guilty to auto theft, receiving stolen property, felony evading and being a gang member with a concealed weapon.

His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

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