Crime

Why Wasn't an Amber Alert Issued for Missing Miami Beach 5-Year-Old?

Leah-Ranee Rose Lassiter and her father, Rommel Lassiter
Leah-Ranee Rose Lassiter and her father, Rommel Lassiter Screenshot via Watson Leigh/Instagram
The father of a 5-year-old who disappeared more than three weeks ago says the Miami Beach Police Department (MBPD) has refused to issue an Amber Alert for his daughter despite repeated requests.

Rommel Lassiter was awarded shared custody of his daughter, Leah-Ranee Rose Lassiter, on November 19, following a lengthy custody battle with the child's mother, Chantelle Iman Dortch, in Miami-Dade family court. Miami-Dade Judge Maria Elena Verde ordered Dortch to share custody of the girl with Lassiter, specifically to drop her off at Fienberg Fisher K-8 Center on November 22 so Lassiter could pick her up that afternoon.

But when Lassiter went to the Miami Beach school earlier in the day to explain to his daughter's teachers and principal that he'd be picking her up later, they told him Leah-Ranee never arrived at school that morning.

"I went through a lot of stages to finally see my daughter, and when I'm finally given an opportunity to see her, she's not there," Lassiter tells New Times, explaining that he hadn't seen the girl since May. "I went to the Miami Beach Police Department the next day where I thought I’d be assisted, but for the most part I was laughed at for the first 20 minutes."

According to Lassiter, the officer he spoke with said the issue was a civil/family matter between him and Dortch — not police business — and declined to look at the court order documenting Lassiter's legal custody. When he requested that police perform a welfare check on Leah-Ranee, Lassiter says, the officer told him, "And I want to win the lottery."

"The cop refused to look at [Lassiter's] order until I got on the phone, because if they don't look, they're not compelled to do anything about it," Lassiter's attorney, Malik Leigh, tells New Times.

The November 23 incident report from MBPD states that "Det. Sgt. Houser met with the complainant at the station and informed him that his case is a child custody dispute incident. Sgt. Houser informed me that an incident report is required in this matter. A case card was issued to the complainant."

Leigh says his client's pleas were initially ignored because Lassiter is a six-foot, two-inch Black man who has had brushes with police before. (Lassiter has been arrested and charged with theft and nonviolent drug-related crimes in Miami-Dade County court, but charges were dropped in all of them except for a single 2015 case of felony cannabis possession.)

"That's what happens when Black kids go missing. We're never alerted. That's par for the course," Leigh fumes. "He received that treatment because of who he is and what he looked like. That's something to be expected in South Florida, and especially in Miami Beach."

The cases of Black children who go missing in the United States are investigated by law enforcement at lower rates than those of white children. The first few hours after a child abduction are often the most important. Leah-Ranee Lassiter has been missing for nearly a month now, with little movement on the case.

"Amber Alerts are usually put out when a child has just been abducted to find the kidnapper driving away. It's been three weeks. Even taking the slowest form of transportation, she could be in Alaska right now," Leigh says.

"I’m horrified," Lassiter adds. "I’ve been having bad dreams the last couple of days because it's been three weeks and nobody — not the police, no one — can say she’s alive."

Once they spoke to a supervisor and got a detective on the case, Lassiter and Leigh supplied information they believed would help track down Dortch.

Leigh says MBPD detectives informed them they had contacted all of Dortch's known family members in Florida and out of state, but no one had heard from her in more than a year. But Leigh insists that can't be true: Dortch had previously messaged his client that she was with family in Delaware earlier this year, before she was ordered to share custody.

On December 1, Judge Verde issued an Order to Pick-up Minor Child demanding "any and all sheriffs of the State of Florida" and any other law enforcement to find Leah-Ranee and place her in Lassiter's custody. "The sheriff/officer is authorized to take all reasonable, necessary, and appropriate measures to effectuate this order," the document states

The MBPD posted a missing child poster on its Twitter account that same day.


Leigh says that since her disappearance, Dortch has disconnected all of her known phone numbers, and her Instagram account @seductive_savage23 has been made private.

"This is still very much a civil matter. The department will not issue an arrest warrant. If the judge feels one is warranted, the courts can issue it," reads a December 7 email from an MBPD officer to Leigh.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) website, an Amber Alert can only be issued if the missing child is under 18, law enforcement believes a kidnapping has occurred, that the child is in imminent danger of death or injury, that a detailed description of the child and alleged abductor are available, and that the law-enforcement agency of jurisdiction recommends activation of an alert.

On December 8, Judge Verde issued another order granting sole custody of the minor child to the father, stating that Dortch had violated her prior order and possibly left the state: "The child has been missing for over three weeks. The Court fears for the safety of the child as well as the mental health of the Mother."

Despite three court orders and pleas from a desperate father, MBPD has continued to decline to issue an Amber Alert, ostensibly under instruction from FDLE.

"We contacted FDLE and it does not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert due to the fact that we can not confirm Ms. Dortch has received the new court order, even though it was mailed to her," an MBPD officer informed Leigh in an email.

Leigh contends that Dortch received the order from Judge Verde at the November 19 court hearing.

On Thursday, Leigh posted his own alert on Leah-Ranee's behalf on his law firm's Instagram account, seeking information on the little girl's whereabouts. The attorney and Lassiter are concerned that the girl might be in danger.

MBPD spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez says the department's criminal investigations division has been working with FDLE,  the FBI, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to find Leah-Ranee but cannot issue an Amber Alert or arrest Dortch.

"Investigators advised the missing child does not meet FDLE’s criteria for an Amber Alert and therefore one could not be finalized. We have entered the child into the database as missing. As for an arrest warrant, the child’s father would first have to file an emergency injunction prior to an arrest warrant being issued," Rodriguez told New Times via email Thursday.

FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger says it was MBPD's decision to make.

"We have issued alerts before when the parent is an abductor, but the case has to meet threshold of serious imminent danger of bodily injury or death to the child," Plessinger says. "If it meets the criteria, the agency [in this case, MBPD], makes the determination."

Anyone with information about Leah-Ranee or Dortch is urged to call Miami Beach Police at 305-673-7901 and Leigh at 888-399-0678.
click to enlarge Leah-Ranee Rose Lassiter has been missing since November 22 and is believed to be in the custody of her mother, Chantelle Iman Dortch, in violation of a court order. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MALIK LEIGH
Leah-Ranee Rose Lassiter has been missing since November 22 and is believed to be in the custody of her mother, Chantelle Iman Dortch, in violation of a court order.
Photo courtesy of Malik Leigh

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos