MySpace Link To Girl's Disappearance?

This undated photo released by Vermont State Police shows Brooke Bennett. Vermont State Police are searching for the 12-year-old Braintree girl missing since she was dropped off at a Randolph convenience store Wednesday to meet a friend.
AP Photo/Vermont State Police
The search for a missing 12-year-old girl broadened Friday, as divers searched a lake, the FBI joined in and police investigators turned to officials at MySpace.Com, the online social networking site through which she had been communicating with an unknown person prior to her disappearance.

A day after her disappearance triggered Vermont's first-ever Amber Alert, investigators focused on someone Brooke Bennett may have met online, the head of the Vermont State Police said.

"This case is about a MySpace visitation," said Col. James Baker. "Our focus is on the communications Brooke may have had via that media."

Brooke, of Braintree, vanished Wednesday after being dropped off at about 9 a.m at a convenience store in Randolph, where she was supposedly going to meet a friend and then go to a hospital to visit a relative of the friend.

Police now believe that was a ruse, and that she may have been going to meet someone she'd been communicating online. Video from surveillance cameras at the store - released Friday - showed the girl walking away by herself, and she was seen about 45 minutes later inside the Randolph Village Laundromat, police said.

Baker wouldn't say whether she was alone at that point.

She was reported missing about 9 p.m. Wednesday, and an Amber Alert - the first ever in Vermont - was issued Thursday.

Brooke's mother, Casandra Gatnon, made a heartfelt plea to her 12-year-old daughter who has been missing almost two days. "I'm not mad. I just want you home," she told CBS affiliate WCAX-TV.

On Friday, state police dive teams searched Sunset Lake, near where items belonging to Brooke were found Thursday by a family member.

Meanwhile, investigators from the Vermont State Police, FBI and other agencies were trying to track Brooke's movements after she was dropped off by her uncle and cousin.

The FBI, which had assigned two agents to the case Thursday, plans to send a five-person team made up of agents who specialize in child abduction cases, police said.

A major focus of the investigation was centered on her online activities.

"As we all know, warnings have gone out countless times, in this world that we live in today, there are folks that visit places, social networking spaces such as MySpace, whose intentions are not good. And they come from far away," said Baker.

Investigators aren't ruling out the possibility Brooke may have left Vermont.

Police want to hear from anyone who was in Randolph on Wednesday between 9:45 a.m. and 11 a.m., even if they don't think they saw anything, Baker said.

Baker said the Amber Alert wasn't issued sooner because investigators had to determine if her disappearance met the criteria for one. Officials didn't decide to issue the alert until they knew the MySpace activity could be related to it, he said.

The girl established her first MySpace account under her father's supervision, but he later pulled the plug on it a couple of months ago after they learned about some of her activity on it, according to the father, James Bennett, 41, of Bethel.

"We told her when we set it up there that's things you're not gonna' do," he said. "We had a little respect problem after a month or so, so we shut it off. There was an issue, and we decided it was not appropriate for her to have it. We changed the password so she couldn't use it," he said.

She later set up an account from another computer, which Bennett said he didn't know until a week ago. The girl lives with her mother in Braintree, not with Bennett.

Baker said MySpace officials were being helpful.

A spokeswoman for MySpace.com who would not give her name said Friday the company was cooperating with police.

"I can tell you we're working with local law enforcement to provide them with everything and we have been since last night. We're providing them with everything they're requesting," she said.

Experts in missing children say the Internet can be a dangerous place.

"The reality is that the internet is the predator's new playground. They don't have to lurk in bushes anymore, they can lurk in cyberspace," said Marc Klaas, founder of the Klaaskids Foundation, of Sausalito, Calif.

"It provides them with a much greater degree of anonymity. It enables them to create any kind of a fantasy or fake life they want so they can use their well-honed manipulative skills to get close to the particularly vulnerable," said Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in 1993 and later found slain.

Bob Hoever, associate director of training for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said child abductions related to the Internet are on the rise.

The public's help can be key in solving them.

"When a child disappears, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," he said.

"The more eyes and ears we have out there looking, the smaller that haystack becomes. Thanks to public help, 400 children have been safely rescued and returned to their families specifically because of the Amber Alert program and the public's help."

Capt. Ed Ledo of the Vermont State Police said the Amber Alert wasn't issued earlier because police needed more information. The alert was issued about 5:25 p.m. Thursday, nearly 18 hours after the girl was reported missing.

"Because someone's missing, you can't just put an Amber Alert out. There are certain criteria we're bound by," Ledo said.

About 14 detectives were currently working on the case, he said.

"I'm sitting here waiting for a phone call, hoping it's good news. This is a very difficult time," said James Bennett, her father.

The girl, who just finished seventh grade, is described as 4-foot-11 inches tall, 98 pounds, wearing blue jeans, a pink sweater and white sneakers with pink lettering. She has blue eyes, brown hair with purple highlights and has pierced ears "top and bottom," according to the Amber Alert.

At the Randolph convenience store, a flier with a black-and-white photo of Brooke was taped to the glass door in front, and clerks handed out copies of it to customers inside. A store manager there declined comment on the girl's disappearance.

"It is certainly our hope that Miss Bennett is out there and has just failed for whatever reason to contact family and friends," said Vermont State Police Capt. David Covell. "At this point, we're looking at all possibilities."

Amber Alerts, which are named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl slain in 1996, are a partnership between law enforcement agencies, broadcasters, transportation agencies and the wireless industry to alert the public in the most serious child-abduction cases.