KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The reported sightings have come from as far as California, people just certain they’ve spotted the blond-haired Kansas City baby whose cherubic face has been printed on fliers and circulated on national television programs since her disappearance three weeks ago.
Yet so far, the some 200 calls fielded by Kansas City police have only generated a string of false positives in the search for Lisa Irwin.
The problem, officials say, is that at her age — just 10 months when she went missing on Oct. 4 — countless babies match the same description, right down to the bright blue eyes and two bottom teeth. She does have a distinguishing birth mark on her right thigh, but that would hardly be noticed from a distance.
“There is a kind of generic, cute little baby, little chubby cheek, bald-headed baby look,” said Ernie Allen, president of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “But our message to the public is, look at her picture. Really look at her in the eyes. Don’t just see a cute little baby but look in the child’s face. Like every human being she is unique. She is different. She doesn’t look like every baby.”
Investigators in the past week have stepped up their focus on the parents Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, searching their home after a cadaver dog reacted to what seemed to be the scent of a dead person inside.
Yet amid those developments, police say they continue to follow up on other tips and leads. Allen said his organization received at least a dozen tips over the weekend, even after news of the cadaver dog’s finding became public.
The couple’s attorneys, meanwhile, say the parents — who insist someone must have snatched Lisa as her mother and two other boys slept — are still answering questions and deny having anything to do with the disappearance.
Without any formal suspects, police can’t yet rule out that Lisa was abducted in the middle of the night and taken away from the area, potentially entering a vast pool of infants that could pass for Lisa.
“We do not want to discourage any one from calling in a tip that may lead to Lisa Irwin,” police spokeswoman Sgt. Stacey Graves said.
ABC News reported Sunday that it had obtained fuzzy surveillance video from a gas station near the home showing an unidentified man leaving a wooded area in the early morning, just before the baby was discovered missing from her crib. Kansas City police spokesman Steve Young declined to comment on the video.
Other tips have focused on the baby herself.
Last week, police in Manhattan, Kan., about two hours west of Kansas City, scrambled six officers to look for a black car with Missouri license plates after getting a tip that two women eating at a deli had a baby who looked like Lisa. Police eventually tracked down the “creeped out” customer and confirmed the child she had seen wasn’t Lisa.
The child may have looked like Lisa, but the baby was a little older and had reddish hair, said Riley County Police Capt. Kurt Moldrup, adding that matching a baby in public to a photo of Lisa is tricky, partially because of her age.
As the father of 11, Moldrup should know. He said his children looked a lot like Lisa when they were babies.
“It’s hard to take a picture and put that on a real face,” he said. “Video is better. Kids, it’s even harder.”
In northwest Missouri, police in St. Joseph have taken at least three calls from people who thought they saw Lisa. One came from a gas station where a child in a car seat resembled the missing baby. Another time, a couple shopping at a St. Joseph mall aroused suspicions before an officer was able to use a photo to determine their baby wasn’t Lisa.
“Something that has attracted this much attention is generating a lot of, ‘That looks like it could be.’ And so they are calling the police to check it out,” said St. Joseph police spokesman Commander Jim Connors. “I actually favor that kind of thing. It’s better than people not calling the police to check it out.”
Over the past 20 years, about one in six children has been recovered as the result of photographs on fliers, billboards and other media, Allen said.
In one case in Texas, a 5-year-old saw a flier on her dining room table and told her mother that the pictured boy was a classmate. Her mother was doubtful but eventually called the school principal. It was learned that the boy had been abducted from Michigan.
Allen said another child was recovered after a young girl waiting in a south Texas health clinic wandered down a hallway and recognized one of the children on a missing children bulletin board display.
“There is example after example,” he said. “Photos are powerful.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press