After a tragic abduction, one woman decided to make a change.
Amber Hagerman was your typical 9-year-old girl living in Arlington, Texas. She was in the Girl Scouts. She and her 5-year-old brother, Ricky, loved to ride their bicycles together.
Then, the unthinkable happened on one horrible afternoon.
Amber Hagerman Disappears
On January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman rode her bike into the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store. A man in a black pickup truck got out, forcefully took Amber off of her bike, and stuffed her into the cab of the truck. She screamed once and was kicking at her abductor, said the only witness to Amber’s abduction, Jimmie Kevil.
Five days later, a passerby found Amber’s body in a rain-swollen creek approximately four miles from the abandoned parking lot. Her throat was cut. Authorities believed a thunderstorm swept Amber’s body into the creek because apartment maintenance workers in the area didn’t see anything out of the ordinary before the storm.
Amber’s parents, Donna Whitson and Richard Hagerman, were in disbelief when police officers told them of the terrible news. They always held out hope that their precious angel was alive and would come back to them. Amber’s father even told reporters that she was still alive after the police chaplain left their house.
The case had two diametrically opposed outcomes that were both tragic and hopeful.
To this day, the murderer has not been brought to justice. Detectives in the Arlington area receive occasional tips that they follow. Only one person saw what happened. A lack of information and other witnesses following the abduction may have slowed any progress in finding Amber.
Shortly after Amber’s funeral, Diane Simone, a mom herself, called into a local radio station. She had an idea. She figured if the local media sent out weather alerts, they could do the same for abducted children. When the National Weather Service issues an alert for severe weather, it interrupts television and radio broadcasts while making a loud noise. Why not do the same for kidnapped children?
A Tragedy Births Change
The idea stuck. Broadcasters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area partnered with local law enforcement to alert viewers and listeners to child abductions. Since 1996, the AMBER Alert system, named after Amber Hagerman, went nationwide. Experts believe that more than 800 children were found safe thanks to the alert system as of December 2015. Abductors are more likely to release children when they discover that authorities issued an AMBER Alert.
Here’s how AMBER alerts work. Once law enforcement determines if a case meets certain criteria, authorities notify broadcasters and state transportation agencies. Alerts interrupt programming, appear on statewide transportation signs, show up on digital billboards and even arrive as text messages on cell phones.
Donna Williams, the current name of Amber Hagerman’s mother, said that the alert system named in memory of her daughter is bittersweet. In an interview in 2016, 20 years after Amber’s murder, the grieving mother said, “There’s another part of me that wonders what would have happened if we would have had the alert when Amber went missing. Could it have helped bring her back to me?”
Also in 2016, Simone, the mother who came up with the idea for an alert system who is now in her 70s, said that a lack of information played a part in Amber Hagerman’s murder and abduction. “They were saying Amber was taken at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, thrown in a pickup truck and driven somewhere, and that nobody saw anything. I’m sorry, that’s not possible. The problem was not that people didn’t see them, it’s that they didn’t know what they were seeing.”
Simone cautions people never to ignore the alerts. AMBER Alerts make people aware of the most serious cases of child abduction wherein authorities believe a child’s life is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death. AMBER Alerts can occur in multiple states at once, and they can happen at any time.
Every minute counts in child abduction cases. As soon as you hear or see an AMBER Alert, pay attention. Very worried family members may be counting on you to save their child’s life.
After learning about Amber Hagerman, the child behind the AMBER alert system, check out the story of Sally Horner, whose kidnapping inspired the novel “Lolita.” Then, reach out the Boy in the Box, a creepy still-unsolved murder case.