Amber Hagerman’s story — The tragic inspiration behind the AMBER Alert Initiative

Amber Hagerman

The life-saving AMBER Alert traces its origin to the missing case of its namesake, Amber Hagerman. Born on November 25, 1986, Amber lived an ordinary life in Texas with her parents and little brother. But the family’s fortune turned for worse when Amber was abducted by a strange man in 1996 and things were never the same when she was found dead soon after.

Amber’s unsettling case became one of a kind in the history of America to have a far-reaching impact. Though Amber’s abductor and murderer have not yet been caught, a little consolation lies in the fact that her case has changed the way missing children’s cases are handled for the better.

Key Takeaway

  • Amber Hagerman was riding her bike in an old parking lot in Arlington, Texas when she was abducted by a man driving a pickup truck in 1996.
  • Four days later, Amber’s murdered body was found near the bank of a creek located only four miles from where she went missing.
  • Amber’s case remains unsolved to this day and it has been 26 years since her kidnapping and death.
  • The Arlington Police are optimistic about a breakthrough in the case due to new developments in DNA technology.
  • Amber’s legacy is alive in the AMBER Alert system that has saved thousands of missing children in America and nearby countries.

Amber Hagerman was only nine years old when she was abducted on January 13, 1996

On a fateful Saturday afternoon in January 1996, Amber Hagerman was riding her bicycle with her younger brother, Ricky, in the parking lot of an old Winn-Dixie grocery store on Abrams Street and Browning Drive, Arlington, Texas, just a few blocks away from their grandmother’s home.

Ricky Hagerman and amber hagerman
Amber Hagerman is pictured with her younger brother, Ricky Hagerman | Arlington Police Department

Ricky, who was five years old then, left early to ride back to his grandmother’s place and Amber stayed back to cycle some more. Minutes after, she was pulled away from her bicycle against her will and forced into the front seat of a pickup truck. She was only nine years old.

The abduction was witnessed by an elderly retired machinist, Jim Kevil, from his backyard and he alerted the police immediately. Upon Kevil’s description, the suspect was thought to either be a Caucasian or Hispanic male in his twenties or forties, who stood under six feet tall and was of a medium build.

“I saw [Amber] riding up and down. She was by herself. I saw this black pickup. He pulled up, jumped out, and grabbed her. When she screamed, I figured the police ought to know about it, so I called them,” Jim Kevil recalled the incident to CBS News.

Though the case did not fetch compelling leads, the police were inclined to believe that the suspect was a local man after deducing the familiar route he took while kidnapping Amber and the fact that she was later found in the same locality.

Amber Hagerman bicycle
Amber’s bicycle was recovered from parking lot where she was abducted

Detective Grand Gildon of the Arlington Police told People: “Based on the direction of travel when they left [the Winn-Dixie] and then based on her being found in Arlington, being abducted in Arlington, and just being in that spot, the question has always been, did somebody have a connection with that area where the abduction was?”

Amber’s body was discovered on January 17, 1996, in a secluded creek only four miles away from the parking lot where she was abducted

The news of Amber’s abduction devastated her parents and according to the book ‘Answers’ by James The Psychic, Amber’s father, Richard Hagerman, contacted Marc Klass, who was a known child advocate, for guidance. After all, Klaas had undergone a similar situation in 1993 when his daughter Polly Klaas was abducted and murdered.

“For those first few days, we spent all of our extra time looking. It was like if you weren’t on another call, you were actively looking for her. We were looking everywhere in the city,” said Detective Ben Lopez, who was a patrol officer at the time, to NBC News.

Despite the collective efforts of the neighbors, widespread media coverage, and involvement of the FBI, Amber was not found. But on a Wednesday night, four days after Amber went missing, a man walking his dog came across a body floating in a stream near the Forest Hill Apartments in North Arlington.

Though the creek where Amber’s body was found was only four miles away from the parking lot where she was abducted, The New York Times reported that the apartment maintenance workers had found nothing on Wednesday morning when they were working.

The authorities believed that Amber’s body surfaced in the creek following the storm that occurred on Wednesday evening which could have moved her body during the rainstorm. Upon examination by the office of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, Amber’s death was ruled a homicide caused by multiple “cut wounds to the throat”.

Refusing to believe the police reports of her death, Richard Hagerman initially told the reporters that his daughter was still alive.

Amber Hagerman’s parents, Donna Williams and Richard Hagerman listen to a summary of Amber’s abduction while waiting to be interviewed in 1996 | William Snyder/Dallas News

While the police did not disclose whether sexual assault was involved, reports of her autopsy emerged, showing that she had been alive for the first two days after her abduction, during which she was beaten and sexually assaulted, states a paper published by the Bella Vista Police Department. However, it was never confirmed by the Arlington Police.

Amber’s abduction and murder case remains unsolved to this day

With more than 50 police officers and federal agents working on the case, the culprit behind Amber’s abduction and murder was never found owing to a lack of DNA evidence and limited leads that could not move the case forward.

Moreover, Mike Simonds, the investigative sergeant in charge of Amber’s case at the time, explained that the creek where Amber’s body was recovered had washed most of the physical evidence away, saying:

“There had been a very large storm and Amber was not only in water but in running water in a creek bed, so there had been a tremendous amount of water flow over her body which obviously made it hard in terms of trace evidence.”

In January 2016, twenty years after Amber’s abduction, Detective Lopez told NBC News that it was “extremely frustrating” for the case to remain unsolved for such a long time. He said:

“We have other cold cases and they’re all frustrating, we want to solve them all, but 20 years is a long time. It’s frustrating not to be able to give the mom and the family an answer. We continue working on the case. We still investigate every one of those leads like it might be the right one.”

In a press conference held in Texas for the 20th anniversary of Amber’s disappearance, her brother Ricky regretted that he “didn’t quite understand” what was going on at the time and urged people with any information related to the case to come forward.

“We want closure and we want justice,” said Ricky, NBC News reported.

Arlington Police remains hopeful that new DNA technology could provide a breakthrough in the case

At the press conference held for the 25th anniversary of Amber’s abduction in 2021, Detective Gildon, who currently heads the investigation, confirmed the presence of genetic evidence in Amber’s case.

“We’re submitting evidence that we’ve maintained for 25 years, that we believe could possibly provide us with results that could be a DNA profile,” Detective Gildon told The Dallas Morning News.

During the 26 years, the case has received over 7000 tips and it continues to receive a few tips every month. Detective Gildon dismissed claims saying it was a cold case as he told People that the police continue to have leads and possible suspects are being investigated extensively.

“A lot of people will refer to Amber’s case as, what’s commonly referred to as, a cold case. But for the Arlington Police Department, it has never been listed as a cold case because we’ve never gone 180 days without having some lead come in,” Gildon said.

Amber Hagerman
Amber Hagerman | Arlington Police Department

Furthermore, the police are optimistic about the future of the case and believe the murderer to be still alive as Detective Gildon assured the public in his statement to People:

“I do believe there’s definitely someone out there who has the answers that we’re looking for and can help lead us in the right direction. So, that’s why we continue to work on it. Our goal has always remained the same, and that’s to catch who did this and be able to prosecute them.”

The AMBER Alert Program has saved over a thousand lives of abducted children in the last 25 years

In the wake of Amber’s disappearance, a fellow Texas resident, Diana Simone, became very invested in the case and initiated the move to have an alert system in place for missing children. Amber’s case was an eye-opener in how avoidable the circumstances were had there been a fast information system in place.

“Even though I didn’t know [Amber] personally, I was still very affected by this. The entire community watched, waited, and prayed for her safe return,” said Diana in a TED talk she gave for TEDxWilmingtonWomen in November 2017.

Simone said that the media had been begging for any information regarding Amber’s disappearance but it was a few hours too late. Believing that things would have gone differently for Amber had an immediate alert system been in place, Simone initially conceptualized the idea of a voluntary phone system to provide missing children’s information.

She later contacted the local KDMX radio in Dallas Fort Watch to broadcast missing child cases and the idea was picked up by the law enforcement. After nine months, the first AMBER Alert was implemented in the Dallas Fort Worth area and by its third alert, a kidnapped infant was rescued within 45 minutes.

Today, AMBER Alert, which stands for ‘America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response’, is a successful coordinated response system in Amber’s legacy that broadcasts alerts on digital highway signs, radio, television, and wireless devices when an abducted child is thought to be in imminent danger.

Followed in all 50 states of the United States and implemented in the district of Columbia, Puerta Rico, the U.S Virgin Islands, Canada, and Mexico, the Office of Justice Program records that Amber Alert has saved the lives of over a thousand children and recovered them from abductors as of 2020.

“If it wasn’t for Amber, we would not have the Amber Alert today,” said Amber’s mother, Donna Williams.

Read Next: Betty Gore’s story — The brutal ax killing that rattled the quaint town of Wylie, Texas