Amber Hagerman of the Amber Alerts

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Amber Hagerman of the Amber Alerts


On the afternoon of January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman, 9, and her five-year-old brother, Ricky, pedaled their bicycles to an abandoned grocery store in Arlington, Texas. Minutes later, Ricky turned to head back home, about a block away.

Jim Kevil, a 78-year-old retiree, stood in his backyard not far away. “I saw [Amber] riding up and down,” he said later. “She was by herself. I saw this 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.”

Kevil described the truck as being dark, possibly black. The abductor was white or Hispanic.

Police arrived within a minute or two. By that time, Jimmie Whitson, Amber’s grandfather, was on his way to the locale of the former Winn-Dixie store to check on her. (When Ricky had arrived back home without Amber, Whitson had grown worried.) By the time he arrived, cops were there.

Experts say that stranger abductions are rare. They are also among the most difficult cases to solve. Even with an eyewitness, investigators were stymied. They theorized that it was a crime of opportunity, that the kidnapper saw Amber alone and impulsively decided to snatch her. The vacant lot where children liked to play was on East Abram Street, not far from a huge General Motors plant. From the beginning, cops felt that the abductor was almost certainly familiar with the area.

Local police were joined by volunteers and the FBI in the massive search that followed. A truck similar to that of the kidnapper had been spotted outside a nearby laundromat before Amber was taken, but investigators never located the vehicle.

Facts of the Amber Hagerman abduction

Four days later, a man was walking his dog near the Forest Hill Apartments, just a few miles from where the child had been snatched. At the bottom of a creek bed, he saw a child’s body. Amber Hagerman had been found.

An autopsy determined that Amber had been held alive for two days. During that time she was sexually assaulted.

Arlington police and the FBI formed a task force to search for the killer. Investigators followed up thousands of leads, but none turned up the murderer.

By 1999, the task force had been disbanded and the case had gone cold. The killer has gone undetected now for eleven years. Arlington detective Jim Ford recently said, “There would be nothing more important or rewarding than seeing this case get resolved because [it] is as bad as they get.”

Shortly after Amber went missing, a caller to a Dallas radio station asked a simple question: why can’t law enforcement team with the media to quickly provide information to the public when a child is abducted? The idea caught on, and the Amber Alert was born. It began locally as the Dallas Amber Alert. Then it became a state-wide program and finally went national.

Since its formation, the Amber Alert is credited with the rescue of more than three hundred missing and abducted children.

Who killed Amber Hagerman?

Glenda Whitson, Amber’s grandmother, prays that the killer will be caught. However, she’s not optimistic. “[Police] really don’t have much to go on,” she said. “A few fibers they found on her body, they tell us. They’re still working on it, and they call us now and then. They say they’ll never give up. After ten years, you lose hope that they’ll ever find him, but I still have a little bit of hope.”

A psychological profile was issued by police a few weeks after the murder. Unfortunately, it was a generic rehash of profiles released after many such crimes. The killer was at least 25, cops said. He lived or worked near the scene of the crime. Since Amber was alive for two days after she was kidnapped, the killer had to have had some place to keep the child. Something probably caused him to snap, police said.

Amber Hagerman kidnapping and murder
Amber Hagerman kidnapping and murder

Since 1996, a killer has roamed free. Did he keep trophies of his victim so he can relive his crime? Has he killed again? Is he free or incarcerated? Amber Hagerman deserves justice and her killer deserves a Texas send-off to Hell.


Fifteen years ago today, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted as she rode her bicycle in the parking lot of abandoned east Arlington grocery store. She was murdered.

Police say they are no closer to making an arrest than they were back in 1996, but Amber’s legacy survives in the AMBER Alert system operating in some form in 50 states and several foreign countries.

The missing notification system has been credited with saving 500 abducted or missing children since its inception and is widely praised by experts as an essential tool for quickly moving to rescue endangered children.

But some critics say the system isn’t nearly as prolific at saving the lives of children who are in real danger — primarily youngsters abducted by homicidal sexual predators who don’t know their victims — as its supporters claim.

“It’s not that the AMBER Alert is bad, it’s just not as good as people think,” said Dr. Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston.”

Levin said there “might be a hundred cases a year where a child is actually abducted by a stranger, sexually abused and then killed. So you’re not going to see too many success stories. But even where there are apparent successes, and the AMBER Alert is used, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the AMBER Alert that caused the child to be returned home.”

That doesn’t matter to supporters who say even if one life is saved, the system works. Amber’s mother remains a staunch supporter of her daughter’s legacy.

“When Amber was here, she was like a little mommy,” Amber’s mother, Donna Norris, said during a recent interview. She always took care of the neighborhood children and watched over them. I know she’s very proud of the AMBER Alert and that mommy did the right thing by pushing this.”

One witness spoke up

Amber was snatched Jan. 13, 1996 as she and her younger brother rode their bicycles in the east Arlington grocery store parking lot. A witness — the only one to ever step forward — told police that he saw a man in a black truck grab Amber from her bike, throw her into his truck and drive away.

A man walking his dog discovered Amber’s body four days later in a North Arlington drainage ditch. Her throat had been cut, but police have not said whether she was sexually assaulted.

“We still get three or four leads a month on it and we’re up to about 6,800 leads now since the case began,” said Arlington police Det. Ben Lopez. “Anytime we get a lead we still investigate it to see where it goes. Certainly over the years, there have been some leads we got excited about and then over time, we eliminated them and we became disappointed.”

Lopez, an Arlington patrol officer at the time of the abduction and slaying who was later assigned to the department’s original Amber Hagerman task force, said that he thinks about the case everyday, even when he’s working on other crimes.

“Amber Hagerman, because it’s a child case {ellipsis} we’d loved to get it solved,” he said. “That’s why any lead, no matter how small, is important. It may seem like nothing, but it could be the key to solving the case.”

He said that although working on the case can be frustrating at times, the department will never give up on it. “It’s not hard to stay motivated when you’re trying to solve a homicide,” he said.

In the months following the horrific crime, radio and law enforcement officials worked tirelessly with the girl’s family to create her lasting legacy: AMBER is an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.

The 1996 launch

In October 1996, North Texas radio station officials launched a trial run of the new AMBER Alert system.

Tyler Cox, operations manager for radio station WBAP, was an integral leader in helping develop the AMBER Alert. To this day, WBAP monitors a fax line 24 hours a day that is dedicated solely to receiving AMBER Alert requests from law enforcement agencies and it works with KRLD to facilitate the issuance of the alerts in North Texas.

“Any tool that can be utilized to help protect a child and help get that child back to his or her parents, is a tool that ought to be utilized,” Cox said. “If I’m a parent of a child who has been abducted, whether it’s by Uncle Bob or Prisoner X that’s broken out of prison, then I want to know that everything that can be done is being done.”

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said more than 500 children have been recovered as a direct result of the AMBER Alert and that number alone is a good thing.

“Time is the enemy in these cases and the public can help,” Allen said. “These are average people just paying attention. We’re not asking them to put themselves at risk but to just look around” and alert authorities if they see anything suspicious.

Levin is not alone when he notes that the system and those it saves are but a drop in the bucket, and since most child abductions are domestic in nature, most end with the child unharmed.

“There are hundreds of thousands of children who are abducted every year by their own parents,” he said. “Most of them are returned home; they’re not killed. And there’s no intention of killing them.”

The result, according to Dr. Timothy Griffin, a University of Nevada, Reno, criminal justice professor who has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the AMBER Alert, is little more than “crime control theater” because the alerts create the false illusion of being helpful in the most egregious of child abduction cases.

“AMBER Alerts have helped recover hundreds of children,” Griffin acknowledged. “There is no dispute about that. What is not as clear is that AMBER Alerts have helped rescue hundreds of children from menacing situations.”

Cox doesn’t follow the rationale of those who criticize the AMBER Alert system because, he said, “it’s free, it’s easy and it works.”

“I don’t understand the need to criticize a program that has one primary purpose — to save a child’s life,” he said. “The whole purpose was to get parents and children together and save’s children’s lives. And we’ve done that.”

‘It does work’

And Donna Norris echoes a sentiment voiced by many AMBER Alert supporters.

“If it saves one child’s life, that tells me that it does work,” she said.

Griffin, who is in the process of another study of the alert’s effectiveness, said that with all due respect, that viewpoint by Norris and others weaken, not strengthen, the argument in support of the AMBER Alert’s reach.

“I have no problem with people saying if the AMBER Alert helps save just one child’s life it’s worth it. That’s fine,” Griffin said. “But if saving one life makes the AMBER Alert worth it, then there’s no point in making the dubious claim that it’s saving hundreds.”

Allen notes that AMBER Alerts also help protect children in another way: While it’s difficult to measure, he said he believes the notifications serve as a deterrent to would-be kidnappers.

“Historically, these offenders are looking for situations that recognition and apprehension is unlikely,” said Allen. AMBER Alerts do the opposite, he said, by “making the risk as high as possible and alerting people.”


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