The Child Abduction Case that Led to the Creation of AMBER Alerts

In 1996, a nine-year-old girl was riding her bike not far from her home in Arlington, Texas when a man pulled up in a pickup truck and abducted her. A bystander saw the abduction and called the police. They arrived in minutes, but they were too late. The girl was never seen alive again. Her body was discovered in a creek four days later, and the man that abducted her was never found. The girl’s name was Amber Hagerman. This is the story behind the child abduction case that inspired the creation of the AMBER Alert.

On the afternoon of January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman went bike riding to an abandoned grocery store with her younger brother. After a while, Amber’s brother decided to go home, and she stayed by herself riding around in the parking lot. A man suddenly pulled up in a pickup, stuffed Amber into the vehicle while she was kicking and screaming, and drove away.

Amber Hagerman biking
Image source: 1,2,3

After Amber’s brother arrived home alone, their grandfather went to the abandoned grocery store. By the time he arrived, police were already there.  A 78-year-old retiree had seen the abduction from his backyard and called the police. He gave a description of the man as being White or Hispanic, between the ages of 25 and 40, under six feet tall, with a medium build.

Four days later, a man was walking his dog when he discovered Amber’s body in a creek behind an apartment building. She was found naked with her throat slashed.

Creek and grave
Image source: 1,2

A medical examination of the body showed that Amber had been sexually assaulted and that she was killed two days after her abduction. Her body was discovered just five miles from where she was abducted. Police then informed her parents. At first, they refused to believe it. Her father told reporters “she’s still alive.”

But within days of Amber’s death, her parents started fighting to create laws to protect children. They started an organization called “People Against Sex Offenders” that lobbied for new laws. Amber’s mother testified in front of the US Congress, which helped with the creation of the National Sex Offender Registry.

Amber’s abduction led to the creation of the AMBER Alert system. The idea came from a woman in Texas who never met Amber but had been touched by the tragedy.

Amber alerts
Image source: 1,2

The idea occurred to her while she was discussing the tragedy with a friend. She then called a radio show to pitch her idea. She pointed out that if broadcasters can provide severe weather alerts, they should be able to do the same for child abductions. She requested that the alert system be named after Amber, and said that would ensure people wouldn’t ignore the alerts because they would always remember what happened to Amber.

That year, seven local radio stations set up an alert system, and the idea quickly spread. Although it’s named after Amber Hagerman, they later created an acronym that AMBER officially stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. When a child is abducted, authorities can quickly inform the public as AMBER Alerts go out over radio, TV, emails, and electronic signs on highways. In recent years, the AMBER Alert program collaborated with companies like Google and Facebook, so that alerts now show up on map services, internet searches, and news feeds for people in affected areas. The AMBER Alert system has been credited with saving almost 800 children.

Amber’s case remains a mystery. Although she was taken in broad daylight when there were people around, her killer was never found. Her parents and police have vowed to never stop looking for him.

Tips request and parents
Image source: 1,2,3

The parking lot where Hagerman was abducted was also used by a self-service laundry that was full of customers, but none of them came forward as witnesses. Police believe many of them were illegal immigrants which made them wary of speaking with police. So police once offered a $75,000 reward for information with a promise that anyone who came forward wouldn’t be deported, but still, none of the customers from the laundry provided any information.

Many other people, however, did provide tips. On the 20-year anniversary of Amber’s abduction, police said they’ve investigated over 8,000 tips since the beginning of the investigation, and they believe the case will be solved someday.

That year, her mother wrote an open letter to her daughter’s killer. She planned to have it published and to rent a post office box so the killer could write back, but she decided to not go through with it. At a press conference in 2016, Amber’s mother said she was not going to stop looking for the murderer. “Her killer is still out there, and Amber needs justice.”(1,2,3,4,5)

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