Real Crime

How Were Amber Alerts Created? The Amber Hagerman Cold Case

Glenda Whitson, left, and Donna Norris pose January 4, 2011, next to a photo of granddaughter/daughter Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped 15 years ago while riding a bicycle near Whitson's home in Arlington, Texas on January 13, 1996. Photo: Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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    How Were Amber Alerts Created? The Amber Hagerman Cold Case

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      Laura Dorwart

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      How Were Amber Alerts Created? The Amber Hagerman Cold Case

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      March 29, 2020

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      A+E Networks

On January 13, 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was riding her bike alongside her 5-year-old brother, Ricky, to a grocery store in Arlington, Texas, just two blocks from their home. Sadly, the little girl would never return.

Four days later, Amber’s body was found in a nearby creek. She was pronounced dead from cut wounds on her neck and throat.

Most people know Amber Alerts as child-abduction emergency notifications that help law enforcement find missing kids. But the tragic abduction and murder case behind the notorious alert system was never solved—and police are still looking for clues.

What Happened to Amber Hagerman?

While no suspects have ever been identified in Amber’s abduction, there was one witness. A passerby, Jim Kevil, saw an adult male stranger snatch a screaming, kicking Amber from her bike and wrangle her into a black pickup truck in the Winn-Dixie parking lot before driving off. Kevil described her attacker as white or Hispanic, around 6 feet tall, medium build, and between the ages of 25 and 40. He called the police immediately, but it was too late to save the former Girl Scout.

Meanwhile, 5-year-old Ricky rushed home to tell his mother and grandparents that he couldn’t find his sister. When Amber’s grandfather Jimmie Whitson arrived at the scene, she was already missing. He found only an empty bicycle in the grocery store parking lot.

The family immediately sprang into action, notifying local police, the FBI and the news media in what would become a nationwide search for their beloved Amber. More than 50 federal agents and area police officers joined in the search. Police believed the abductor’s behavior had likely escalated because of a recent traumatic or upsetting event, such as a divorce or layoff.

Four days after Amber’s kidnapping, a dogwalker discovered her body in a creek near the Arlington Forest Hill Apartments, just a few miles from the Hagermans’ home. Police believed she had washed up there due to recent thunderstorms.

An autopsy by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner revealed that Amber’s throat had been slit and that the little girl was likely kept alive by her attacker for at least two days. Although an investigator with the ME’s office says he didn’t know if Amber was raped, published reports say she was found nude.

While an investigative task force was formed hastily after Amber’s body was discovered, it was disbanded in 1999 when the case went cold. Since Amber’s disappearance, Arlington police have sifted through more than 8,000 leads. But without physical evidence, such as a weapon or DNA, no official suspects have ever been discovered, and the case has been difficult to pursue. And unlike in many other unsolved murders, few credible theories have been posited as to the kidnapper’s identity.

How the Amber Alert Began

Amber’s harrowing abduction and death inspired her family to become fierce child advocates. Although Jim Kevil witnessed Amber’s kidnapping and notified law enforcement, there was no available coordinated notification system to mobilize the public around a missing child.

Hagerman’s disappearance sparked immediate interest among parents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and across the country, says Leonard Snipes, owner and operator of the Crime in America website and a former senior specialist for crime prevention for the Department of Justice. Explaining why Amber Hagerman’s case resonated so deeply with the public at the time, Snipe tells A&E Real Crime, “We all take an interest in the plight of children, regardless of whose child it is. It’s an instantly recognizable, innate concept that we all understand.”

Concerned community members joined in the efforts to find a new way to respond to abductions, urging law enforcement to take a stand and work to prevent similar tragedies in the future. , is credited with the idea of modeling a child-abduction emergency-response system after the National Weather Service’s warnings. Her call-in to a local radio station launched a nationwide campaign to revolutionize the way we notify the public about kidnappings.

Nine months after Amber’s death, the public got their wish in the form of the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act and the now-famous Amber Alert system. Amber, or AMBER (“America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”) Alerts, help law-enforcement agencies and media outlets disseminate the news of a kidnapping almost immediately. According to Snipes, Amber Alerts are so effective because they “allow and encourage public participation in the child’s recovery.” He added, “A shared responsibility for crime prevention is the heart and soul of regional alerts, and that’s a good thing.”

Early versions were sent out via radio, while today’s alerts spring up on our cell phones and social media accounts. The Amber Alert has served as a prototype for similar systems in other countries and has evolved with the advent of digital technology. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that Amber Alerts have returned more than 900 children to their families in the past two decades.

 The Amber Hagerman Case Today

Although it’s been more than 20 years since Amber’s disappearance, her family—father Richard Hagerman, mother Donna Williams (then Whitson) and younger brother Ricky—has never given up on the case.

In January 2016, Amber’s mother and brother, along with several of the detectives who initially investigated her murder, held a press conference to request tips and leads from the public that could help to identify Amber’s attacker. In turn, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared January 13 as Amber Alert Awareness Day in honor of the Hagerman family and their efforts to change the way that law enforcement and the public are notified about missing children. Memories of the case live on in the community, with North Texas artists recently debuting a mural at the memorial site where Amber was kidnapped.

With no available forensic evidence, Amber’s case may remain unresolved. Still, Arlington police say they will continue to seek justice for Amber and her family and will actively pursue any leads.

Related Features:

How ‘Live PD,’ AMBER Alerts and Social Media Have Helped Find Missing Children

Live PD’s Angeline Hartmann on Jayme Closs and Misconceptions About Missing Children Cases

What’s Jaycee Dugard’s Life Like Today, 10 Years After She was Found Alive?

Kamiyah Mobley’s Abductor Raised Her as a Daughter for 18 Years

The ‘Boy in the Box’: Will 2019 Be the Year We Get Answers About the Famous Unsolved Murder?

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