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The Murder of Amber Hagerman: The Origin of the AMBER Alert System

This case has remained unsolved for 27 years, 10 months, and 25 days.

Every once in a while, you’ll get an emergency alert on your phone that gives a description of a missing child and a person or vehicle to be on the lookout for, known as an AMBER Alert. But do you know how this system originated? Why do we get AMBER Alerts?

An example of an AMBER Alert on an Android phone.
An example of an AMBER Alert on an Android phone.

Unfortunately, like so many other safety measures in place, the AMBER Alert system was developed in response to the kidnapping and murder of a child, Amber Hagerman, in Arlington, TX. She was riding her bike with her little brother when she was abducted and murdered. Her body was found four days later, and her killer remains uncaught.

From the initial disappearance to the ongoing search for her killer, we’ll explore all aspects of this heartbreaking story and what happened to Amber Hagerman.

Table of Contents

About Amber Hagerman

In 1996, Amber Hagerman was 9 years old and was visiting her grandparents in Arlington, TX with her family. She was a Girl Scout and her favorite song was “America the Beautiful” with her favorite line being “for amber waves of grain.”

A photograph of Amber Hagerman and the Easter Bunny.
A photograph of Amber Hagerman and the Easter Bunny (Arlington Police Department).

Some of Amber’s school-age friends said that she was “nice” and “pretty,” and she seemed to have been well-liked by her classmates. She liked playing with Barbies and riding her pink bicycle that she’d gotten for Christmas one year.

Amber also loved being a big sister to her little brother, Ricky. She “loved being a little mommy to her little brother” said Amber’s mother, Donna Whitson. Overall, Amber was like any other 9-year-old — until her life was snatched away by an abductor.

The Day of the Abduction

On January 13, 1996, Amber and her 5-year-old little brother, Ricky, were at their grandparent’s house in Arlington, TX. Their mother was giving an interview to Dallas news station WFAA regarding families that had successfully gotten off of welfare, so the grandparents were watching the children that day.

The kids headed out to go ride their bikes for a little while, likely bored from being in their grandparents home all day. It was about 3:10 PM on a Saturday afternoon when they left, and they were told to stay around the nearby area (within a few blocks).

As they rode along, the kids caught sight of a “cool” ramp in the parking lot of an abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store. Amber wanted to go ride on it, but Ricky, remembering that his grandparents had told them not to stray too far, headed back home. The parking lot was just 2/10ths of a mile from their grandparent’s house.

Glenda Whitson, Amber’s grandmother, holding a photograph of Amber and her little brother Ricky.
Glenda Whitson, Amber’s grandmother, holding a photograph of Amber and her little brother Ricky (Insider).

When Ricky arrived home without Amber, his family asked him where she was. He told them that Amber had gone too far and was at the grocery store parking lot, at which point he was sent to go and retrieve her. By the time he got there, she was already gone.

Before Amber could follow after Ricky when he’d left to return home, she was abducted by a man who grabbed her off her bike and pulled her into the car through the driver’s side door. The time was 3:18 PM — just 8 minutes since Amber had left her grandparent’s home.

A Witness to the Crime

An elderly man had been in his backyard when he witnessed the abduction and immediately contacted police. He told authorities that he’d seen a man in a black pickup truck snatch Amber from her bicycle, force her into his car, and drive off with her.

Amber had been kicking and screaming as the man took her, so the witness knew that this wasn’t just a parent coming to pick up their errant child. Furthermore, Amber’s pink bike had been discarded at the scene, something a parent or caretaker wouldn’t have left behind. The witness told a news station, “He pulled up, jumped out and grabbed her. When she screamed, I figured the police ought to know about it, so I called them.”

An image of Amber’s pink bicycle that was recovered from the parking lot where she was kidnapped.
An image of Amber’s pink bicycle that was recovered from the parking lot where she was kidnapped (Missing Kids).

The Search for Amber

After Amber had been abducted, her family and the Arlington Police Department (APD) quickly launched a search for her. They searched in parks, wooded areas, and even the nearby lake. Police officers even went door-to-door in the immediate area around the parking lot asking if anyone else had seen anything.

An illustration of the important locations in this case.
An illustration of the important locations in this case (Arlington Police Department).

The FBI was later brought in to help investigate, but they were unable to uncover anything either. Unfortunately, the search was fruitless, and there was no sign of Amber anywhere. The shock of her abduction and its tragic outcome left many in the community devastated and looking for answers. A police spokesman said of the case:

“We will find the person who did this. We never want another little girl, another family, to go through what this little girl, this family, has been through.”

Police Spokesman (Source: The New York Times)

A Suspect Described

Authorities described the suspect that the witness saw abducting Amber as a white or Hispanic male in his 20s or 30s, shorter than 6′ tall, and with brown or black hair. However, it’s thought that a lot of potential witnesses didn’t come forward because they were afraid that their immigration status (or lack thereof) might end up getting them deported if they spoke with authorities.

Amber’s mother, Donna Whitson, believed that a sex offender had abducted and murdered her daughter. She told the press, “[Child predators] either need to be locked up for life or be killed.”

Amber’s Body Found

It was four days later on January 17 that a man walking his dog made a grim discovery. He found Amber’s body roughly four miles away from the spot where she’d been abducted.

Maintenance workers at the apartment complex doing work that day stated that they’d been near the creek earlier in the day and her body hadn’t been there. Authorities suspected that recent rain had caused the creek to rise and carried Amber’s body to where it was eventually found; she hadn’t been placed there originally.

An Arlington Police image of the creek where Amber’s body was found.
An Arlington Police image of the creek where Amber’s body was found (Missing Kids).

APD Detective Grant Gildon said of the area:

“It’s a very secluded area where her body was found. We do believe you’d have to be somewhat familiar with that area to know where that creek is. Was there a connection with that location? And was it someone who had a reason for turning back to the center of town?”

Det. Grant Gildon (Source: People)

Autopsy Results

The autopsy showed that Amber had died from slicing injuries to her neck, perhaps by a knife or other sharp object. She also had a number of bruises and other injuries on her body. Found nude except for a sock on her left foot, the clothing she was wearing (a “Camp Heart” t-shirt, pink pants, and brown shoes) has never been found.

Based on the results of the autopsy, authorities believed that Amber was kept alive for two days after her abduction before she was murdered and left in the creek. Because of this, they believe that someone must’ve seen something or knows something more.

With the information they had, investigators looked into a number of possible suspects. Sadly, despite the efforts of the police department and Amber’s family, no information ever came to light, and the search for Amber Hagerman came to an end without any resolution.

The AMBER Alert System

After Amber’s abduction and murder, a woman from Dallas, Diane Simone, called into a radio station and asked if local broadcasters could cooperate with authorities in the immediate hours after a child’s abduction. With Simone’s suggestion, the Dallas Fort-Worth Broadcasters set up a system to do just that, allowing police to warn the public when a child was kidnapped.

Soon, other states and communities set up their own alert systems, known as America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts or AMBER Alerts. The AMBER Alert system has helped to rescue over 1,000 children in the US since its inception. There are 82 AMBER Alert plans across the nation, and it’s even used in 31 other countries.

Information on the history of AMBER Alerts.
Information on the history of AMBER Alerts (Missing Kids).

Even though Amber’s case has never been solved, her legacy lives on through the AMBER Alert system, saving over a thousand children.

The Future of Amber’s Case

The case of Amber Hagerman been re-opened multiple times over the last 24 years, with potential leads being explored and new evidence being submitted for testing.

Overall, authorities have received over 7,000 tips in the Amber Hagerman case throughout the years, although they still have made no arrests. Some in the force are hopeful that further advancements in DNA technology will lead them to Amber’s killer at some point in the future.

APD Detective Grant Gildon believes the case can be solved. He stated:

“I want to make clear here today we believe this case will get solved. We believe there’s no way the killer in this case could have committed the crime in the manner that they did without someone seeing, hearing, or having some knowledge of what happened.”

Det. Grant Gildon (Source: Click on Detroit)

Plea for More Witnesses

Recently, police have stated that they have no interest in the immigration status of any potential witness. APD Assistant Police Chief Kevin Kolbye has stated: “Our hope is that someone in the community saw something. Maybe they didn’t come forward 25 years ago out of fear or not wanting to get involved.”

Amber’s mother Donna Williams has publicly pleaded with the killer, staying, “To Amber’s killer, I’m asking you today, please turn yourself in. Give Amber justice. Amber needs justice, deeply.”

APD Sergeant Ben Lopez, a member of the original task force on Amber’s case, said:

“I would love to be able to give Donna, and Ricky, and the rest of the members of their family the answer to the question that they would like to know — of course, that is who did this to Amber — and bring that person to justice.”

Sgt. Ben Lopez (Source: WFTV9)
A photograph of Amber and her little brother, Ricky.
A photograph of Amber and her little brother, Ricky (WFTV9).

Case Outlook

Ultimately, I think it would take some sort of breakthrough in DNA testing to find Amber’s killer, perhaps via familial DNA (like in the Golden State Killer case where a relative’s arrest eventually led to the serial killer’s arrest). The fact that it’s been so long since this happened is concerning, but the passage of time has also allowed for advancements in DNA technology. Perhaps one day soon, we’ll know who killed Amber Hagerman.

Case Updates

There have been few updates in Amber’s case, although none have led to her killer. Some looked promising; six different people confessed to her murder, but none of them turned out to be the perpetrator.

2021: Police Release New Photos

In 2021, authorities released new photos and disclosed that they had DNA evidence in the Amber Hagerman case. They hoped that the photos might jog someone’s memory that might have information. It’s unclear if anything new came of this public plea.

Do You Have Information?

There is currently a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the Amber Hagerman case. If you have information about this case, please contact Arlington Police at (817) 575–8823 or Crime Stoppers at (817) 469-8477.

A missing poster for Amber Hagerman.
A missing poster for Amber Hagerman (Texas History).

Cold Case Questions

  • Who do you think murdered Amber Hagerman?
  • Did you know about how the AMBER Alert system was invented prior to reading this article?
  • Will this case ever be solved?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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