The Murder of Amber Hagerman

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EARLY LIFE:

Amber Rene Hagerman was born to Richard Hagerman and Donna Whitson on November 25, 1986. The eldest of two children, she had a younger brother named Ricky.

According to her loved ones, Amber was a fun-loving child who was full of life. She liked being active, and was known to enjoy riding her bicycle and spending time with her Girl Scout group. She was also seen as mature beyond her years, excelling at school and acting as a second mother to her brother.

As 1995 ended and rolled into 1996, her parents had since separated, with the children living with Donna. That year, she was working with local news channel WFAA on a documentary – titled From Welfare to Work – that centred around her working toward her GED and turning her life around. As a result, the station’s crew spent numerous weeks with the family.

At the time of her abduction and murder, Amber was just 9 years old.

ABDUCTION & MURDER:

On January 12, 1996, Ricky, Amber and their mother travelled to Arlington, Texas to visit their grandparents, Glenda and Jimmy Whitson.

The next day, Ricky and Amber were given permission to ride their bikes outside, with their mother reminding them they were not to venture more than one block away. Amber disregarded her mother’s instructions and brought her brother to the abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store, located two blocks away in the 1600 block of East Abram Street, near Browning Drive. The pair rode around the parking lot, as it had a bike ramp commonly used by the neighbourhood children, until around 3:10pm.

After a while, 5-year-old Ricky began to worry about disobeying Donna and decided to head back to his grandparents’ home, leaving Amber alone in the parking lot. Upon arriving home, he was asked by the adults where his sister was and revealed where they’d been. This prompted Jimmy to drive to the area.

At around 3:18pm, 78-year-old retired machinist Jim Kevil was in his backyard, which backed onto the parking lot of the abandoned grocery store, when he witnessed a man jump out of a pickup truck and grab Amber, who began kicking and screaming while being hauled into the vehicle via the driver’s side door. The man then drove westward, while Kevil called the police.

Officers swiftly arrived on scene and found only Amber’s pink bicycle. When asked to describe the suspect, Kevil recalled he’d been a Hispanic male between the ages of 25 to 40, who was about 6′ tall, had a medium build and dark hair, possibly black or brown in colour. Kevil had also gotten a good look at the truck, which he described as a single cab, late-1980s/early 1990s full-size American-made model pickup with a fleet side, a clear read window with no sliding window, a short wheelbase and no striping. He said it appeared to be in good condition, without any noticeable damage.

Immediately, law enforcement and Amber’s family began searching for the missing girl. More than 50 federal agents and area police officers were involved, searching the bush and countryside of north Texas, but were unable to locate her. In the hopes of getting Amber’s information out to the public, Donna reached out to the local media and the FBI, and WFAA used footage from its documentary to publicize her image.

Upon hearing of his daughter’s disappearance, Richard contacted Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, had been abducted and murdered in Petaluma, California on October 1, 1993. Polly had been kidnapped while at a slumber party with two friends, and her body was located on December 4, 1993. A man by the name of Richard Allen Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and a host of other charges in relation to the case and was sentenced to death. Despite the horrific crime, Polly’s legacy lives on through the Polly Klaas Foundation, which works to prevent crimes against children, while helping to recover those who are missing and lobbying for legislative assistance.

To show their support for the family, Arlington residents put up balloons and ribbons outside their homes.

At around midnight on January 17, 1993, a man walking his dog near the Forest Hills Apartments discovered Amber’s nude body lying facedown at the bottom of a creek bed. The area was at 2908 Forest Hollow, east of Texas 360 and north of Green Oaks Boulevard Northeast – less than five miles from where she had been abducted. She had several laceration wounds to her neck and her body featured numerous bruises. The only clothing she had one was a sock on her right foot.

Investigators were able to identify the body by matching a thumbprint from Amber’s school safety card. An autopsy revealed she’d been kept alive for two days before being killed, during which time she had been beaten and repeatedly sexually assaulted before having her throat cut. It’s important to note that, initially, an investigator with the medical examiner’s office said he didn’t know if she’d been raped, and police have not said publicly that she was sexually assaulted.

After her death, her body was dumped in the creek, with recent thunderstorms washing it down the waterway. Due to her body having been in the water for a time, very little forensic evidence was available. It’s believed much of it washed away.

INVESTIGATION:

Amber’s abduction is not the first kidnapping the Hagerman family has had to endure. Four and a half years prior, Richard’s newborn granddaughter had been taken from a Fort Worth, Texas hospital. She was returned 11 hours later, and the suspect was institutionalized.

A task force was created to find Amber’s killer. Police theorized the abduction hadn’t been planned and worried the suspect’s behaviour had likely escalated due to a recent upsetting or traumatic event. It would be disbanded in 1999.

At one point, there was a $75,000 reward for information about the case.

According to investigators, a self-service laundromat in the same parking lot was full of customers at the time of Amber’s abduction, but it’s believed many were in the country illegally and had left when they saw the patrol cars arrive on scene. Police tried to use the reward as incentive and promised no one would be deported – a promise they reassured through community interaction – but no one ever came forward with information.

In 2007, a group of Atlanta college students launched a year-long investigation into the case, as part of Bauder College’s Cold Case Investigative Research Institute.

In January 2016, Donna and Ricky, along with detectives, held a press conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the case and request information from the public. That same month, Texas Governor Greg Abott officially declared January 13 as AMBER Alert Awareness Day, to honour the family and their efforts to change the way the public and law enforcement agencies are notified of missing children.

Investigators have looked into over 7,000 leads and it’s said that two or three still get called in each month. While no suspects have been identified, there are persons of interest who have ties to the community and/or a past record of criminal acts. Police have kept in constant contact with the family, informing them when any information comes to their attention.

There’s hope new DNA technology could solve the case, with investigators looking to develop a DNA profile to make up for the lack of evidence they have. They are planning to submitting evidence for testing in 2021, which has previously been reviewed by the FBI. The revelation that such evidence existed was new information for the public, with those involved in the case refusing to go into specifics, saying it’s something only they and the killer would be able to identify. At this time, they also released pictures of the creek where Amber’s body was found, in the hopes someone would recognize the scene and remember something.

There is currently a $10,000 reward available from Oak Farms Dairy for information leading to the arrest and Grand Jury indictment of the suspect.

AFTERMATH:

Amber’s disappearance and murder inspired the creation of the AMBER Alert System in 2000, which stands for “America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response”. Prior to it coming into law, the Dallas Amber Plan was enacted in 1997. It allows law enforcement agencies and the media to disseminate information about a kidnapping almost immediately, while encouraging the public to participate in the child’s recovery. In 2002, Texas established the Texas AMBER Alert Network.

The idea for the system came from Diana Simone, a mother living in Fort Worth. She’d contacted a local radio station and questioned why broadcasters sent out warnings about severe weather, but not about child who’d been abducted. Along with creating the AMBER Alert, it also spawned the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act, which amended the Federal criminal code to “apply prohibitions and penalties for aggravated sexual abuse of a person under age 12 and for sexual abuse of a person between the ages of 12 and 16 to any person who: (1) crosses a State line with intent to engage in a sexual act with such minor; or (2) knowingly engages, or attempts to engage, in such an act in interstate or foreign commerce”.

On April 30, 2003, Donna and Ricky traveled to Washington, D.C. to be present for former President George W. Bush’s signing of AMBER Alert legislation into national law. In 2006, a commemorative stamp was released to honour the system’s dedication to the rapid recovery of abducted children.

Donna constantly wonders if things could have turned out differently if the system had existed at the time Amber was abducted.

In 2015, Facebook partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to allow AMBER Alerts to appear on users’ newsfeeds and for notifications to be sent out to those in the surrounding area.

In 1997, WFAA filmed a second documentary, titled After Amber, which commemorated the young girl’s life and featured moments which were dear to Donna.

Over the years, the family has held numerous ceremonies and candlelight vigils to keep Amber’s memory alive and to keep the case in the public eye.

In July 2019, a mural was revealed in Amber’s honour in a park in Arlington, near East Abram Street and Browning Drive. There has also been a tree planted in her memory in the same area.

Donna has since remarried. Unfortunately, she has had to endure more tragedies in the years since her daughter was murdered. Two months after Amber’s funeral, her then-fiancé was killed in a car accident, while her older sister passed away from complications of a seizure disorder in 1998. Over a decade later, in 2009, her husband of nine years died after having a heart attack and her father passed away after a battle with cancer.

Jim Kevil has since died, as have officers who were familiar with the case.

There has since been a Lifetime movie created about the case.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the Arlington Police Department directly at 817-459-5373 or via its tip line at 817-575-8823. Those wishing to remain anonymous can submit tips via Tarrant County Crime Stoppers at 817-469-8477.

Image Credit: The True Crime Files

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