Amber Alerts: Amber Hagerman abduction fifteen years later
Today marks fifteen years since the abduction of Amber Hagerman, the nine-year-old girl who’s kidnapping and murder launched the Amber Alert system. The word “Amber” in Amber Alert holds a dual meaning. The first is after Amber Hagerman, the second is an anagram for: America’s Missing Broadcasting Emergency Response.
On January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman was abducted while bike riding in Arlington, Texas. Her naked body was found days later, approximately eight miles from where the abduction occurred. Her throat had been slashed and an autopsy confirmed that she was alive for several days following the abduction. Though a witness described the abduction to police, having seen a man in a pickup truck drag Amber Hagerman into his vehicle, a combined effort between state and local authorities with media outlets to issue an alert did not exist in 1996. The case remains unsolved fifteen years later.
Donna Whitson, Amber Hagerman’s mother, immediately became a voice advocating stronger sex offender laws. Within one week after Amber’s body was found, Donna Whitson said to the Houston Chronicle, “They either need to be locked up for life or be killed.”
Within six months, Donna Whitson would appear before Congress, tearfully requesting that a national registry be created to track and monitor sex offenders. “It’s a shame that we as parents have to keep our children locked in at home like they are in prison while these molesters are allowed to roam the streets free. As a mother, I am asking you to change the laws to protect all of the children so they can play without fear.”
Amber Hagerman’s father, Richard Hagerman, also appeared before Congress, “This sexual predator murderer is still on the loose today. Most studies show that this animal has probably sexually attacked innocent children before my daughter and will probably do so again. I think most psychiatrists will tell you that this type of criminal cannot be rehabilitated, and they will strike again.”
Jim Kevil, the sole witness to the abduction, heard Amber’s screams and saw the suspect drag Amber into his car. He immediately called 911 and police were dispatched. By the time Amber’s grandfather, whom she’d been visiting at the time of her abduction, arrived on the scene to look for Amber, police were already there. With information available, two rival radio stations in Dallas and Fort Worth joined forces to issue an alert over the radio.
Shortly after Amber’s body was located, the community and law enforcement, still grieving, discussed ways that a more effective alert could be sent. In July 1997, the Dallas Amber Plan began. The Dallas Amber Plan was akin to weather alerts or storm warnings that are issued and was designed to issue mass alerts after a child abduction. Within a year and a half, the Dallas Amber Plan saw its first success. A babysitter, who kidnapped 8-week-old Rae-Leigh Bradbury, was apprehended within an hour and a half when a driver spotted the vehicle described in the Dallas Amber Plan.
By 2000, Houston adopted a plan and by 2002, Texas had a statewide system in place. Later that year an Amber Alert plan had been initiated in all 50 states. On April 30, 2003, former president George W. Bush enacted the PROTECT Act which established the role of the Amber Alert national coordinator within the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. States, territories, Canada and other countries have enacted Amber Alert plans. Though each state determines its own criteria, the Department of Justice has issued guidelines which all states must follow. You may find answers to frequently asked questions regarding the Amber Alert system here: Amber Alerts Frequently Asked Questions Department of Justice
Amber Alerts have been credited with the recovery of more than 500 children. The murder of Amber Hagerman remains unsolved.
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