The Unsolved: Amber Hagerman

         This month’s unsolved murder case is a monumental one – and I mean monumental in that it changed the way missing children cases are handled across the country. You may not know the name Amber Hagerman, but I’m willing to bet that your phone has blared with an Amber alert at some point. Today, we’ll examine the tragic case that put that protocol into motion. Let’s explore.

Who Was Amber?

          Amber Rene Hagerman was born on November 25, 1986 in Arlington, TX. She had reddish brown hair, blue eyes, and freckles dotting her face. Her ears were pierced and her smile showed of a mouth full of a mixture of adult and baby teeth in different stages of growth. She was a member of a local Brownie Scout troop. By all accounts, Amber Hagerman was a happy, energetic 9 year old in January 1996, when her young life would be cruelly snuffed out far, far too soon.

(A photo of Amber taken shortly before her disappearance and murder.
via
NBC News)

The Disappearance

          On January 13, 1996, Amber and her younger brother, Mark, were gleefully playing outside in the snow – it was a rare sight in their hometown of Arlington, Texas. They were riding their bikes in the parking lot of what once had been a grocery store. The neighborhood kids had constructed a ramp that Amber and her brother enjoyed riding on and jumping off of. But on January 15, Ricky felt the urge to head home before his sister. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he got bored. Regardless, he headed home without her. He did not know that he would never see Amber alive again.
          After Ricky left, a man who lived near the parking lot witnessed a disturbing sight. According to him, a black pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. The driver – who was described as a white or Hispanic man between the ages of 25 and 40 –  jumped out and grabbed Amber, who kicked the man and screamed. It was clear that she did not know this man and was terrified. The man, realizing he witnessed a kidnapping, called the police.
          The search for Amber would begin right away. Amber’s father reached out to Marc Klaas, who was an advocate for missing and murdered children after his own daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered in 1993. With his help and guidance, the investigation hit the ground running/ The local police and FBI got involved. News media was called and appeals were sent out for information. It seemed that all eyes in the state, if not the country, were on the Amber Hagerman. Unfortunately, though, it was not enough.

(The original missing person poster for Amber.
via the University of North Texas)

The Discovery

          Four days later, a man walking behind a nearby apartment complex discovered Amber’s body. It lay in a creek, nude except for one sock. There were severe lacerations across her neck. Police theorized that a recent thunderstorm had caused Amber’s body to move to that spot, or else maintenance workers at the apartment complex would have noticed something sooner. That, or she was placed there very shortly before she was discovered. An autopsy showed that despite having vanished four days prior, Amber had only been deceased for two of those days. That means whoever took her kept her alive.

Theories

          Despite decades of conjecture from internet sleuths, only one theory has remained viable under the lens of scrutiny: Amber was kidnapped and murdered by someone who was a stranger to her. This seems obvious based on the witness account of the abduction. Amber showed no signs of recognizing her abductor and was clearly terrified of being taken. If she had known the person, even causally, she likely would have at least faked politeness at the beginning of the interaction. So, the man was almost assuredly a stranger.
          The next question is whether the crime was one of opportunity or whether it was planned. I could see both sides of this argument. If the crime was one of opportunity, I could see a predator spotting Amber alone in the parking lot while out driving and taking her on impulse. On the other hand, it is possible that someone had been watching her. Maybe they had become fixated on Amber and when Mark left, they knew that they had to strike. I tend to lead towards the idea that this was a crime of opportunity because there are no reports of strange people following the family or hanging on the neighborhood. The sad fact is that we’re still writing about this 24 years later because whoever is responsible for Amber Hagerman’s death has never been brought to justice. Leads still trickle in every so often, but there have been no substantial breaks in the case – no suspects, no found evidence, nothing.

Aftermath

          As stated in the opening to this post, Amber Hagerman may have been taken from the world far too soon, but her family and community have ensured that her legacy is both powerful and preventative. Once Amber had been laid to rest, people began to ask themselves – how could this have been prevented? One woman named Diane Simone called into an Arlington radio station with her idea: signals similar to severe weather alerts, but for missing or kidnapped children. The idea was soon adopted by local law enforcement, and the program only continued to grow. It is now nationwide, and has been credited with the successful recovery of over 500 missing children since its inception. Europe, Mexico, Canada, and Australia have also implemented similar programs.  If you want to read a more comprehensive history of the Amber Alert System, you can do that here.
          Amber’s parents also founded People Against Sex Offenders, which called for the creation of stronger laws to protect children. Amber’s mother, Donna Whitson, testified in front of Congress in June of 1996, as a part of an effort to create a nationwide sex offender registry. Their influence did not fall on deaf ears. Marc Klaas and Congressman Martin Frost drafted the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act, which then-president Bill Clinton signed into law, creating the first national sex-offender registry.

Thoughts & Investigating Agencies

          Despite the lack of resolution in this case, Amber Hagerman’s story continues to touch lives today. Her tragic story has saved many, many lives. It’s just unfortunate that these sorts of preventative measures are only thought of after such a tragic loss shows the glaring need for them. My heart aches for the Hagerman family. Hopefully one day they will get the small closure of finding out who did this and seeing them face justice. If, by any miracle, you’re reading this and have information on the kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman, you can give information anonymously via Crime Stoppers by calling 817-469-TIPS.

Sources

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