The Story Behind the 'Amber Alert'

Scar Tactics
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2010/01/17 14:20:28 (permalink)

The Story Behind the 'Amber Alert'

Fourteen years ago this weekend 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was found murdered after being abducted four days earlier. Her murder remains unsloved.
This is the story of the legacy she leaves behind.                        By David Krajicek 

Amber Hagerman

More than 10 years later, Glenda Whitson recalls each second of the 8 minutes that changed her family's life.
It began with a visit from her grandchildren, Amber Hagerman, 9, and brother Ricky, 5.

They stopped at Whitson's Arlington, Texas, home with their mother, Donna, at about 3 in the afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 12, 1996.

Whitson's husband, Jimmie, was tinkering with a car out front.

He paused to say hello to Amber, an auburn-haired cutie who loved Burger King, Barbie dolls and "America the Beautiful," for the line that mentioned her name: "Amber waves of grain."

Jimmie Whitson kept two bicycles at the house for the grandkids, and Amber and Ricky asked if they could go for a quick ride on the sunny winter day.

"My husband and my daughter said, 'OK, but just go once around the block,'" Glenda Whitson told Crime Library.

They peddled around two corners to the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie grocery store that had been closed for some time. Neighborhood kids enjoyed riding on a ramp there.

As the children went off, no adult gave it a second thought.

The Whitsons had lived there on Highland Drive, in Arlington's Highland Park addition, since 1975. The children's mother had ridden her bicycle on the same streets when she was growing up.

Arlington had changed in those 21 years, of course.

Part of the vast Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, its population had nearly doubled since the Whitsons moved in.
But the parking lot where Amber and Ricky headed was on busy E. Abram Street, just down the block from a vast General Motors plant. The spot was far from isolated, and it was broad daylight.

"They rode over there and went down the ramp," Mrs. Whitson said. "Ricky told his sister, 'I'm going back home because mama told us to just ride around the block.' So he rode back here, and my husband asked him, 'Where's Sissy?' He said she stayed for one more ride on the ramp, so they sent him back for her."

Ricky Hagerman left but returned a minute or two later and said, "I can't find Sissy."

Jimmie Whitson jumped in his truck and sped to the parking lot.

He spotted a police car there and pulled up to it. The officer told Whitson that a man who lived nearby heard screaming and saw a man carry a young girl into a pickup truck. The witness called 911, and the officer raced to the scene just moments later. But all he found was a bicycle.

Jimmie Whitson's heart sank.

He said, "That's my granddaughter's bike."

In recounting this series of events 10 1/2  years later, Jimmie Whitson's wife let out a long sigh.

"That was it," she said. "Eight minutes—eight minutes from the time she rode away on her bicycle until that man called 911. People have to know that this is how fast these things can happen."

The abduction of Amber Hagerman in Arlington was followed by a sad tableau that has become familiar in modern America: loved ones of the girl appeared on television to beg for her safe return.

"Please don't hurt my baby," the children's mother cried. "She's just an innocent child. Please, please bring her home safe. Please."

The media interviewed the lone witness, Jim Kevil, who had phoned 911 after hearing Amber's screams.

"I saw her riding up and down [the vacant lot]," he told reporters. "She was by herself. I saw this pickup. He pulled up, jumped out and grabbed her...When she screamed, I figured the police ought to know about it, so I called them. I wish I had known more. I done all I could do."

Kevil described the man as "not big, but very fast." He was white or Hispanic, and his truck was dark. But he was too far to give much more detail.

Police theorized it was a stranger abduction.

In a typical year, 750,000 American children are reported missing, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited children. The vast majority are runaways or family abductions.

Roughly 100 stranger abductions of children are reported each year—one every three or four days, on average. But stranger abductions are in the most troubling category of missing children because nine out of 10 victims are female, half are sexually assaulted, and three out of four are killed within three hours.

In those cases, every moment following an abduction is crucial.

The truck driven by Amber Hagerman's abductor was seen outside a laundromat near the Winn-Dixie plaza before the girl was snatched.

Police theorized it was an impetuous crime of opportunity since Amber had no established pattern of riding her bicycle there at that time of day.

The man likely watched Amber and Ricky ride into the parking lot together. He pounced on the girl just moments after her brother left to ride back to his grandparents' home.

Eyewitness Kevil said he watched the man drive west out of the parking lot and disappear.

The abduction was front-page news in Texas. Police were hopeful that other witnesses would step forward—perhaps someone who had seen the feisty girl struggling with her abductor as he tried to drive.

Police and the FBI formed a special task force to investigate, and the girl's smiling image became omnipresent in the Dallas Metroplex.

Coincidentally, a local TV station had been working on a story about Donna Hagerman's struggle to get off welfare, and the station released videotape of the girl to other media outlets.

Her image became so widely known during the investigation that the local police chief would later call Amber "Arlington's child."

But the investigation would have no happy ending.

No additional witnesses were found, and the pleas of Amber's loved ones went unheeded.

Four days after the abduction, a man walking his dog spotted Amber's naked body in a creek bed near an apartment complex in north Arlington. The girl's throat had been slit.

Three weeks after the abduction, authorities released a psychological profile, hoping to smoke out the killer.

The profile suggested the man was at least 25 and lived or worked near the spot where he dumped the body.

Authorities revealed the girl was alive for two full days after she was abducted, which likely meant there was a crime scene rife with physical evidence somewhere in the Dallas area.

Police theorized that something caused the killer to snap—an argument with a loved one, a rancorous domestic dispute, or the loss of a job. They said the killer's personality or appearance might have changed as a result of the trauma.

As an Arlington police spokesman put it, "Our hope is...someone out there will hear this and will think, 'Gee, this sounds like someone I know.'"

Plenty of people had that reaction. Police pursued some 5,500 leads in the 18 months following the murder.
But none led to the killer.

In the summer of 1997, after investing more than $1 million in the Amber Hagerman investigation, Arlington police disbanded the task force.

The murder remains an open investigation today, but the girl's grandmother said her hope is flagging.

"They don't really have much to go on—a few fibers they found on her body, they tell us," said Glenda Whitson.

Glenda Whitson - Amber's grandma

"They're still working on it, and they call us now and then. They say they'll never give up...After 10 years you lose hope that they'll ever find him, but I still have a little bit of hope."

Mrs. Whitson, 65, said she prays the killer is caught in her lifetime.

"It won't bring her back, but at least we would know that he got what he had coming to him," she said.

In the meantime, Amber's loved ones take solace in her legacy.

After the murder, a Dallas man asked a common-sense question: When a child is abducted and each minute matters, why can't the police and the media get together to inform the public with the same urgency of, say, a weather warning about a tornado or a hurricane?

Radio and television executives in the Metroplex adopted the idea, and the Dallas Amber Plan was initiated in July 1997. Under the plan, police provide broadcasters with timely information about abductions—including photos and descriptions—so word can be spread immediately to the public.

Sixteen months later, the Amber Plan proved its worth.

Sandra Fallis, a babysitter with a drug problem, disappeared with an 8-week-old child. An alert went out, and Fallis was apprehended within 90 minutes when a driver who heard the alert spotted the woman's truck. The child was safely returned.

Houston set up its own Amber Plan in 2000, and two years later Texas instituted a statewide Amber Alert. That same year the U.S. Justice Department began coordinating the program for states and cities. Today, all 50 states and hundreds of cities have Amber Alert plans.

By the federal government's count, some 240 children have been recovered due at least in part to Amber Alerts.
Glenda Whitson says she is always stopped cold when she hears her granddaughter's first name on TV or radio.

"My heart drops down to my shoes," she says, "because I know just what those people (the parents) are going through."

She calls the Amber Alert system "the right legacy" for her granddaughter.

"It feels good when some child is brought home and our baby helped," says Mrs. Whitson. "You just look up to heaven and say, 'You did it again, baby'...Of course I know sometimes it doesn't turn out good, but the Amber Alert gives them something more to go on from the very start."

As more states joined the Amber System over the past decade, the number of children recovered rose sharply—from eight in 1999 to 26 in 2002 to 72 in 2003.

It has turned out that automobile descriptions and license numbers often are the most valuable information in successful Amber Alerts. Among recent examples:

—In June 2006, two toddlers were taken from their grandparents by the children's father, Katron Walker. An Amber Alert was issued because the man had threatened violence. A citizen who saw the alert on television spotted the suspect's car near a lake and called police. Walker stabbed to death one of his sons, but the other child was safely recovered.

Katron Walker                            Walker's children

—Mary Winkler, accused of murdering her preacher husband in Tennessee in March 2006, was apprehended two days after the shooting when a police officer in Orange Beach, Ala., identified her van from an Amber Alert. The couple's three children were found unhurt in the van.

The Winkler family
—In November 2005, an adult sex offender abducted a teenage girl in Hialeah, Fla. An Amber Alert was announced on electronic highway signs in the state, and a motorist who saw the alert spotted the car traveling in front of him. Police stopped the offender, who released the girl before killing himself.

—In January 2004, an adolescent girl was abducted by her uncle in Baltimore. A regional Amber Alert was issued, and three separate motorists called authorities after seeing the suspect's car near Stafford, Va. He was arrested, and the girl was rescued.

—In May 2003, an 11-year-old girl in St. Cloud, Minn., was abducted by a 21-year-old houseguest. An Amber Alert was issued in several states, including Utah, where the man had ties. A Utah state trooper who saw the alert spotted the suspect's car and arrested him. The girl was returned home.

Amber Alerts have become a small industry, with an annual national convention (this year in Albuquerque) for those who work on the systems, a new "Amber Alert Awareness" postage stamp and a plethora of websites.

But the system is far from perfect.

Different local and state jurisdictions often make varying judgments as to whether an alert is warranted. Some places, for example, have used Amber Alerts to help find Alzheimer's sufferers who wandered off, while others reserve the system for missing children.

Amber Alert overuse has been an issue from the beginning. Six alerts were issued in Dallas during a single month in 1999, and both the media and law enforcers fretted that the public would become numb by the frequent reports.

The federal government now recommends that alerts be limited to cases of children 17 and younger who are believed to be in imminent danger as a result of an abduction. The guidelines also suggest that alerts be issued only in cases where there is sufficient information—a suspect's description or a car's make and model, for example—to enable the public to help recover the child.

But the guidelines force police agencies to make judgments about which missing persons deserve alerts—an old law enforcement bugaboo.

Over the years, the loved ones of dozens of disappeared teenagers have been infuriated by law enforcement's refusal to take a missing-person report before a waiting period of a day or two. The fury becomes even more acute in cases where the child turns up dead or permanently missing.

Police say they cannot drop everything to search for each of the 2,200 Americans reported missing each day.

Most of cases are benign—adults with drug or alcohol problems, runaway teenagers, custody disputes or misunderstandings.

Yet Amber Alerts are fraught with inconsistency.

According to one newspaper investigation, one in five of the 233 Amber Alerts issued in 2004 was for a child who was lost, had run away or was reported missing as a result of a hoax or a misunderstanding.

Some states appear particularly quick to issue alerts that do not meet the federal criteria. Missouri, for example, recently issued an Amber Alert after a man took his two sons from their maternal grandmother's home—even though the father had court-mandated access to the children.

A number of Amber Alerts have been issued by small police agencies that appeared unaware of the federal guidelines. In other cases, parents of runaways or parties in custody disputes have pressured both the police and the media to issue alerts.

And those are the cases that threaten to bring about what some call "Amber Alert fatigue."

The system was designed for confirmed abductions—a tiny fraction of missing-child cases—not as a tool to help bring home every kid who goes missing.

"It has not ever been meant for missing children, lost children or child custody cases," Dee Anderson, the Fort Worth-area sheriff who helped initiate the first Amber Plan, told that city's Star-Telegram. "Almost at times the plan is a victim of its own success, because now everyone wants it used when a child is missing."

Sheriff Dee Anderson

Some experts also fear that overuse of alerts could cause crime hysteria in the country by giving the impression that abductions are routine, even though they are rare.

But what parent wouldn't demand all the resources available to find a lost child? This visceral instinct often leads to conflicts with law enforcers.

For example, no Amber Alert was issued when Brianna Maitland, 17, went missing in Vermont in 2004.

Brianna Maitland

The girl's father, Bruce, became increasingly critical of the slow-footed, close-mouthed response of police.

Vermont State Police appeared to retaliate with a press conference at which a lieutenant cited Brianna's "very questionable background involving drug use" and "some unhealthy lifestyle choices in her life prior to her disappearance."

Bruce Maitland was stunned.

In an interview last year with Crime Library, he called the press conference "a dirty trash Brianna," which eased the pressure to solve the disappearance.

She is still missing.

"The police did not cause Brianna's disappearance," Bruce Maitland said, "but the police might be the reason that she hasn't been found."

Parents like Maitland puzzle over the inconsistencies of Amber Alerts.

In the Cleveland area, police agencies have proven willing to issue alerts that are outside the federal guidelines.

From 2002 to 2004, more than half of the 17 alerts issued involved custodial abductions.

Yet when Gina DeJesus, 14, went missing in Cleveland in April 2004, police refused to issue an Amber Alert because there was no witness to her abduction or disappearance.

Gina DeJesus

Later, two classmates revealed that they had seen the girl speaking with an older man earlier on the day that she disappeared. And it came to light that another teenager, Amanda Berry, had disappeared the previous spring just six blocks from where Gina DeJesus was last seen.

Amanda Berry

A year after the disappearance, authorities finally released a sketch of the man seen with DeJesus.

An FBI spokesman tried to explain the delay, but he was not convincing.

"This didn't look like a good lead at the time," he said. "It came in shortly after she was abducted. We didn't want people to lock into one person at that time. We had a lot of what we thought were really good leads. We covered those. They were unsuccessful."

Like Bruce Maitland, the girl's mother was left puzzling over judgments by law enforcers and the media when Gina DeJesus disappeared.

"We asked for an Amber Alert when we reported her missing that Friday night," Nancy Ruiz, 46, told Crime Library.
"They told us we didn't meet the criteria because there was no description of a car or the person who abducted her."

Ruiz said she and Felix DeJesus, Gina's father, spent the next two days frantically looking for their child while begging the Cleveland media and police to release a photo of the girl.

"We got bounced back and forth," she said. "The police said the media had to make the decision to air her picture, and the media said they couldn't do it until the police gave the OK."

TV stations finally began airing Gina DeJesus' photo on Sunday broadcasts.

"They say every second counts when a girl is abducted, and for 36 hours we got nothing," Ruiz said. "Whoever took my daughter got a 36-hour lead—and all because they wouldn't issue an Amber Alert. He could have had her all the way to Canada by time her picture was on TV."

Like Brianna Maitland, Gina DeJesus has not been found.

Judy Martin, a victim's rights advocate in Cleveland, said Amber Alerts are "underused, too restrictive and too subjective."

"Too many kids get left out and are lost because of arbitrary decisions by law enforcement," said Martin, founder of two support and advocacy groups, Survivors/Victims of Tragedy and Black on Black Crime. "It's unconscionable."

She cited the case of Shakira Johnson, 11, who disappeared from a dance in Cleveland in the fall of 2003. Police declined to issue an Amber Alert, even though witnesses saw the girl get into a red car—a basis for an alert, under the federal guidelines.

Shakira Johnson

The child's dismembered body was found in a vacant lot a month later.

Martin does not buy the "Amber Alert fatigue" argument—that overuse of the system will lead to the same yawning response that people eventually had to the faces of missing child on milk cartons. 

"I think that's ridiculous," she said. "It's not like we're going to have 100 Amber Alerts each day in any individual area. Maybe nationwide, but not in any given city or state."

Nancy Ruiz said inconsistent decisions about issuing Amber Alerts have left her with the impression that law enforcers make value judgments about a particular child's worth.

"If Gina had been a police officer's daughter, I have no doubt that she would have gotten an Amber Alert," Ruiz said.

That sort of insider influence has been cited as a factor in a number of questionable alerts.

This summer, the troubled granddaughter of Joe Bruno, a powerful Republican politician in New York state, turned up missing. Without calling it an Amber Alert, the police and the media in New York gave the case the full alert treatment—even though the young woman was 20, had a history of flakiness and had phoned home after her disappearance.

Joe Bruno

Her photo was omnipresent in the media for several days, and she was located in Times Square, walking with a man she had met on the Internet. The state police superintendent twice held press conferences about the young woman, and the media dedicated untold air time and column inches to the case.

Such obvious special treatment for an influential figure confirmed for Ruiz that police are willing to bend missing-person guidelines as needed.

Back in Texas, Glenda Whitson says she sides with those who see and hear too many Amber Alerts.

"I do think it's being overused," she said. "It was just supposed to be used for kids they knew were in danger, in cases where they knew there had been an abduction. Now they use it for runaways all the time, but there are thousands of runaways. You can't use an Amber Alert for a runaway."

Her opinion counts. Mrs. Whitson and her family have become seminal figures in national awareness about missing children.

Her daughter, Donna Norris, testified before Congress and stood near President Bush when he signed federal Amber Alert legislation into law.

Donna Norris - Amber's mom
My little girl was abducted and butchered for this bill to even exist," Norris told reporters before the signing ceremony. "But it's saving children's lives. It's just a bittersweet thing."

That sadness is never far from the surface for the family.

Mrs. Whitson broke down during an interview—a recurring theme in her family's life, she said.

Her daughter, like everyone in the family, has what she called "sad days." Amber would have graduated high school this year.

"That was hard for her mother," Mrs. Whitson said. "Right about now Amber would be falling in love, maybe getting ready to get married, giving her mother grandchildren. Donna lost out on all of that."

Ricky Hagerman, now 16, is the focus of the family. He lives in Hurst, north of Arlington, where he plays high school football.

"He's a typical teenager," his grandmother said. "He wants a car, he wants a job so he can have some pocket money. But he's a good kid."

She said the family was opening gifts last Christmas when Ricky broke down.

"He still thinks about her all the time," Whitson said. "She was like his second mother. He says he misses her."

Last year, Arlington officials planted a tree in memory of Amber Hagerman near the scene of her abduction.

Amber's tree

Jimmie Whitson, her grandfather, helped build a sturdy wrought-iron fence around it, and the family decorates it with pink ribbons, Amber's favorite color.

The Whitsons pass the totem nearly every time they come or go from their home.

Glenda Whitson said she can't look at the tree without thinking of her granddaughter and that brief bicycle trip.

"All the kids still ride bikes around here," she said. "I suppose most of them don't even know what happened 10 years ago in this neighborhood. Maybe some of the parents don't either. Sometimes I see little-bitty young ones go by. I stop and say to myself, 'I hope they're safe.'"

Amber montage
post edited by Scar Tactics - 2010/01/17 14:24:13

2 Replies Related Threads

    Hoosier Hoops Guru
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    RE: The Story Behind the 'Amber Alert' 2010/01/21 22:31:29 (permalink)
    Very informational stuff, Scar.  Thanks for sharing!

    In June 2006, two toddlers were taken from their grandparents by the children's father, Katron Walker. An Amber Alert was issued because the man had threatened violence. A citizen who saw the alert on television spotted the suspect's car near a lake and called police. Walker stabbed to death one of his sons, but the other child was safely recovered.


    This happened in my hometown, and there was debate on how effective the Amber Alert was used in this case.  Though one of his two kids he kidnapped survived the ordeal, there was discussion on whether the Alert was issued soon enough after the kidnapping.
    Scar Tactics
    Scarred To Death
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    RE: The Story Behind the 'Amber Alert' 2010/01/21 23:39:25 (permalink)
    ORIGINAL: Hoxy

    Very informational stuff, Scar.  Thanks for sharing!

    Your quite welcome Hox. Glad to share with my fellow Annoyatoriumites!
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