Just how closely do you read that Amber Alert when it goes off on your phone?
A new documentary streaming on Peacock reminds us of the importance of the law enforcement tool and reveals the little known story of its namesake, Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl who was abducted while riding her bike near her grandparents's home on Jan. 13, 1996, in Arlington, Texas. Investigators determined the suspect was nearby, but they were without a way to alert the public.
Amber's younger brother, Ricky, had been out with her, but she told him to go ahead and head back. She'd be right behind him. He was worried when she didn't arrive back at the house, and so were the other family members. Then a witness called 911 to report that a man in a black pickup truck had stopped to pick up a girl off her bike, and police pieced together that the girl had been Amber.
Executive producer Elizabeth Fisher tells Yahoo Entertainment that producers were originally interested in the case, which remains unsolved, around the 25th anniversary in 2021. But then their researchers dug up something even more compelling.
"When we looked a little further into it, that's when I was really shocked to learn that there was actually a documentary being shot with Amber's family around the time of her abduction," Fisher says. "So that, to us, was what kinda sold it, you know, what was so fascinating."
It turned out that Amber's mother, Donna Williams, as well as Amber and Ricky, had been being filmed for months before Amber went missing. Williams had just left her husband and Amber's father, whom she said had been physically abusive toward her when he was drinking, and she was on welfare. Documentarian Pam Curry, who was capturing how women transitioned off welfare, connected with the family at a women's shelter. She had filmed them for hundreds of hours doing everyday things. Suddenly, Amber came alive, and Fisher knew that it would help the world see her as more than just a tragic little girl.
"When you look back at that footage, it's rare to have those moments, as a mom, where you're reading a bedtime story or you're doing homework," Fisher says. "You normally, for those of us who do have video cameras, we film the birthday parties and the big events, but we rarely film making dinner, you know. I mean, who has time to do that? Especially back then, in the '90s."
Investigators did consider whether the welfare doc had anything to do with Amber's disappearance, but they ruled that out. It was actually supposed to have aired the following week, so the crew had packed up and gone home, but they quickly returned when Williams told them Amber was missing.
"And if it hadn't been for that footage — I mean, some of our investigators really did truly believe that because of that footage — the community became really invested in the case, which eventually led to the Amber Alert," Fisher says. "So it was just a strange sequence of events that… was bigger than everyone involved, really."
The case was particularly frustrating from the start because investigators thought that whoever took Amber was local. They also knew every moment was crucial, but they had limited ways of getting information out to the public quickly, especially in the days when they relied primarily on local news broadcasts.
"I was on every camera I could find, begging please, let my little girl go," Williams says in the documentary. "She's smart. She could find her way home. Just let her go."
Amber's story had a heartbreaking ending, but her death brought about change for the better. Most importantly, in 1996, it spurred Diana Simone, a Texas resident who heard about Amber's case, to propose the Amber Alert system to a Fort Worth radio station, prompting a partnership between local broadcasters that has evolved into the extensive system we know today. The intentionally obnoxious sound, designed to get people's attention, has saved more than a thousand children.
Williams also transformed into an advocate for families in similar crises.
"Something really changed with her," Fisher says. "I mean, she's just a silent force anyway. She's a very quiet person but very driven. And I think that she just did it for Amber. Everything that she did was for Amber, and she still feels her presence with her to this day."
Fisher hopes the new doc will help to finally crack the case.
"Despite the lack of physical evidence, this happened in broad daylight, and it really just takes witness or one person or one clue to give the family the justice that they need," she says, "and I think that that would be just the dream."
Investigators are now examining DNA evidence, which didn't exist when Amber went missing, in an attempt to do just that.
Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert is available to stream on Peacock.