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ARLINGTON, Texas — Unlike terror bulletins or weather warnings, the mayday for missing children has a namesake: Amber.
“It’s a shame my daughter had to be butchered and had to go through what she went through for us to have the Amber Alert, but I know she would be proud of it,” Donna Williams said during a recent visit at her home.
On Wednesday, two decades will have passed since a stranger snatched 9-year-old Amber Hagerman off her bicycle from a vacant supermarket parking lot in broad daylight and drove away in a black pickup truck.
“She screamed once and was kicking,” Jimmie Kevil, the only witness to ever step forward, told me in 1996, when I covered Amber’s abduction as a young reporter for the Dallas Morning News.
The case of the brown-haired, blue-eyed Girl Scout abducted shortly after Christmas quickly gripped the country. A national TV audience watched as Amber’s parents, then-Donna Whitson and Richard Hagerman, held a near-constant vigil, pleading that her captor let her go.
But near midnight on Jan. 17, the nude body of a child with her throat slashed was found in a creek behind an apartment complex less than 5 miles from where Amber went missing.
Police identified the body as Amber’s by matching a thumbprint from a school safety card — a far cry from the child ID apps now offered on today’s smartphones.
“It’s bittersweet,” Williams said of the warning system that’s made her daughter a household name. “There’s another part of me that wonders what would have happened if we would have had the alert when Amber went missing. Could it have helped bring her back to me?”
How Amber Alert started
In the days following the girl’s funeral, Diana Simone, a Fort Worth mom who had never met Amber, called a local radio station with an idea: If broadcasters can alert the public to severe weather, then why not do the same when a child is abducted?
“They were saying Amber was taken at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, thrown in a pickup truck and driven somewhere, and that nobody saw anything. I’m sorry, that’s not possible,” said Simone, now 71. “The problem was not that people didn’t see them, it’s that they didn’t know what they were seeing.”
Simone’s only request as the idea went from brainstorm to reality was that the resulting program bear Amber’s name.
“That she would be remembered always, and that what happened to her would be remembered always, so you don’t ignore the alerts,” Simone said.
Today, the Amber Alert Program is used across the nation and in more than 20 other countries. The warnings, which trigger sometimes-startling smartphone notifications and are published on billboards and across social networks, have led to the rescue of nearly 800 missing kids, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Williams doesn’t own a smartphone and spends little time online. But she can’t escape hearing her child’s name when the alerts appear on TV or the radio.
“Of course I think of my daughter first,” she said. “I have to accept that the alerts are always going to be there.”
Justice for Amber?
Recognition of the Amber Alert Program has taken Williams to the Oval Office to meet two U.S. presidents. In 2006, the Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring the program’s dedication to the rapid recovery of abducted children.
But 20 years of ceremonies, sit-down dinners and candlelight vigils haven’t delivered what Williams yearns for most: to know who killed Amber and why.
“The detectives call when they get a hot lead or something, but nothing ever comes of it,” she said. “How can he get away with this? I can’t comprehend how you can’t catch someone like that.”
The Arlington Police Department has investigated nearly 7,000 leads in the case. Two or three tips still trickle in each month.
“It’s definitely frustrating that we haven’t solved it and arrested somebody by now,” said Detective Ben Lopez, who inherited the case six years ago when Jim Ford, the original lead investigator, retired.
Lopez was a rookie patrolman with a 2-year-old daughter of his own at home on Jan. 13, 1996. Amber was taken about 10 minutes before he hit the streets for his night shift.
“If you weren't on a call, you were looking for her,” recalled Lopez, now 47.
Two decades later, documents, notes and other case items fill 54 cardboard storage boxes at the Arlington Police Department. But detectives still have little more than the suspect description that Kevil, a retired machinist, saw from his nearby yard 20 years ago: a white or Hispanic male age 25-40, under 6 feet tall, medium build, driving a late-1980s or early-1990s model full-size American-made black truck.
“It would be better to have some better descriptors, to narrow it down a lot more than that,” Lopez said.
The abandoned store parking lot where the abduction occurred is about two blocks from where Amber’s grandmother still lives today. A self-service laundry in the same parking lot was full of customers, but police believe many of them were in the country illegally and may have left when they saw patrol cars arriving. Despite a one-time $75,000 reward and the promise that they wouldn’t be deported, no laundry customer ever came forward.
“There’s a possibility that someone knows something and just hasn’t come forward for some reason,” Lopez said. “I certainly hope that’s the case.”
A reporter and Amber’s mom reconnect
I hadn’t seen Amber’s mom in many years before last week. Her long hair, brown at the time of tragedy 20 years ago, is now showing streaks of gray. We hugged at her front door before both letting the reason for the reunion get to us.
“Reporters aren’t supposed to cry,” I said apologetically.
“Y’all are people too,” she reminded me.
Williams has tried to stay preoccupied with odd jobs through the years, but she has been hit with more than the average share of heartache in the years since her daughter’s murder.
Two months after Amber’s funeral, Williams’ fiancé was killed in a car wreck. Her older sister was found dead at age 32 from a seizure disorder in 1998. Then in the summer of 2009, her husband of nine years died of a massive heart attack and her father succumbed to cancer.
“It’s like I’m sort of a voodoo doll,” Williams said. “It seems everybody that I love ends up dying.”
Counseling has “helped a little,” but she still struggles with her place in life.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be happy,” she said. “But then there’s a part of me that says I can’t, that I shouldn't be happy.”
Some years Williams can’t handle the heartache that accompanies the anniversary of her daughter’s murder; 2016 will be one of them.
“I don’t want to do a candlelight vigil,” she said during my visit. “Everybody wants me to do it because it’s 20 years, but I can’t. When we’ve done them in the past, it takes us two weeks to get back to normal.”
Instead, Williams channeled her energy to penning an open letter to her daughter’s unknown killer. She read part of it to Yahoo News last week, but decided at the last minute this week not to go through with her plans to get it published and rent a post office box where the killer could contact her.
“I still want justice for Amber, but I can’t deal with everything right now,” she told me. “I miss her a lot.”
Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).