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Since 1998, law enforcement has used Amber Alerts to quickly notify communities of likely child abductions, sharing license plate numbers and identifying information in an effort to quickly apprehend kidnappers within the first critical hours.
Namesake Amber Hagerman, 9, was snatched kicking and screaming off her pink bicycle in the parking lot of an abandoned Texas grocery store and pulled into a black pickup truck on Jan. 13, 1996, two years before the first alert, according to the Arlington Police Department.
Jim Kevil recalled the abduction in an interview with CBS 11 seven years ago.
“I saw [Amber] riding up and down – she was by herself,” Kevil said. “I saw this black 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.”
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Amber Hagerman, 9, was last seen by her parents before she and her little brother Ricky went for a bike ride in her neighborhood on Jan. 13, 1996. She was found with her throat cut in a nearby creek bed four days later – although her killer has never been caught, Amber’s kidnapping inspired the national alert system that has reunited hundreds of abducted children with their families. (Arlington Police Department)
However, he and other witnesses painted a blurry picture of her kidnapper: a White or Hispanic male between 20 and 30 years of age, standing under 6-feet tall with brown or black hair and a medium build.
They remembered his vehicle more clearly: a black 1980s or 1990s full-size, fleet-side pickup truck with a short wheelbase, a single cab, clear rear windows, no sliding window at the rear, no chrome or striping and in good condition with no discernable dents or scratches.
Pictured is the bike Amber Hagerman was riding when she was abducted in 1996, preserved as evidence by the Arlington Police Department. Inset is a photo of 9-year-old Amber riding it. (Arlington Police Department)
Diane Simone, a resident of Fort Worth, called an area radio station with a novel idea after hearing of Amber’s 1996 disappearance, according to Peacock’s “Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert” documentary: broadcasting details about the girl’s appearance and the suspect’s vehicle so that drivers could keep their eyes peeled and help with the search.
The community mobilized to scour the area – but despite their best efforts, the girl’s body was recovered in a nearby creek bed about four miles away four days later. An autopsy would determine that she died of stab wounds to her neck.
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Pictured is the creek where Amber’s body was recovered four days after her abduction, about four miles away from the grocery store lot where she was snatched off her bicycle. Her throat had been slashed, a later autopsy showed. (Arlington Police Department)
The girl’s abductor has yet to be apprehended 28 years to date after she was last seen alive, despite more than 7,000 tips, according to the department.
In 2020, the Arlington Police Department announced plans to submit evidence from the case in hopes of developing a DNA profile for Amber’s abductor, but as of this year, no breakthroughs have been announced.
Although she died young, Amber has left a lasting impact. As of Dec. 31, 2023, 1,161 abducted children have been successfully rescued through the Amber Alert system, according to the U.S. Office of Justice Programs. Data collected by that office shows that 149 of those recoveries resulted directly from emergency alerts sent to area cellphone users.
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Based on Simone’s idea, a more sophisticated alert system was devised, with its acronym derived from the Texas girl’s name, standing for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.” The alerts now display across phone screens, highway signs and broadcasts when a child is abducted.
It was first put to the test in 1998, successfully, when 8-week-old Rae-Leigh Bradbury was abducted by her babysitter.
Ninety minutes after the mass alert was sent, FOX 23 reported, a driver spotted the babysitter’s car on an Arlington, Texas, highway.
“That’s her!” the driver said on 911 audio played in the Peacock documentary.
“I can’t believe it!” Donna Williams, Amber’s mom, told filmmakers, adding that the rescue brought her some solace amid her grief. “That was awesome. Me and my mom kind of looked up at heaven and said, ‘You did it, girl!'”
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Despite decades without answers, Williams has continued to plead for her daughter’s killer to come forward.
“To Amber’s killer, I’m asking you today, please turn yourself in,” Williams said at a press conference in 2021. “Give Amber justice. Amber needs justice, deeply.”
Now, all 50 states have adopted the Amber Alert system, with 82 coverage areas across the country as of 2023, the Office of Justice Programs data show.
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Pictured is a poster distributed by the Arlington Police Department in the days before Amber Hagerman’s body was recovered. (Arlington Police Department)
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The Department of Transportation joined the initiative in 2022, according to the OJP, using road signs, normally meant to warn drivers of inclement weather and construction, to flash critical information about abductions.
A national criterion and an Amber Alert coordinator from the U.S. Department of Justice were established for the alerts with the PROTECT Act in 2003 – two years later, Hawaii became the 50th state to implement a statewide Amber Alert plan.
Canada and Mexico adopted the system in 2009, allowing them to cooperate more fully with the U.S. in searches for missing children.
In 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began using its national alert system to send the now-iconic alerts directly to wireless users.
Christina Coulter is a U.S. and World reporter for Fox News Digital. Email story tips to [email protected].