‘A lasting legacy’: Amber Hagerman’s unsolved murder inspires AMBER Alert

Texas Crime Stories: Amber Hagerman’s abduction and murder in 1996 inspired the AMBER Alert

January 1996

It was a not-so-cold January day in Arlington, Texas, when 9-year-old Amber Hagerman and her little brother Ricky went for a bike ride around their family’s neighborhood.

The year was 1996 and the kids played outside without a care in the world.

“She loved school she loved riding her bicycle she loved being a little mommy to her little brother Ricky,” Donna Williams, Amber’s mom said at a press conference in 2021.

Amber and Ricky were just supposed to go around the block like they always did but Amber wanted to go just a little further.

There was a bike ramp she wanted to play on in a parking lot. Ricky went back home.

It only took eight minutes for Amber to disappear.

A neighbor saw a black pickup truck pull up beside her and a man got out, grabbed Amber off of her bike, and put her inside the truck as she screamed.

Sergeant Ben Lopez with Arlington PD was working that day.

“I responded to the area and began looking for the suspect vehicle began looking for amber and began of course looking for the suspect,” Lopez said in the video at the top of this article.

He was a member of the original Amber Hagerman task force and a former homicide detective.

Amber’s mom Donna waited nervously for her little girl to be found, and four days later she was.

Amber’s body was left in a creek a few miles from her home with her throat slashed.

Her body was naked except for one sock.

“What was a kidnapping investigation then became a murder investigation. Because of the overwhelming number of leads that we were receiving at that time, the department formed a task force to investigate her murder. I was one of the original members of that task force,” Lopez told KSAT.

A group of 12 detectives and one sergeant made up the team.

They worked with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI to investigate and clear more than 5,500 leads.

Unfortunately, that’s where Amber’s case stands — no one has been charged in her death — but not where her legacy ends.

Creation of AMBER Alert

According to the Office of Justice Programs, the AMBER Alert System began in 1996 when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed with police to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children.

AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was created as a legacy to 9-year-old Amber Hagerman.

Other states and communities soon set up their own AMBER plans as the idea was adopted and implemented across the nation.

Summary of Department of Justice recommended criteria for issuing an AMBER Alert

      • There is reasonable belief by law enforcement that an abduction has occurred.
      • The law enforcement agency believes that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.
      • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert to assist in the recovery of the child.
      • The abduction is of a child aged 17 years or younger.
      • The child’s name and other critical data elements, including the Child Abduction flag, have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.

Since its implementation, the AMBER Alert System has helped over 1,000 children be returned home.

It’s a legacy that makes Donna William proud of her daughter.

“The AMBER Alert, I’m very very proud of it because it is... helping to save our children’s lives. It’s helped bring our children back to mommy and daddy and so it’s another legacy from my daughter that she didn’t die in vain. That she is still taking care of our little children as she did when she was here and I’m very very proud of my daughter and for all she has done for our children here,” Williams said.

Assistant Arlington PD Chief Kevin Kolbye echoed Donna.

“AMBER Alert has just become a household name, you know, we get it over our iPhones,” Kolbye said. “Today it’s just a legacy that has really helped many thousands of children be recovered. It’s a way that we notify immediately that we have a missing child and it just speaks for the results that children have been saved because of AMBER alert.”

Where Amber’s case currently stands

In the first year, there were over 5,500 leads that were investigated, and over the years that number has increased to over 7,000.

There was DNA collected on Amber’s body, but since she was left in a creek, a lot of evidence was washed away.

Police won’t say what was collected because they don’t want to tip off the killer to what they know.

However, DNA technology has advanced so much, they’re preparing to test what was collected.

“I really don’t want to disclose all the evidence at this time. The reason is that we want to make sure that the killer knows what happened and he knows that if we have that evidence we can specifically ask him and it can identify him and corroborate his story,” Kolbye said. “Technology from DNA has progressed since the 80s and the 90s and we’re very excited because we continually try to be aggressive and trying to meet new technology head-on with this case... And we’re excited about this year being able to submit that and hope that we can get a better DNA profile on the killer.”

At last check with Arlington PD, that DNA hasn’t been submitted because there were delays on the lab’s end but law enforcement continues to investigate new leads and calls as they come in.

Donna has vowed never to give up on finding Amber’s killer, she spoke to them directly.

“I miss her every day and she’s just so full of life and I want to know why. Why her? She was only a little girl. And to Amber’s killer, I’m asking you today: Please turn yourself in,” Donna said. “Give Amber justice. Amber needs justice, deeply, deeply needs justice. And to anyone who has seen or heard anything about Amber’s case, please come forward.”

Sergeant Ben Lopez was a member of the original Amber Hagerman task force and a former homicide detective assigned to her case for several years. For him, this case is deeply personal because of the connection he has formed with Amber’s family.

“I’ve been involved in some aspect since the day that Amber was abducted. Also, it’s personal to me because during the years I’ve come to know Donna Williams, Amber’s mother, and Ricky Hagerman, Amber’s brother,” Lopez said. “I would love to be able to give Donna and Ricky and the rest of the members of their family the answer to the question that they would like to know and of course, that is who did this to Amber, and bring that person to justice.”

Anyone with information can call the tip line dedicated to this case at (817) 575-8832.

Oak Farms Dairy has agreed to provide a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in this case.

The suspect is described as a white or Hispanic male in his 20s or 30s (as of 1996), under 6′ tall with a medium build and brown or black hair.

The suspect vehicle is described as a black 1980s or 1990s full-size, fleet-side pickup truck with a short wheelbase, single cab, non-sliding clear rear window, no chrome, no striping, and no visible damage.

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About the Authors

Erica Hernandez is an Emmy award-winning journalist with 15 years of experience in the broadcast news business. Erica has covered a wide array of stories all over Central and South Texas. She's currently the court reporter and cohost of the podcast Texas Crime Stories.

Leigh Waldman is an investigative reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

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