The Story Behind AMBER Alerts: The Amber Hagerman Case

In 1996, a 9-year-old was kidnapped off her pink bicycle and found murdered. One month later, Amber’s mother, Donna Williams, went to her daughter’s elementary school in Arlington, Texas, to present a new playground in Amber’s name and comfort her young classmates who didn’t understand why she died.

Donna Williams / Amber Hagerman / Rep. Jennifer Dunn / Missing person flyer
Source: Getty Images

Her eyes immediately went to Amber’s empty desk and the “Amber Museum” that the third-grade class had decorated with hearts and ribbons and a huge class photo of their brown-haired, blue-eyed classmate and friend.

Keep Your Children Close

But sensing her pain, the children were the ones to console Amber’s mother instead. The students raised their hands – “I always wanted to play with her,” “I liked her a lot,” “She’s really pretty,” She was nice.” Then, they shyly asked some questions.

A woman places her hand on a photo of Amber Hagerman.
Source: Dallas News

“What time did she leave on her bike?” one child asked. “At 3:10 Saturday afternoon, she was abducted at 3:18,” Donna said, trying to soften the gruesome fact. “It just took eight minutes,” she said in a gentle voice while stroking a girl’s hair in the first row. “So, you guys stay close to home, okay?”

After Amber

Part of Donna’s long journey of grief and healing included her visit to Amber’s school, which was captured on video in a moving WFAA-TV documentary, After Amber. Amber’s abduction and murder case shook the nation and changed the way we search for missing kids.

Donna Williams sits on a bench as she holds up a poster of Amber.
Source: Facebook

Her body was found four days after she was kidnapped off her bicycle, but her killer has never been caught. However, the AMBER Alert system, created in her honor, led to the recovery of 1,029 abducted children. This is her story.

She Was Just Riding Her Bike

On January 13, 1996, Amber Hagerman rode her pink bike in an abandoned grocery store parking lot. A man pulled up in a black pick-up truck, took Amber off of her bike forcefully, and shoved her in the truck. According to the only witness of Amber’s kidnapping, she screamed and kicked her abductor, Jimmie Kevil.

Amber is seen riding her pink bike down the street.
Source: Arlington Police Department

Shorty, after seeing Amber get taken, he called the police. Unfortunately, nothing would save the little girl. Over 50 police officers and federal agents were searching for Amber, but tragically, they didn’t find the youngster alive.

Where Was Amber’s Body Found?

Five days after her abduction, a passerby discovered Amber’s body about four miles away from the abandoned parking lot in a rain-swollen creek – her throat was cut. Police believed that a thunderstorm swept Amber’s little body into the creek because maintenance workers in the area didn’t see anything suspicious.

A police officer examines Amber’s abandoned bike.
Source: YouTube

Amber’s parents, Donna Whitson (now Donna Norris) and Richard Hagerman were in utter shock when police officers told them the devastating news. They really had faith that their precious little angel was alive and would come back to them.

Holding Out Hope

In fact, after the police chaplain left their house, Amber’s father told reporters that his daughter was still alive. The case had two entirely opposite possible outcomes: one was tragic, and the other was hopeful.

Amber’s parents take part in a press conference.
Source: Dallas Morning News

To this day, the case has not been solved, and the killer has not been brought to justice. Detectives in the Arlington area randomly receive tips that they follow, but no one has been charged for the vicious crime. Only one person saw the abduction. Lack of information and just one witness may have slowed hindered the progress in finding Amber – and her abductor.

A Lightbulb Idea

Shortly after Amber Hagerman’s untimely funeral, a mother named Diane Simone called a local radio station; she had a great idea. She wondered if the local media sends out weather alerts, why can’t they do the same for abducted children?

Transportation sign alerts drivers to an Amber Alert.
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

When the National Weather Service issues an alert for severe weather, she realized that it interrupts television and radio broadcasts and got a lot of attention. We all know when a hurricane is coming. So, why not do the same for kids who are missing? It’s the perfect way to get their face out there.

Watching Amber’s Story on the News

Diane Simone was simply watching the news when they discussed Amber’s abduction. They showed home videos of Amber opening Christmas presents and holding up a Barbie doll before taking her new pink bicycle for a ride while waving at the camera. Watching that broke Diane’s heart.

A picture of Diane Simone.
Source: Star-Telegram

The entire situation frustrated the self-described “ordinary woman and mother.” There was just one witness and not enough information out there to find Amber. That’s when she came up with the clever alert system idea.

The AMBER Alert System

The amazing idea stuck. It is more surprising that nobody thought of this earlier. Broadcasters in Dallas-Fort Worth teamed up with local law enforcement to alert listeners and viewers of child abductions in the area. The AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert system was named after Amber Hagerman, and, since 1996, it has gone nationwide.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn speaks during a news conference introducing the National AMBER Alert Network Act.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Experts claim that as of December 2015, over 800 children have been found and brought home safely thanks to the AMBER alert system. Once the kidnappers realize that there is an AMBER Alert issued, they are more likely to release the child.

Would an AMBER Alert Have Saved Amber?

So, here is how AMBER Alerts work. First, law enforcement determines whether or not the case meets certain criteria, and then they notify broadcasters and state transportation agencies. Alerts interrupt programming, appear on statewide transportation signs, are featured on digital billboards, and even appear as text messages on cell phones.

Donna stands in her home beside framed photos of Amber.
Source: Facebook

Amber’s mother, Donna, said that the alert system is bittersweet after her daughter. In a 2016 interview, 20 years after Amber’s abduction, the grieving mother wondered, “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?”

Lack of Information

In 2016, Simone, the mother who came up with the AMBER Alert idea, said that the lack of information was the reason for Amber’s kidnapping and murder. She explained:

Amber blows out the candles on her birthday cake.
Source: Facebook

“They were saying Amber was taken at 4 p.m., thrown in a pick-up truck and driven somewhere, and that nobody saw anything. I’m sorry, that’s not possible. The problem was not that people didn’t see them; it’s that they didn’t know what they were seeing.” She certainly makes a good point.

Don’t Ignore AMBER Alerts

Simone warned people not to ignore these notifications. AMBER Alerts are there to make you aware of some of the most serious child-abduction cases – when police believe a child’s life is in danger. AMBER Alerts can occur any time and can help save a child from serious injury or even death.

Amber Alert is displayed on a sign over westbound Highway 401.
Photo by Jim Wilkes/Toronto Star/Getty Images

When it comes to child abduction cases, every single minute counts. As soon as you notice an AMBER Alert, pay attention. Maybe you recognize the child’s face and can help the terrified parents counting on you to save their child.

Amber’s Case Is Still Open

Amber’s family and police never stopped looking for Amber’s murderer. They asked for the public’s help during a recent news conference, established a tip line, and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Amber’s missing person flyer.
Source: Pinterest

For the first time, they released photos of Amber’s body that had been discovered in a creek, hoping it might jog someone’s memory. Unfortunately, no one came forward. Police are hopeful that technological advancements will help them crack the case after submitting the small DNA samples they collected at the crime scene.

Trying to Crack the Case

January 13, 2021, marked 25 years since Amber’s abduction, but police said they will not stop searching. “This is still an open, ongoing murder investigation,” said the lead investigator on the case, Detective Grant Gildon. “We want to solve it. We want to get answers for the family.” Amber’s mother also spoke at the conference.

Donna speaks during a press conference.
Source: Fox News

“I implore the media and public to ensure the focus on this 25th anniversary of Amber’s kidnapping remains on finding the killer and bringing him to justice,” Donna said. “I miss her every day. I want to know why her – she was just a little girl,” she said and then addressed the killer directly: “Please turn yourself in.”

Who Murdered Amber Hagerman?

Unfortunately, with all the advanced technology and DNA testing, there is no update on Amber’s case or her killer. But that doesn’t mean that the AMBER Alert system hasn’t helped save over 1,000 abducted children.

A portrait of Amber Hagerman
Source: Facebook

This isn’t like milk carton kids who, unfortunately, very rarely get found. The AMBER Alert system changed the way we look for missing kids and saved thousands of young lives. Here is a feel-good success story depicting the importance of paying attention to AMBER Alerts.

I’ll Be Back in a Minute

When Danielle Brown got to the restaurant, it was raining. She decided to leave her 10-month-old daughter Zoe sleeping comfortably in her car seat, all snug in her little pink onesie and black jacket. Danielle didn’t want to wake Zoe up, and she knew she’d only be gone for a second.

Danielle Brown and Zoe Jordan are playing in the park.
Source: Missing Kids

The new mom left the car on to keep her baby warm and ran into D’bo’s Wings n’ Things to pick up her delivery order. She ran out minutes later and looked at her car in disbelief. She parked close to the front door, but the vehicle was backing out of the parking space.

BABY ON BOARD

She yelled at the strange man behind the wheel to stop and yanked the passenger door open, yelling, “My daughter’s in the car!” But the man in the red hoodie slammed the door and drove off. The terrified mother chased the car with a sign that said “BABY ON BOARD” before it disappeared into the night.

baby on board sign hangs on the back window of a car.
Photo by shank_ali/Getty Images

After the March 16, 2018 abduction, an AMBER Alert was issued with the car’s description, and it didn’t take long before motorists all around Memphis were searching for the 2016 black Honda Civic four-door Sedan tag number X30 00S and, more importantly, Zoe.

Searching for Zoe

But when Zoe and the car weren’t recovered in the first hour, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings put his entire force on the case. Some off-duty officers worked through the night casing leads all over the city determined to fulfill their mission: finding Zoe Jordan.

The amber alert for Zoe Jordan.
Source: Facebook

As the night when on, Danielle was increasingly troubled. She was hysterical and blamed herself for being a “terrible mom” for leaving her daughter in the car. She incorrectly assumed Zoe would be safe in the car for a couple of minutes. But since the car was running, the carjacker didn’t need her keys.

A Good-Hearted Citizen

The next morning was a Saturday. Memphis retiree George Nicholes, who served in the military for 32 years, saw a news story about the AMBER Alert. Worried about the missing child, Nicholes put the car’s tag number into his cell phone contacts – on the off chance he would see the car on his way to his daughter’s house, not far from the restaurant.

George Nicholes talks to reporters.
Source: Action News

It had been almost 13 hours since the abduction, but Nicholes checked all the Hondas that he could see from his vantage point in his truck. But then, his heart sank. One said X30 00S.

It’s the Car!

The car was parked at a strange angle on a residential street. He double-checked the tag just to make sure it was the right car, then called 911 immediately. He was unable to see inside the car, and the dispatcher told him to sit tight.

Police officers examine Zoe after finding her safe and sound.
Source: Facebook

Police quickly arrived, and Nicholes watched as an officer reached into the Honda and pulled Zoe out of her car seat – safe and sound. Nicholes was called a hero, but he didn’t think so. He said it was God who put him in the right place at the right time.

Mother-Daughter Reunion

“I couldn’t wait to hold her again, kiss her and tell her I’m sorry,” Danielle said on her way to the hospital where Zoe was taken as a precaution: “I’ve felt super guilty and just super emotional and just a lot, a lot of emotions.”

Zoe Jorden plays with her toys at home.
Source: ABC News

The police director, Rallings, said the community is overjoyed and can’t thank Nicholes enough for taking the AMBER Alert seriously. He said Zoe’s case should serve as a cautionary tale to all parents: never leave your child in a car alone.

Carjackers Don’t Want Children

At the NCMEC, their analysis of nearly 554 non-family infant abductions showed that 11% occurred during carjackings. In most of those cases, the carjacker didn’t even realize a kid in the back seat. Usually, they abandon the children when they notice them. They wanted a car – not a child.

An unknown criminal dressed in black breaks open a car door with tools.
Photo by Lorado/Getty Images

Rallings compares AMBER Alerts to seatbelts, which the public saw as “annoying” at first, but as we now know, seatbelts saved countless lives. AMBER Alerts can save lives, too; people just need to pay attention.

Just Like Seatbelts

“So, the AMBER Alert, you know, the notification may be annoying to some, but AMBER Alerts save lives,” Rallings exclaimed. “If you want to help save a life of an endangered child, then when you hear of an AMBER Alert going out, you need to stop what you’re doing and get involved.”

Memphis PD Director Michael Rallings speaks during a press conference.
Source: YouTube

He added, “That’s what the AMBER Alert is all about. Law enforcement and the community working together to bring about a positive resolution of a very tense and uncertain situation.”

AMBER Alerts Helped Save Zoe

Since AMBER Alerts first came into being, they have saved over 1,000 abducted children. “National AMBER Alert day” is on January 13, the day Amber was initially abducted. Nicholes became quite close with Zoe and her mom. He even gave Zoe a birthday present when she turned two.

Zoe Jordan sits in her car seat.
Source: ABC News

He keeps photos of the little girl on his cell phone to remind the importance of AMBER Alerts. Zoe’s mom, Danielle Brown, is a huge AMBER Alert advocate. She learned to pay extra close attention to every alert and frequently goes on the website to make sure she has all the available information.

Time to Pay Attention

“Normally, I’ll get an AMBER Alert, and I’ll be like, oh wow, and I just kind of, you know, push it to the side,” Brown explained. “And since then, I’m looking at every AMBER Alert, and I’m making sure I pay attention… I know this helped me, and I want to be able to help somebody else.

An AMBER Alert notification on someone's phone.
Source: Pinterest

We can’t stress how important it is to look at your AMBER Alerts; you truly may just save a life. Zoe isn’t the only child who was brought home safely; as we mentioned, there have been over 1,000 cases. This is the 1,000th AMBER Alert milestone case.

1,000th successful AMBER Alert Recovery

The 1,000th successful recovery happened when Fremont County Sheriff’s Office in Wyoming requested an AMBER Alert for four missing children from the Arapaho Tribe, ages 5, 6, 11, and 14. Their non-custodial mother took them from a home outside the area they had been placed by the tribe for protection.

The AMBER Alert issued for Stacia Potter-Norris.
Source: YouTube

Wyoming’s AMBER coordinator, Chris McGuire, confirmed that the children were indeed in danger, and there were enough descriptions of the car, suspect, and children to get help from the public to find them. The court issued a protective order to keep the mother away from the children, so McGuire activated the alert.

Tips Flying In

The alert spawned a lead when the mother, 30-year-old Stacia Potter-Norris, stopped at a glass company to replace her vehicle’s rear window, and with no money, McGuire said, she offered to sell guns in exchange for the work.

A photo of Stacia Potter-Norris.
Source: Twitter

She left her phone number with the clerk, who turned it over to the police. Another tip arrived when a homeless man spotted the vehicle from the alert at a truck stop. He watched the driver swapping her vehicle with someone she seemed to know in another vehicle.

Tracking Her Movements

Thanks to the phone number from the store clerk, investigators managed to track her movements to the Denver area. Colorado issued an AMBER Alert in the state with updated vehicle information at the request of Fremont County.

Photos of the four kids that were abducted.
Source: YouTube

That led to a call from a person who saw a vehicle matching that updated description parked at a Motel 6. With the help of surveillance footage from the motel, the children were found safe in Room 222. The mother, however, was gone. She was eventually found and arrested on felony charges and sent back to Wyoming.

The First AMBER Alert Victory

“This is a success story that could have gone bad, really quick,” McGuire said, as he was proud of the milestone success story. “It really does show how the AMBER Alert works.” Simone’s idea helped save so many kids, and with the media and law enforcement working together, the ALERT system was given FCC permission to operate.

Simone poses at the white house with President Bush.
Source: YouTube

But after the first two years and no successful recoveries, Simone feared it wouldn’t stick. Then, in November 1998, in Arlington, Texas, police received a report that an 8-week-old girl, Rae Leigh Bradbury, had been kidnapped by her babysitter, who may have been on her way to a crack house.

The AMBER Alert Worked

After the baby was missing for a day, police decided to give this new AMBER Alert system another try. But this time, it worked! In fact, it took just 90 minutes for someone to recognize the babysitter’s turquoise vehicle.

Rae Leigh with her parents.
Source: Facebook

Rae Leigh was saved and unharmed. She returned home safely and grew up into a wonderful adult. She is now a strong advocate for AMBER Alert. After all, it saved her life. Rae Leigh is also a symbol of hope for families of missing children.

Raising Awareness

Since that first success, AMBER Alert, which is run by the Justice Department and has 86 organizations nationwide, has expanded its reach, using the best technology to get crucial information to the public.

A freeway sign over Interstate 5 flashes
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

They are only used in serious child abduction cases which have to meet the state’s strict criteria. Then, law enforcement directs the alert to the radio, television stations, the lottery, the Department of Transportation, and to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Then, as secondary distributors, the NCMEC sends out the AMBER Alert to a wider audience, including internet platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Cell Phone AMBER Alert Notifications

Then, seven years ago, AMBER Alerts got a massive boost. Law enforcement started to enlist the public’s help through their cell phones with a Wireless Emergency Alert, dramatically increasing the chance that the right person at the right time would see it and help save a child.

A hand holds up a smartphone with an AMBER Alert information page on it.
Source: ABC News

Since everyone has their phone on them almost all the time, people get information faster than ever before. As we know, time ticks quickly when it comes to missing children, so the cell phone notifications are helping get AMBER Alerts out as early as possible.

A Game Changer

“It was a game-changer,” exclaimed Carly Tapp, AMBER’s program specialist at NCMEC. “Awareness skyrocketed. Now, almost everyone knows what an AMBER Alert is. And when you receive one on your cell phone, please know that the child is in extreme danger. That’s why they’re helping with – the worst of the worst cases.”

Robert Mueller speaks during a White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

According to Tapp, out of the 1,000 AMBER Alert success stories, 75 have been attributed to cell phone alerts. She said there are likely more cases that have been solved because of AMBER Alerts. However, when someone called with a tip resulting in the recovery, it’s hard to confirm whether they saw the alert.

You Could Save a Life

Twenty-five years later, Simone is delighted by the amazing success of AMBER Alerts. She is also pleased that it serves as a wonderful legacy for Amber. When she first came up with the idea, however, many people weren’t really on board.

Amber Hagerman’s school picture
Source: Facebook

It’s not that they didn’t support the idea of bringing children home safely; they just didn’t believe that an alert system would actually work. So, why was Simone so certain that AMBER Alerts would help? In her own words: “Because I believe in the goodness in people.” I guess it’s just that simple.