How a heartbroken mother saved hundreds of lives after the murder of her own little girl
Nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was a ‘smart, funny little girl’ who had been playing on her bike near her grandparents’ house when she disappeared.
It was an unseasonably warm day in January 1996 and she and her little brother Ricky had decided to cheekily disobey their parents. Instead of cycling the loop back to their grandparents’ house, in Arlington, Texas, the pair turned towards an abandoned car park.
When Ricky eventually told his sister they needed to head back, she assured her younger brother she was right behind him – but by the time he arrived at his grandparents, five-year-old Ricky discovered he’d made the journey alone.
The events that followed were every parent’s worst nightmare – days later Amber’s body was found butchered and left naked in a cold creek.
Yet somehow, her heartbroken mother Donna managed to muster the strength to turn her family’s anguish into an initiative that would go on to save the lives of thousands of children across America.
Now, the little girl’s story is being told in the new Peacock documentary, Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert, which takes a look at the devastating events and how it led to the creation of a nationwide missing children’s alert system so that other parents wouldn’t have to suffer the same harrowing loss.
Called the Amber Alert system – which stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response – vital information is put out across local radio and TV and phone networks in the crucial minutes after a child is lost.
It enables members of the public to act as eyes and ears for the police, hunting for the child, the suspect or their vehicle, and in the 27 years since it was launched, it has contributed to the recovery of 1,127 missing children.
Talking in the documentary about the day his sister disappeared, Ricky tearfully recalls: ‘I’ll never forget telling my mom. She comes to the door expecting us to all be together and my grandfather says her baby girl has gone. Then she lost it.’
He then describes how his grandfather then put him in his truck and they went to hunt for Amber.
‘That’s where it gets a little hazy,’ adds Ricky.
Soon after Amber disappeared, a witness contacted the police to report screaming in the parking lot, and that he’d seen a stranger in a black pick up truck snatching the little girl from her bike and driving off.
In scenes reminiscent of the horrific abduction of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman twenty years ago, once news of the family’s nightmare became known, the local community mobilised.
Thousands of tips were sent into the police, missing posters were hung and pink bows were tied to trees, signposts and houses in solidarity.
Donna and her children’s father Ricky could do little more than wait in fear.
In a strange twist of fate, Amber had been taking part in a documentary with her mother about growing up on welfare.
It meant that there were hours of recent footage of the little girl; riding her bike, being put to bed by her mum, and blowing out her birthday candles. This was all shown on TV to motivate the public into helping.
Donna also made a desperate appeal to Amber’s kidnapper. Sobbing, she told the camera: ‘Don’t hurt my baby. Please. She’s just an innocent child. Please bring her home safe. Please.’
The terrified mum later told documentary makers: ‘I didn’t know what to do. I worried about her the whole time. Is she going to get fed? Is she being taken care of? Is she warm?’
Meanwhile the police examined every lead; everyone was questioned.
As each suspect was ruled out, the community’s worst fears were realised. The weather turned; thunderstorms rolled in. Five days after Amber went missing, a young girl’s body was found three miles away in a creek.
The crew, who had been making the documentary about the family, had been permitted to keep shooting.
Heartbreaking films shows Donna, Amber’s father, Ricky and Amber’s grandparents waiting to hear whether the body was hers. They helplessly watched the rolling news from the sitting room.
Pam Curry, who was working on the film, remembers the moment when the police broke the news to Donna, who was clutching a photo of her daughter at the time.
‘There was a scream and a cry that I will never forget,’ She tells the documentary.
The community went into mourning, with more than 2,000 people attending Amber’s funeral. A poignant shot shows Donna bending over her little girl’s blue coffin, surrounded by an ocean flowers and teddies.
Ricky remembers: ‘I was five years old. I didn’t know what death was. I was telling her to wake up.’
Tragically, Amber’s killer was never found and the investigation remains open, with detectives hopeful that advances in forensic technology lead to new lines of enquiry.
Despite her grief and anger, Donna fought on for beloved daughter, advocating for the Amber Alert System which today fires up with every new report.
More than 300 children are kidnapped each year in the United States. In 74% of child abductions where the child is murdered, they are killed within the first three hours. This means time is of the essence for police and getting information out early is critical.
Why Amber Alerts are so vital
When authorities believe a local child is in imminent danger of serious injury or death, Americans will get an Amber alert popping up on their phone. The notification will include a description of the child’s appearance along with any other relevant information. However, the alert have become so frequent, many underestimate the message’s importance.
Elizabeth Fisher, one of the show’s Executive Producers, tells Metro.co.uk that she wanted to remind people why they need to pay attention.
‘Enough time has passed since Amber’s disappearance, that people don’t really know about it,’ she explains. ‘They sometimes see the Amber Alert as something annoying, almost like a car alarm. Sometimes people don’t take it seriously. So I think after 25 years, it’s important to carry on that legacy and make sure that people do take it seriously – and know that it was about a little girl and not a colour.
‘It was an emotional project to work on. We weren’t even scratching the surface of what the family had to go through. We were really careful not to be gratuitous in what we shared, but to be important. Donna has always felt that by being open, completely transparent with her experience, that would hopefully bring justice.’
The idea came from Diana Simone, a resident of Fort Worth, who had seen the footage of Amber in the days after she went missing.
She tells the documentary: ‘You have such a different emotional reaction when you see a child riding a bike, smiling, opening presents – as opposed to a flat picture. You immediately think about what her mother must be feeling.
‘In Amber’s case she was taken around 4pm and I saw that footage after 6 o’clock. Two and a half hours had already passed before the public was aware of what was going on. So I called a radio station and told them I had an idea.’
The wheels were set in motion and by April 2003, then President George W Bush enshrined the alert system in the Child Safety Bill.
It’s effectiveness is none more so evident in the story of Rae-Leigh Bradbury, who reveals in the documentary that without the system, she may not be alive.
Rae-Leigh was kidnapped in 1999 as a baby. Shortly after the Amber Alert was sent out, a motorist contacted the police, saying he had spotted the suspect with the corresponding license plates and an infant in the front seat.
An hour and a half after the baby was taken, she was found.
Rae-Leigh says: ‘It’s true to this day, I wouldn’t be here without Amber Hagerman. I call her my guardian angel. I used to pray to her. I would tell her; thank you for this day. Thank you for watching over me.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Amber’s brother Ricky in the documentary. ‘Every time I hear an Amber alert, I say to myself, it’s time to go to work sis,’ he says. ‘Do your thing. I just wish that Amber had something in place at the time.’
Meanwhile Donna adds: ‘Amber always took care of other children and she took care of her little brother. So the alert is another way for her to do that.
‘She was not just a victim. She was my daughter. She was somebody. She still is somebody today.’
Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert is out now on Peacock.
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