Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the abduction of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington. Her murder in 1996 led to the Amber Alert – a system of media notifications, advising the public to be on the lookout for missing children.
The Amber Alert is now nationwide – the legacy of a bright, brown-haired girl who loved to ride her bike.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children credits the Amber Alert with rescuing nearly 800 abducted children since 2009 – all because Amber did not come home.
Jan. 13, 1996, was a Saturday. It was warm, with temperatures near 70. Amber and her younger brother Ricky rode their bikes to the parking lot of an abandoned Winn-Dixie store on East Abram Street in Arlington, a block or two from their house.
They rode around the loading dock.
That’s where 5-year-old Ricky and a nearby neighbor witnessed the unthinkable: starting with a man in a black truck.
“The man literally grabbed Amber off her bicycle as she’s kicking and screaming. Threw her into the truck through the driver’s door. And then drove off across the parking lot and then drove westbound on Abram Street.”
That’s retired Arlington Police Sgt. Mark Simpson who headed the Amber Task Force 20 years ago. The details of that day undimmed by time.
Sunday came. No sign of Amber. People came to the Winn-Dixie parking lot, with flowers, stuffed animals and pink ribbons.
Early Monday morning, I was at the parking lot, taking over the story from the weekend reporters. It had turned cold, cloudy, gray and wet. The mist hung in the air as if it were waiting for something. Droplets huddled on dozens of pink ribbons and bows. That morning, the somber weather became the back drop for Amber’s mother as she talked to reporters on the lawn of her nearby home – her anguish palpable.
Rain clouds and chilly temperatures followed investigators on Tuesday. No sign of Amber. Wednesday evening, there was a thunderstorm. Late that night after the storm, a man walking his dog spotted Amber’s body in a small creek about three miles north of the Winn-Dixie. Her throat had been cut.
Twenty years ago, Lt. Mike Hollier was on the Amber Task Force. It’s a case he carries with him today.
“Amber would be close to 30 years old today,” Hollier says. “Who knows? She might have had a family of her own by now. She may have been a doctor, a lawyer. We’ll never know. That innocence was taken from her.”
The Task Force never found the man in the black truck. They’re still following up leads – nearly 8,000 so far – and there’s a new $10,000 reward in the case from Oak Farms Dairy.
Two decades later, Amber’s mother, Donna Williams, waits for justice for her daughter.
“As her mother, I’m not going to give up,” she says. ”I still have hope that he will be caught one day. To Amber’s killer, I have a few questions for you. Why did you take my little girl?”
A lingering question for a mother, a police department and a community.