Eight Minutes that changed the world: The brutal Texas killing that led to the AMBER Alert system

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Source: Arlington police; MEGA

Jun. 6 2021, Published 1:01 p.m. ET

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Jan. 13, 1996, was a warm winter's day in Arlington, Texas. While much of the country usually shiver in ice and snow throughout the month, Texas is often blessed with winter sun. On this day, Donna Whitson took the opportunity for a family visit, dropping in on grandparents Jimmy and Glenda Whitson.

Donna brought her two children Amber Hagerman aged 9, and her 5-year-old brother, Ricky. The day had already been enjoyable, with the children being treated to Burger King and time in the park.

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Born in 1987, Amber Hagerman was a traditionally “girly girl.” She was a Girl Scout, her favorite color was pink and she liked butterflies. While the family struggled financially, the children were doted on and particularly proud of their bicycles. Amber's was, of course, on this day in pink and wore a "Camp Heart" t-shirt, pink pants and brown suede shoes.

Amber enjoyed playing on her bike with her brother in the local neighborhood, and around 3 p.m., the two children asked if they could go out for a ride, with their grandmother agreeing so long as they didn't go further than a block from the house. Amber climbed onto her bicycle, and the siblings decided to ignore the warning, heading off to an abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store parking lot two blocks away.

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A loading dock was utilized as a bike ramp on the lot, and many local children in the area were regulars there. Situated in a residential area with homes and popular businesses such as a laundromat nearby, the children likely believed it safe. The pair spent some time playing in the lot before Ricky became anxious at having traveled too far. He reluctantly decided to head home, leaving his sister to continue her fun.

Minutes later, a man in a black or dark blue pickup truck stepped out of his vehicle and pulled Amber off her bicycle, pushing her into the cab. Amber let out a scream and tried to fight, but she couldn't possibly escape her kidnapper, and he drove away on East Abram Street.

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The only witness was 78-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Jimmie Kevil

He immediately called the police.

Kevil described the kidnapper as either white or Hispanic, under 6-feet-tall, between 25 and 45 years old and had a medium build. Quoted on CBS DFW in 2016, Kevil recalled how little there was to tell, saying, "She was by herself. 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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Ricky returned home, and when asked where his sister was, he was ordered to go and fetch her. He was too late. Frantically rushing back home, Ricky alerted his grandparents and mother, with Jimmy Whitson jumping into his car and headed to the Winn-Dixie, the family knowing that something had happened.

As Jimmy reached the scene, he found a police officer already on-site, summoned by Kevil.

amber
Source: Arlington police

Police speak during the 25th Anniversary memorial for Amber Hagerman

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Amber vanished, and the only trace she had even been there was the discarded pink bicycle on the ground. Police, family and local volunteers desperately searched the area for the little girl, with more than 50 officers and FBI agents working to bring Amber home. It was to no avail.

Pink balloons and ribbons adorned trees, cars and sidewalks in shows of solidarity with the family. The entire kidnapping took just eight minutes from the moment Ricky left her at the parking lot.

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AN UNSPEAKABLE AND FIENDISH EVIL

Five days after Amber was kidnapped, a dog walker made the horrific discovery of a child's body behind the Forest Hills Apartments four miles away from the abandoned Winn-Dixie.

It was Amber. The ordeal which she suffered is almost unspeakable.

Found naked except for a single sock, an autopsy revealed the young girl was kept alive and a prisoner for two days after she was snatched. During that time, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and beaten.

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Eventually, tired of his captive, the killer cut the child’s throat and dumped the body, with police believing a recent thunderstorm washed her into the creek. Maintenance workers at the apartments hadn't observed anything suspicious before the bad weather.

Two hours later, early on Jan. 19, police informed Amber's parents, Donna Whitson and Richard Hagerman, their daughter was located. It was a crushing blow, with both having held onto hope that Amber would be found safe.

Such was the shock that Richard went into immediate denial, heartbreakingly telling reporters outside his home, "She's still alive." Not far away, forensics teams worked to recover what evidence they could. The water in the creek washed away critical evidence, giving police an immediate disadvantage along with the fact there was only one witness.

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Mike SimondsABC News in 2010, he said, "There had been a very large storm, and Amber was not only in water but in running water in a creek bed, so there had been a tremendous amount of water flow over her body which obviously made it hard in terms of trace evidence."

In 1996, Dee Anderson, a spokesman for the police, said, "We will find the person who did this. We never want another little girl, another family, to go through what this little girl, this family, has been through."

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upiphotos
Source: MEGA

Amber Hagerman casket during her funeral.

On Jan. 20, Amber's body was laid to rest at the First United Methodist Church in Arlington, her blue casket surrounded by pink floral displays. She was buried in a pink satin dress with her arms cuddling a teddy bear.

Thousands of mourners overflowed the church as Amber was eulogized as "a child of the nation," with Rev. Ann Stevens saying Amber was "survived by a nation stunned and saddened and enraged that once again such unspeakable and fiendish evil has stricken one of our children."

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Such was the shock and revision at the crime across the country; President Bill Clinton called Amber's parents to offer his condolences.

There were over 8,000 tips in the case, and a $75,000 reward for information was offered, yet Amber's killer was never caught. There were no arrest despite the publicity the case received across the nation.

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What evidence the police obtained was not revealed to the public in case of a future arrest. However, what is known is that a few fibers were obtained from the body and, perhaps crucially, some DNA evidence.

In January 2021, the 25th anniversary of the killing, Arlington police finally confirmed that DNA evidence exists.

Det. Grant Gildon is currently the lead investigator on the cold case, responsible for fielding the tips that still come in about the murder. Speaking to a press conference in January, he said each year he talks "with all the major laboratories around the country to see if there are any new technologies or anything we could possibly be trying with the evidence that we have. The detective added that "That is what's led to some new developments where we can try some things this year."

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THE OPPORTUNISTIC ATTACKER

While nobody has been charged in Amber’s case, there is certainly no shortage of suspects, with the FBI releasing a profile back in 1996 of the kind of individual they sought. He was seen as an opportunistic attacker who snatched Amber when she was alone and vulnerable. The attack would have been triggered by a stressful personal incident in his life, such as losing his job or a divorce.

The killer would have been local to the Arlington area and comfortable with the landscape and layout of the city, having a previous criminal record and possibly even other known crimes against children.

He would have somewhere he could privately keep a child and likely didn't live in an apartment or anywhere he could be accidentally observed. He probably lived alone.

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krtphotos
Source: MEGA

Amber Hagerman's body is found near a creek in Texas

While criminal profiling isn't always an exact science, it does allow some comparisons to be made to some of the names which often appear as suspects in the case, such as Ricky FranksTerapon Adhahn.

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On March 26, 1999, around 5:30 p.m., Opal Jo Jenningswas snatched from outside her grandmother's home in Saginaw, a small city in Tarrant County, Texas. The kidnapper was described as white and around 45 years old, throwing her into a car as she screamed.

Dark-haired and with a similar cut, Jennings passed a resemblance to Amber. She wore pink tennis shoes.

In August 1999, convicted pedophile Franks was charged with kidnapping and indecency with a child after admitting abduction. Franks tried to convince police the young girl had gone willingly and initiated sexual contact with him.

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In 2003, Opal's skeletal remains were found by two horseback riders in a field northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, around 10 miles from Saginaw. DNA testing confirmed they were the missing girl and that she died from head trauma.

While there are similarities in the cases, there are also significant differences, and there's little evidence to suggest that Franks may have been involved in snatching Amber.

Similarly, while the crimes of Adhahn are just as horrific, there is little to connect him to Amber. Adhahn is Thai, and therefore seemingly doesn't fit the description of a caucasian or Hispanic male. However, it's worth noting that the eyesight of witness Kevil was failing in 1996, and Adhahn certainly has form.

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After being convicted of rape and incest in 1990, he was later charged with the abduction and rape of 11-year-old Sabrina Rasmussen near Fort Lewis, Texas. In 2008, Adhahn descended to murder, kidnapping, raping and murdering 12-year-old Zina Linnik in Tacoma, Texas.

Police in Washington noticed similarities between the Rasmussen kidnapping, the Linnik murder, and Amber’s case. In 1996, Adhahn's mother and brother lived near Fort Worth, yet despite being formally questioned over the killing, there is nothing concrete to linking him in any way to the case.

William Lewis Reece, one of several men linked to the infamous Texas Killing Fields. The field borders the Calder Oil Field and has been utilized since the early 1970s as a dumping ground for serial killers. Thirty bodies have been found, many of them were women and girls missing from the local area. Reece can't have killed Amber as he was incarcerated at the time, yet that fact may exonerate him in a separate killing he is believed to have committed.

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krtphotoslive
Source: MEGA

Donna Norris, the mother of Amber Hagerman, poses with pictures of her daughter, who was abducted and killed nearly 10 years ago. Her abduction and death led to the creation of the Amber Alert system.

On April 20, 1997, the body of 12-year-old Laura Smither was found in a retention pond at the fields; she had been missing 17 days after going out for a morning jog. The body was nude except for a pair of white socks and was believed to have been washed into the pond following recent heavy rain.

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Speaking with United Press International at the time of the killing, Anderson noted the similarities with Amber, saying, "There's basic physical appearance, and both were pretty much abducted in broad daylight. There's some stuff that raises interest."

Reece, who served eight years of a 28-year sentence for rape in Oklahoma, was arrested a month later for the kidnapping and attempted murder of 19-year-old Sandra Sepo. It would only be the beginning of the crimes that would be linked to him over the coming years, with his DNA matching to the killer of 19-year-old Tiffany Johnston in 1997.

Afterward, he confessed to the murders of Jessica Cain and Kelli Cox and, although he denies it, he is believed to have murdered Smither. However, if the same individual murdered Smither as Amber, Reece would be exonerated of that one killing. There was no possibility he could have been in Arlington when Amber was riding her bike.

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AMBER ALERT

The killer of Amber Hagerman is almost certainly none of those men, and the individual remains at large, having perhaps even struck again. There is one solace from Amber’s case — the creation of the AMBER Alert system.

After Amber's funeral, it wasn't long before massage therapist Diane Simone, an "ordinary woman and mother," called a local radio station with an idea. If the local media could issue weather alerts that interrupted television and radio broadcasts, why couldn't they do the same for abducted children?

The idea won mass support, and broadcasters throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area partnering with local police departments to create the initial system. Later in 1996, America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response alert system, better known as the AMBER Alert, went nationwide.

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In 1998, Rae-Leigh Bradbury, an 8-week-old Arlington infant, became the first child to be rescued using the system after being kidnapped by her babysitter. She was found just 90 minutes later, thanks to the innovative alerts.

In all, more than 1,000 missing children have been recovered due to the AMBER Alert system. In 2015, Facebook announced that it would partner with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to put AMBER alerts into every newsfeed and set of notifications on Facebook, bringing the system into the modern era of social media.

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While the AMBER alert system may offer some comfort to Amber’s parents, justice for their murdered daughter still remains elusive. Yet, other local cold cases have seen recent breakthroughs, including an arrest for the 1974 killing of Fort Worth teenager Carla Walker.

More than two decades after Amber’s crime shocked a nation, time is running out to provide justice for those involved.

lrphotos
Source: MEGA

An AMBER Alert on a phone

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Sgt. Ben Lopez, a member of the original task force investigating the abduction and murder, says that the case never left his mind. Speaking at this year's press conference, he said, "I would love to be able to give [Amber's mother] Donna and the rest of the members of her family the answer to the question they want to know -- and bring that person to justice."

At the same press conference, Gildon stated the 1996 killing is still an active and ongoing murder investigation, adding he is still hopeful the murder will be solved.

"Whoever committed this crime, there are people close to them that know what happened — whether they saw something, heard something, or have just felt over time that they were involved in Amber's murder," Gildon said. "There is someone out there that knows what happened."

Arlington police have set up a new tip line for the Amber Hagerman case. Tips can be shared by calling (817) 575-8823. Oak Farms Dairy has agreed to provide a $10,000 reward for information.

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