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Amber Hagerman: From Death To Alert

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When 9-year-old Amber Hagerman disappeared on Jan. 13, 1996, Sgt. Ben Lopez rapidly realized hers wasn’t an ordinary missing-child case.
He was a patrol officer, driving around Arlington that afternoon looking for a black pickup attached to her disappearance. When he saw media vans lined up, he acknowledged the seriousness of the case.
“I remember seeing that and understanding right away that this was a real stranger kidnapping,” Lopez said. “Of course, all of us were wishing that we would discover her alive at that time.”
Arlington Police Sgt. Ben Lopez and Det. Grant Gildon is pictured at a memorial for Amber Hagerman. Twenty-five years since her abduction, they hold out hope that there could one day be a breakthrough in her case.

Amber Was Discovered

A few days later, Amber was discovered dead in an Arlington creekbed. No one has been apprehended for her abduction or killing in the quarter-century since. Yet as investigators approach the anniversary of her abduction, they hold out hope that the case can be solved.
For the first time, police announced they have DNA evidence that someday — with new technology. That has solved other high-profile cold cases — could be the solution to discovering her murderer.
The case has never strayed far from the mind of Lopez, who later served for years as the lead detective on Amber’s case or the other two detectives who led the investigation.

In 2010

First, Detective Jim Ford was the lead investigator before his retirement in 2010. Then, Lopez took the case as a murder detective. Now, Detective Grant Gildon is in charge of fielding the tips that still regularly come in about the case.
What occurred to Amber directed to changes in how child kidnappings are handled nationwide. Her astonishing abduction and killing provoked national attention and calls for quicker responses to reports of missing kids.
The Amber Alert, developed in the years after the crime, is named for her. Across the country, 988 kids have been discovered safe through the Amber Alert system as of May 2020, according to the Justice Department.
25 years later
Since Amber’s abduction, Arlington police have received about 7,000 tips. It’s unique for the department to get cues on cold cases, but Amber’s case is different, Lopez said. More tips come in about what may have occurred to Amber than any other cold case, he said.
“Anytime an anniversary date comes up or if there’s a similar crime in the country somewhere. Those sorts of things will provoke someone in the public to call us,” he said.


Those tips are significant, but what makes a cold case hard, Gildon said, is that after the first days following a killing. Many elements of the investigation can’t be re-created or reinvestigated. The man who witnessed Amber’s kidnapping, Jimmie Kevil, has since passed away, Gildon said. So have officers who were aware of the case, including Ford.
The facts of the case are much the similar as they were in 1996. Amber was riding her bicycle in the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store with her brother when a man in a pickup pulled her from the bike, pulling her into his truck and driving away. Kevil, the only known observer, reported that Amber cried and attempted to kick her kidnapper. Her corpse was discovered four days later.
Police describe the suspect as a white or Hispanic man who would have been in his 20s or 30s at the time of the crime, police said. He was under 6 feet tall, had a medium build, and had black or brown hair.


The vehicle he drove was a full-size fleetside single-cab black pickup with a short wheelbase, police said. It was in decent condition at the time, with no noticeable damage, no chrome or striping, and a clear rear window.
The explanation that you have from that first day, and some of the details that came in the preliminary stages, 25 years later, that hasn’t altered,” Gildon said.
Other local cold cases have seen recent breakthroughs — including an arrest in September in the 1974 slaying of Carla Walker, a teenager in Fort Worth. Gildon said he holds out wish for Amber’s case and regularly looks into improvements in technology that could help discover answers for her family.
In the Walker case, for instance, police used genealogical DNA testing with a minor amount of physical evidence to discover a potential relative of the teenager’s murderer. Similar technology led to the arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018.
Gildon said the investigators in Arlington have considered using similar technology in Amber’s case.
“I think there could be a breakthrough,” he said. “Some of the aspects that we’ve noticed help solve cases in other parts of the country — five, ten years ago, I never would have imagined that they could have done some of the stuff that they’ve done now. So I remain optimistic.”


Arlington police refused to give details about what physical evidence exists in Amber’s case because it is data only the murderer would know. They want to avoid false confessions.
It’s uncertain what would have been preserved from the original crime scene; Amber’s corpse was discovered after heavy rains that could have washed away evidence.
“The only thing that we’re saying at this point is we’ve maintained proof this whole time, and we still have all of our information maintained that can be used,” Gildon said.
Legacy of the Amber Alert
When Lopez or Gildon’s phones light up with an alert about a missing kid, their minds always go to Amber.
“Whenever I’ll see it, a lot of times, I think of how much I hope it was a service that had been accessible at the time of her kidnapping,” Gildon said.


Amber’s kidnapping prompted the creation of the Amber Alert, which grew into an international child-abduction alert system. Since Texas’ program was implemented in 2002, the Texas Department of Public Safety has activated 251 Amber Alerts, and 263 people were safely recovered through those alerts, the department said, noting that some Amber Alerts are for numerous missing kids at once.
Although local authorities can issue regional Amber Alerts, they must ask the Department of Public Safety to send statewide alerts.
Missing-children cases have to meet particular criteria to qualify for a statewide Amber Alert, including whether there is sufficient data available to disseminate an alert to the public and the level of danger the kid could be in. In other circumstances, police may issue an alert about a missing child, but not through the same media channels as an Amber Alert.
Lopez said it’s important to Arlington police to know the alert Amber inspired has helped reunite families. He knows it’s important to Amber’s family, too — “that at least she lives on through that,” Lopez said.
‘There is someone out there
Police still keep in heavy contact with Amber’s family, including her brother Ricky Hagerman, 30, and her mum, Donna Williams. The detectives said that when she learns about a similar case, or about a cold case that has been solved, Williams calls to make certain they heard the news.
She refused to be interviewed for this article, saying she preferred instead to talk at a news conference with Arlington police Wednesday for the 25th anniversary of Amber’s abduction.
In a news release from the Police Department, she asked the public and the media to concentrate on discovering Amber’s murderer and bringing him to justice.

Time Pass

Gildon and Lopez said that focus is particularly significant as time passes. For them — and all the detectives who have worked on Amber’s case. The key could be in new observers who haven’t come ahead since the early days of the investigation.
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 killing,” Gildon said. “There is someone out there that knows what occurred.”

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