Police release new photos, seek new info in unsolved 1996 murder of Amber Hagerman

ARLINGTON, Texas — Eight minutes.

That’s how long it took for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman to be abducted after leaving her grandmother’s home to ride her bike. The Texas girl’s body was found four days later in a creek bed a few miles away.

Amber’s throat had been cut. Her killer has never been found.

Last week, 25 years to the day after Amber was taken, police in Arlington renewed their pleas to the public for answers about who took the freckle-faced little girl and why.

A new, dedicated tip line has been established for information on the Hagerman case. Oak Farms Dairy continues to offer a $10,000 reward for new information leading to an arrest and indictment.

“All this time, we’ve only had one witness,” Sgt. Ben Lopez, a member of the original task force, said during a Jan. 13 news conference. “That’s why we’re pleading, if there’s anyone out there that has information — even if they think it’s just a small bit of information — (it) may be the lead we need to break this.”

Do you have information on the Jan. 13, 1996, abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman? Call Arlington detectives at 817-575-8823.

Authorities have also disclosed for the first time that they have DNA evidence in the case. As new DNA technology, including genetic genealogy, increasingly helps law enforcement tie open cases to long-unidentified suspects, Arlington investigators find themselves with renewed hope.

Detective Grant Gildon, the lead investigator on the cold case, declined to tell the Dallas Morning News what physical evidence the department has in the case, citing it as information only Amber’s killer would be aware of. That evidence has been secured and maintained for the past 25 years with the hope that it could someday provide a vital lead.

Watch the entire news conference below, courtesy of WFAA in Dallas.

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He said at last week’s news conference that the evidence would be submitted later this year for testing.

“On a yearly basis, I talk 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,” Gildon told reporters gathered in the parking lot from which Amber was taken. “That is what’s led to some new developments where we can try some things this year.”

Amber’s mother, Donna Williams, also pleaded with the public, and spoke directly to the person who killed her daughter.

“To Amber’s killer, I’m asking you today, please turn yourself in,” Williams said last week. “Give Amber justice. Amber needs justice, deeply.”

Arlington’s Little Angel

Amber and her then-5-year-old brother, Ricky, left their grandmother’s house on their bikes at 3:10 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1996. It was a Saturday afternoon and Williams had told the pair they could ride their bikes, but to stick to riding around the block, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, or NCMEC.

Williams, a single mother, had recently been interviewed for a segment on Dallas news station WFAA, which was profiling families who had successfully gotten off of welfare. According to reports at the time, the segment, which included footage of Amber, was scheduled to run days after she vanished.

As Amber and Ricky rode, a “cool” ramp in the parking lot of an empty Winn-Dixie two-tenths of a mile from home beckoned them, the NCMEC website states. Ricky, remembering what they’d been told, soon headed back toward home two-tenths of a mile away.

Below, watch WFAA’s documentary, After Amber, which includes footage of the slain girl.

Minutes later, a 78-year-old man who lived down the street witnessed a terrible sight through the chain-link fence that separated his backyard from the rear of the strip mall where the store was located. The witness, Jimmie Kevil, told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth about the experience in 2016, the 20th anniversary of the abduction.

“I saw (Amber) riding up and down,” Kevil, who died months after that interview, told the news station. “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.”

Amber also tried to kick the man as he forced her into the truck, Kevil told police.

Kevil, a U.S. Navy veteran and former sheriff’s deputy, told police that as he hurried into his house to call 911, he saw the kidnapper pull out of the parking lot and head west on Abram Street.

He described Amber’s abductor as a white or Hispanic man in his 20s or 30s, under 6 feet tall and with a medium build and brown or black hair. His truck, a single-cab pickup, was in good condition and was solid black, with no chrome or striping.

Police have said that the truck was believed to be a 1980s or 1990s full-sized, fleetside pickup with a short wheelbase and a non-sliding, clear rear window.

When Ricky returned to their grandmother’s home alone a few minutes after he and his sister had left, family members immediately went looking for Amber. All they found was Amber’s pink and white bicycle, which she had received for Christmas less than a month before.

Police officers had already arrived at the Winn-Dixie in response to Kevil’s 911 call.

‘Someone in the community saw something’

The vast majority of children reported missing in the U.S. are found safe. Arlington police officials realized soon after Amber’s bicycle was found, however, that her case was not one of a wandering child.

The search for the missing girl was stymied by the lack of witnesses coming forward.

There was a laundromat next to the Winn-Dixie in 1996, but detectives believe that potential witnesses may have been afraid to speak up out of fear of deportation. As of the 2000 Census, just under a fifth of Arlington’s more than 330,000 residents were Hispanic.

The parking lot where Amber vanished is today home to a Mexican meat market, as well as an insurance office, a title loan business and a dental office.

Police officials said last week that the department has no interest in the immigration status of any witnesses who have information about Amber’s killer.

“Our hope is that someone in the community saw something. Maybe they didn’t come forward 25 years ago out of fear or not wanting to get involved,” Arlington Assistant Police Chief Kevin Kolbye said during last week’s news conference. “Whatever reason, we need folks to search their minds and bring forward anything that may be (of) value to our investigation.”

In the days after Amber’s abduction, more than 50 police officers and FBI agents worked to bring the third-grader home to her family. Their hopes were dashed when the girl’s naked body was spotted near a drainage culvert in a creek bed behind an apartment complex.

Amber’s parents at first did not want to believe the news that detectives and a police chaplain told them, The New York Times reported in 2016.

“She’s still alive,” her father, Richard Hagerman, told reporters.

Police said at the time that maintenance workers at the apartment complex had been near the creek where Amber was found just hours before the grim discovery, and her body was not there. The Times reported that a rainstorm caused a rapid rise in the creek waters, which may have carried her body to where it was found.

Authorities said that Amber was kept alive for at least two days after she was abducted, according to the NCMEC website. That fact leads detectives to believe that someone, somewhere may have seen something related to her killing.

Amber’s legacy

More than 7,000.

That is how many leads Arlington detectives have investigated in the more than two decades since Amber was slain. None of them have led to an arrest in the Girl Scout’s death.

Despite the lack of a conclusion to her own case, Amber has had a monumental impact on the cases of other missing children through the AMBER Alert system.

Diane Simone, who described herself as an “ordinary woman and mother,” watched on the television news as Amber’s parents lived through their worst nightmare.

“Like her Arlington community, Simone wanted to help search for Amber but didn’t know what to look for, even though someone had witnessed the abduction,” the NCMEC website states.

Simone came up with an idea: An alert system similar to the weather and civil defense alert systems already in existence.

Her idea was established as the America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response alert system, better known as the AMBER Alert in Amber Hagerman’s honor. When a child is abducted, law enforcement sends an alert to radio and television stations, lottery systems, the Department of Transportation and the NCMEC.

The center sends the alerts to a wider audience, as well.

In the aftermath of Amber’s 1996 killing, broadcasters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area partnered with law enforcement to develop the system. In 1998, an 8-week-old Arlington infant, Rae-Leigh Bradbury, became the first child rescued as a result of an AMBER Alert.

Bradbury, who had been kidnapped by her babysitter, was found 90 minutes after the alert went out, NBC News reported. In 2017, an 18-year-old Bradbury started college at the University of Texas in Austin.

As of last week, at least 1,029 missing children had been recovered in the U.S. as a direct result of the AMBER Alert system. There are likely more, said Carly Tapp, who oversees the program for the NCMEC.

“Most children in which an AMBER Alert has been issued are safely recovered, but it’s not always possible to determine if it was because of the alert,” Tapp said on the NCMEC website.

Williams said she’s extremely proud of the alert system that bears her daughter’s name.

“It’s saved children’s lives. It’s helped bring children back to mommy and daddy,” Williams said. “It’s another legacy for my daughter, that she did not die in vain. She is still taking care of our little children, like she did when she was here.”

The mother, who fought back tears as she spoke to reporters on the anniversary of her daughter’s abduction, described Amber as a child who loved school and riding her prized bicycle.

She also “loved being a little mommy to her little brother,” Williams said.

“I miss her every day, and she was so full of life,” Williams said. “I want to know why? Why her? She was only a little girl.”

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Lopez also appeared emotional as he spoke of his hopes for solving the case.

“I would love to be able to give Donna, and Ricky, and the rest of the members of their family the answer to the question that they would like to know — of course, that is who did this to Amber — and bring that person to justice,” Lopez said.

Anyone with information on the abduction and murder of Amber Hagerman is asked to call Arlington police detectives at 817-575-8823.