Amber Hagerman: The Abduction That Inspired AMBER Alerts

By: Yara Simón  | 
You may be familiar with the AMBER Alert system that notifies the public of an abducted child, but you may not know the story behind the name. Tada Images / Shutterstock

By now, it's probably a familiar sound: jarring, ear-splitting tones that sound from your mobile device. Known as an AMBER Alert, these emergency notifications can be pivotal in finding abducted children. Named after Amber Hagerman, the system started in 1996.

Read on to learn more about the life-saving AMBER Alert system and how it came to be.


What Is an AMBER Alert?

An AMBER (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert is a public warning system that notifies residents of the state (or neighboring states if there is the belief that an abductor took a child across state lines) about missing children.

Law enforcement agencies and broadcasters work together to issue AMBER Alerts on radio stations and television, which will interrupt regular programming. You might also receive them on your cell phone or see the alerts on search engines, billboards or lottery displays.


Every state follows its own AMBER Alert criteria, but the Department of Justice issued guidance that many states have incorporated. The department recommends issuing an alert if:

  1. Law enforcement has a reasonable belief that a child was abducted.
  2. Law enforcement believes the child will suffer serious bodily harm or worse.
  3. There are enough details about the child's appearance and the abduction.
  4. The child is 17 or younger.
  5. The child's name and details are in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system.

Not all missing children will get an AMBER Alert, but government agencies can issue a Child Abduction Response Teams (CART) alert for all missing children.

From 1996 to December 2023, AMBER Alerts have "contributed to the recovery of 1,186 children and wireless emergency alerts resulted in the rescue of 165 children." Additionally, organizations like The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children work with police, parents and community members to help find abducted children.

The National AMBER Alert Coordinator

This role is responsible for helping states and cities create an AMBER alert plan, expanding coverage to more areas and coordinating collaboration between different areas.


How the AMBER Alert System Began

The AMBER Alert program began after the abduction of Amber Rene Hagerman. On Jan. 13, 1996, someone kidnapped 9-year-old Amber, who was in the parking lot of an Arlington, Texas, grocery store riding her pink bicycle.

Her disappearance sparked a nationwide search. Local officers spent much of their time searching for her and the abductor's truck. “For those first few days, we spent all of our extra time looking,” Detective Ben Lopez told Dateline NBC. “It was like if you weren’t on another call, you were actively looking for her. We were looking everywhere in the city.”


A dog walker found Amber's body a few days later.

After Amber's death, police and broadcasters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area teamed up to develop a warning system. Other states across the country eventually followed suit.


Amber Hargerman's Case

To this day, Amber Hagerman's case remains unsolved. There is no further information on Amber's killer, described as a white or Hispanic male with brown or black hair.

In 2021, 25 years after her abduction, Arlington police held a press conference, where Amber's mother, Donna Williams, said: "I want to know why her. She was only a little girl. To Amber's killer, I'm asking you today to please turn yourself in. Give Amber justice."