It took just eight minutes for a family’s life to be irrevocably damaged and subsequently forever changed. On January 12, 1996, Amber Hageman, 9, and her brother Ricky, 5, in the company of their mother Donna, stopped at their grandparents’ home in Arlington, Texas. The children asked their grandfather, Jimmie Whitson, if they could go for a short ride on the two bicycles he kept for them at the house. Glenda Whitson said in an interview with Crime Library writer David Krajicek, “My husband and my daughter said, ‘OK, but just go around the block.’”
The two youngsters peddled to the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie store on a busy street that had been closed for some time. “They rode over there and went down the ramp,” Whitson told Krajicek. “Ricky told his sister, ‘I’m going back home because mama told us to ride around the block.’ So, he rode back here, and my husband asked him. ‘Where’s Sissy?’ He said she stayed for one more ride on the ramp, so they sent him back for her.”
Ricky returned and told his mother and grandparents he couldn’t find Amber. The grandfather jumped into his truck and went to search for the missing girl. Along the way, he spotted a police car and pulled up. The officer told Whitson a man living nearby had heard a scream and saw a man carrying a young girl into a pick-up truck. After witnessing the incident, the man called 911. The officer arrived at the scene mere minutes after the call, but all that was found was Amber’s bicycle.
“That was it,” Amber’s grandmother told the Crime Library writer. “Eight minutes — eight minutes from the time she rode away on her bicycle until that man called 911. People have to know that this is how fast these things can happen.”
In the following days, the family pleaded on television for the safe return of their loved one. “Please don’t hurt my baby,” Amber’s anguished mother cried. “She’s just an innocent child. Please, please bring her home safe. Please.”
Jim Kevil, the lone witness, was extensively interviewed by the media and police, but was unable to give many exact details about the abduction. He didn’t know the colour or model of the pick-up, saying only that it was dark, and that the man was “not big, but very fast,” and either white or Hispanic.
The truck driven by Amber’s abductor had been seen earlier in the store parking lot, where it is likely he had watched Amber and Ricky riding their bikes. Once Ricky left, police speculate the man pounced on Amber, abducting her and fleeing with his captive.
The abduction became front-page news in Texas newspapers and the local police and FBI formed a special task force to investigate the kidnapping. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending — Amber’s body was found by a man walking his dog along a creek next to an apartment complex in north Arlington. The task force was never able to find Amber’s killer and after a year, the investigation was abandoned.
A common-sense question was asked by one Dallas man, according to Krajicek. “When a child is abducted and each minute matters, why can’t the police and the media get together to inform the public with the same urgency of, say, a weather warning about a tornado or hurricane?” Fortunately, radio and television executives in the area answered the question by adopting the Dallas Amber Plan in July 1997, with broadcasters providing timely information to the public about child abductions. Just months later, the Amber Plan proved its worth when a babysitter with a drug problem disappeared with an eight-month-old baby. The woman was apprehended within 90 minutes after a driver, who had seen the alert, spotted the woman’s truck and notified police. The child was returned unharmed.
The success of the local program led to the creation of the America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, or Amber Alert, a U.S. government program that covers all 50 states. Since then, Amber Alert has spread to other countries, including Canada. Locally, WinnipegREALTORS®, with its network of 1,000 agents linked up to Touchbase — a sophisticated wireless technology — is now part of the Manitoba Amber Alert program.
In the past, REALTORS® have been a valuable asset in locating missing children. Langley, B.C., REALTOR® Murray Webster in 2000 was watching some children playing near a house he was showing to a client. “I realized that one of the boys seemed to fit the description I had received earlier on my pager, so I contacted the RCMP immediately,” he told The Province. Soon after, the 11-year-old was returned to his worried parents.
Langley REALTOR® Georgina Pister received a text message on her cellphone while on the way for an appointment with her hairdresser friend asking REALTORS® to be on the look-out for a missing special-needs teen. “I read the message in the car literally five minutes before I walked into Barb’s house,”said Georgina in a July 9, 2006, Langley Times article. “And here’s Ashley, Barb’s daughter, in the middle of telling her mother about her friend ‘Breanna’ that everyone’s worried about because she didn’t show up at her classes today.”
Georgina pulled out her cellphone and read out the message to Ashley, who went to the same special-needs school with the missing 19-year-old. As the message was on display, Breanna called to the home phone asking for Ashley. The REALTOR® told Ashley to keep the teen on the line, while she copied the number showing up on call display. She then used her cellphone to contact the police, and Breanna was safely returned to her worried foster parents.
In both cases, local police said the assistance of REALTORS® to locate the missing children saved a lot of investigative time and most importantly resulted in the children getting home safely.
“In a missing child case, especially in an Amber Alert situation, when a child may be in imminent risk, every second counts,” said Christy Dzikoweitz, the director of Missing Children’s Services at Child Find Manitoba, during the recent press conference announcing the involvement of WinnipegREALTORS® in the Amber Alert program.
What began after 1996 as the result of the sorrowful fate of nine-year-old Amber has become one of the more useful tools in assisting police to preserve our most valuable resource — children — from harm.