15 years later, still no justice for Amber Hagerman

ARLINGTON -- Fifteen years after Amber Hagerman's slaying, her memory lives on in her grandmother's east Arlington home.

Photographs of the 9-year-old still dot the wood-paneled walls. Glenda Whitson can still picture her granddaughter helping her bake cookies in the kitchen. Donna Norris still vividly recalls the Christmas carols that her daughter used to belt out in the small one-story house.

"We feel closer to her here," said Norris, sitting in the living room while visiting her mother one recent evening. "We know she walked these floors, and she was happy here."

But to get to the house, Norris must pass by a painful reminder: the parking lot where her daughter was riding her bike on a sunny afternoon when a man threw her in a dark pickup and drove away. Amber's body, her throat cut, was found four days later in a creek about two miles away. The man was never identified.

Tonight, on the anniversary of her abduction, the family will gather in that parking lot, light candles, sing some of Amber's favorite songs and have a moment of silence as a reminder that justice has not been served.

"Part of me hopes he is dead or is behind bars so he won't do this to another child," Norris said. "Another part of me hopes he's out there somewhere, and maybe he'll brag about what he did or tell somebody so he can be put behind bars. So that Amber can get justice."

6,800 leads

Much has changed in the 15 years since Amber's kidnapping.

The vacant Winn-Dixie store -- whose loading ramp Amber had been riding on the day she was taken -- is now a bustling business complex.

The sergeant who led the investigation, Mark Simpson, and the lead detective, Jim Ford, have retired from the Police Department. Simpson said he still talks about the case in classes he teaches on behalf of the Justice Department across the country and in Mexico and Canada, welcoming suggestions from other police agencies and looking for similarities to other abductions.

"Even though the case remains unsolved, the Arlington Police Department -- the people who were involved -- have never quit," Simpson said.

Last year, after Ford's retirement, Ben Lopez took over the case. As a rookie patrol officer in 1996, he worked eight months on the Amber Hagerman Task Force, one of dozens of officers assigned to investigate tips and leads that initially poured in. The task force disbanded after 18 months as the number of leads dwindled.

Lopez said the department has investigated roughly 6,800 leads. He fields about three or four tips a month, he said.

"Some that we get, there's not much to them, but we look into every one of them because you just never know," he said. "All along we've always followed that philosophy."

Norris said the investigators are like family.

She knows they haven't given up, but she never imagined that after 15 years her daughter's killer would still not be caught.

"It's frustrating. It angers me," Norris said. "How could somebody do something this horrible and not be punished for it? I don't know if he's my next-door neighbor or if I see him in the grocery store or if I see him in the crowd. Does he talk to me? Do I talk to him? Not knowing, it's scary."

Yet she hasn't lost hope. "This will be the year," Norris said confidently.

A series of losses

Her daughter's death was the first of many losses for Norris.

Two months after Amber was buried, Norris' fiance was killed in a car wreck. In July 1998, her older sister, 32-year-old Sandra Whitson, was found dead from a seizure disorder. In June 2009, her husband of nine years, Randy Norris, died of a massive heart attack. And two months after that, Norris lost her father, Jimmie Whitson, to cancer.

Despite her grief, Norris finds comfort in knowing that her daughter is not alone. "I know she's taking care of my dad up there," she said. "Dad's giving her hugs."

At times, Norris herself welcomes death.

"Some days, I don't want to live anymore," she admits. "I want to be with Amber, but I know, eventually, I will see her again, when it is my time. I'm looking forward to that day. I miss her hugs and kisses."

Her family, especially her son Ricky Hagerman, keeps her going.

Ricky, then 5, had been riding bikes with Amber that January day. Right before her abduction, he rode back to their grandparents' house while she opted to stay.

"He kind of blamed himself because he came back and left her down there," Glenda Whitson said.

Ricky, now 20, graduated from high school and works as a forklift driver. Only recently, Norris said, has her son begun talking openly about his sister.

"I remember one Christmas the families were here ... and he goes in the room and shuts the door," she said. "I go in there to see what's wrong with him, and he's crying. He said, 'I can't open my Christmas gifts. I can't be happy like everybody else, because my sister's not here.'

"That hurt," Norris said. "Seeing your surviving child go through that and still going through that, it's rough."

Last year, Norris partnered with a Florida man in a new business, Amber Child Safety Systems, that helps parents build a profile of their children's identifying characteristics, as well as the names of adults with whom they have contact. Norris hopes that the business can give children the protection she couldn't give her own daughter.

"When she needed me, I wasn't there, so that was hard for me. It's still hard for me knowing that," Norris said. "I can just picture in my mind Amber screaming, 'Mommy, help me! Why aren't you helping me, Mommy?'"

A legacy of hope

Protecting children has now become Amber's greatest legacy.

A year after her death, the Dallas/Fort Worth Association of Radio Managers teamed with area law enforcement agencies to implement the Amber Plan, an early warning broadcast system that alerts the public when a child is abducted.

Today, the Amber Alert Program is used across the nation and in other countries, including Canada, England, France, Greece and Portugal. On Wednesday, officials announced that Facebook users can now sign up to receive Amber Alerts issued in their state or region.

"I am very proud and very happy because we've saved so many lives," Norris said. "Another child didn't have to be butchered like Amber was. Another mom didn't have to go through what I went though, what I'm still going through."

Norris follows the news of every child abduction closely.

"It's bittersweet when a child is found with the Amber Alert. One part of you is so happy because that child is alive, and the child goes home to Mommy and Daddy," she said. "The other part of you is like, I wish there was an Amber Alert when Amber was missing. She could have maybe been home with me."

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655