On Jan. 13, 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was riding her pink bicycle beside her younger brother, Ricky, in a parking lot of an abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store.
Ricky decided to pedal back to his grandparent’s Arlington, Texas, home, but before Amber could join him, a man driving a black pick-up truck snatched her off her bicycle, put her inside the driver’s side door and took off.
An elderly man, who witnessed the abduction from his backyard, told police he saw the 1980s or ’90s truck parked earlier at a nearby laundromat before the assailant drove up, kidnapped Amber and drove towards the center of Arlington, away from nearby Highway 360.
Four days later, a man walking his dog found Amber’s body near a creek, about four miles from the parking lot where she was taken.
Police believe the suspect — who was described as a white or Hispanic male, in his 20s or 30s, under 6 ft. with dark hair — was a local.
“Based on the direction of travel when they left [the Winn-Dixie] and then based on her being found in Arlington, being abducted in Arlington and just being in that spot, the question has always been, did somebody have a connection with that area where the abduction was?” Arlington Police Sgt. Grant Gildon tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
“It’s a very secluded area where her body was found. We do believe you’d have to be somewhat familiar with that area to know where that creek is,” he says. “Was there a connection with that location? And was it someone who had a reason for turning back to the center of town? The thought has always been that the easiest way to get out of the area would’ve been to go to Highway 360.”
Amber’s murder sent anguish and anger throughout the community and beyond. Texas mom Diana Simone couldn’t stop thinking about how a kidnapper snatched Amber and escaped without a trace.
“I said, ‘I can’t get over this child. There has to be something we can do,'” Simone tells PEOPLE. There were weather and civil defense alerts so, “why wouldn’t they do it for this?”
Simone called a local radio station with her idea of an emergency system that would be set up so that when a 911 call was placed, radio stations would immediately interrupt programming to broadcast the alert.
Fourteen days after Amber’s abduction, she wrote a letter to the station requesting that if her alert system was put into place, it would be known as Amber’s plan. The plan, renamed the AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert, was put into place that same year.
Today, AMBER Alerts are used in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 33 countries. To date, they have saved at least 1,085 children in the U.S., according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“Without the people, without people caring and willing to participate, I don’t care how good of an idea it is, it would’ve gone nowhere,” says Simone. “It’s the goodness in the hearts of the people who care that are making the difference.”
For more on Amber Hagerman and the AMBER Alert system, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.
Shockingly, despite the far-reaching impact of Amber’s case and despite over 7,000 tips, her killer remains at large 26 years later.
“We continue to have leads,” says Gildon. “And there are still several leads that we continue to investigate extensively as possible suspects. A lot of people will refer to Amber’s case as, what’s commonly referred to as, a cold case. But for the Arlington Police Department, it has never been listed as a cold case because we’ve never gone 180 days without having some lead come in.”
Police are hopeful that recent advancements in DNA testing being used on evidence collected in Amber’s case as well as any new tips from the public will finally solve it.
“I remain optimistic that this case will be solved,” says Gildon, who believes the killer is still alive. “I do believe there’s definitely someone out there who has the answers that we’re looking for and can help lead us in the right direction. So, that’s why we continue to work on it. Our goal has always remained the same, and that’s to catch who did this and be able to prosecute them.”
“Amber was just a very sweet, innocent child, and that’s the memory we got to hold onto as we investigate,” he says. “That this is someone who was doing something as innocent as riding a bicycle, and evil found her that day.”
Anyone with information about Amber’s case is asked to call the Arlington police at 817-575-8823 or Crime Stoppers of Tarrant County at 817-469-TIPS (8477).