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Reporter recalls painful, public journey of Amber Hagerman's mom

Amber Hagerman was a little girl with a shy smile who captured the country after what happened to her while riding her bicycle ride 20 years ago this week.
Donna Whitson at the grave of her murdered daughter, Amber Hagerman.

ARLINGTON – Amber Hagerman was a little girl with a shy smile.

She captured the heart of the nation after what happened to her while riding her bicycle 20 years ago this week.

"When I hear about an Amber Alert, it means something different to me than it does most people," said former WFAA reporter Pam Curry. "I think a lot of people these days think Amber is a color... it's not. It was a little girl."

In 1996, Curry was producing a documentary for Channel 8 and featured Amber's mother, Donna Whitson, as she transitioned from welfare to work. Curry said she and photographers Paul Parisot and John Doty practically lived with Whitson and her children for weeks.

"The original documentary — "From Welfare To Work" — was finished and was supposed to air the week that Amber was kidnapped," Curry recalled.

That crime electrified the country, in part because there was so much video of that little girl. People could identify with images of her at her birthday, playing with friends, setting the table and building with Legos.

"I talked to the news director and said 'What do we do? Do we keep this and have exclusive footage of her? And that would make us the biggest thing in town? Or do we put together a clip and give it out to everybody in hopes that she's found?'" Curry recounted.

It was a quick and easy decision, she said.  WFAA shared its footage with other TV stations in hopes THAT someone would recognize her and find Amber alive.

Two decades after Amber's mother granted such incredible access, Curry explained why a grieving mother would do it.

"I think she wanted people to know how horrible this is for a parent to go through, and what happens. And unfortunately, she's still living that as far as still not knowing what happened to Amber," Curry said.

WFAA produced another hour-long documentary which was broadcast in January 1997 titled "After Amber."

That broadcast included moments Curry will never forget, such as Amber's pride over perfect attendance at school; her genuine surprise opening birthday gifts; and what Pam heard in the house when Amber's mother got the news that her daughter was dead.

"The sounds were just gut-wrenching, as far as what they did when [police] said, 'Yes. That's her.'"

Society often looks for the good in tragedy, and Amber's murder actually led to it – inspiring the child abduction alerts named in her honor.

It is an advancement that might not have happened if Donna Whitson hadn't let the world witness such a painful and private journey.

Twenty years later, Amber Hagerman's killer has yet to be caught. Arlington police detectives say the case remains open and active. To provide tips, please contact Sgt. Kraig Fryer at 817-459-5772. Or report information anonymously to Tarrant County Crime Stoppers at 817-469-8477.