Jan. 13, 2010 — -- Every year for the past 13 years, Donna Norris has spent the night of Jan. 13 in the very same parking lot in downtown Arlington, Texas, where her then 9-year-old daughter Amber Hagerman was last seen before being abducted and brutally murdered.
Tonight will be no different, said Norris, who plans to sing "Amazing Grace" by candlelight with family and friends in honor of Amber, whose death inspired the creation of the nationally known Amber Alert, now credited with safely locating nearly 500 children.
"This day is always going to be filled with raw emotion," Norris said on the eve of the 14-year anniversary of Amber's killing. "Amber was a giant part of my life. She was my world. Tomorrow will be really tough and there will be a lot of tears."
"It's bittersweet because Amber has saved so many children's lives so far," Norris said. "It's awesome, it's great, but I can't help but think what if there was an Amber Alert when she went missing?"
Norris said she continues to hold the vigil year after year, not only to remember her daughter but also to garner attention to her case; no arrests were ever made in connection with Amber murder.
"We want justice for Amber," Norris said of her daughter, who would be 23 now. "[Whoever did this] will be caught -- it's just a matter of time. I'm not going to give up on my baby girl. She will get justice."
Amber was abducted on a warm winter day in January 1996, when she and her little brother, Ricky, went on a bike ride around their family's neighborhood.
"They were riding their bikes like they always did, and were supposed to just go around the block," Norris said. "Amber decided she wanted to go a little further than where she was supposed to because there was a ramp where children would go."
"Eight minutes later and she was gone," said Norris, now 42, who was later told that an eyewitness who had been in a nearby yard heard Amber screaming as a man in a pickup truck forced her inside.
Nearly four days later – days Norris said she spent not sleeping or eating and pleading for whoever took her daughter to "return her to her mommy" – Amber's body was found in a creek a few miles from her home with her throat slashed.
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When they finally located the little girl's body, authorities in Arlington said she was naked except for one sock and that the water in the creek had wiped away evidence that may have been helpful in finding the perpetrator.
"There had been a very large storm and Amber was not only in water but in running water in a creek bed, so there had been a tremendous amount of water flow over her body which obviously made it hard in terms of trace evidence," said Mike Simonds, the investigative sergeant who was in charge of Amber's case at the Arlington Police Department.
Simonds, who has since transferred to the Tarrant County Sherriff's Office, where he is the chief deputy, said that Amber's murder "stands out in his mind" as one of the most important.
"It's still very frustrating that we never made an arrest in the case -- it's a frustrating feeling," Simonds said. "You always think about the things that you could have done differently, or you feel badly for the family and wish you could provide them with relief.
"But the legacy Amber left is very, very important," he said. "There was a lot of good that came out of a very tragic situation."
Simonds was one of several people who helped propose the idea of an alert system for missing children, a plan that eventually bore Amber's name.
Ernie Allen, the president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said he believes there may be "no greater legacy than that of Amber Hagerman."
"Amber's legacy is really remarkable if you look at what has happened and the lives that have been touched because one little girl lived and died -- it's pretty inspiring," Allen said.
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Since 1996, according to statistics, there have been 495 successful recoveries thanks to Amber Alerts, which now exist in all 50 states. Allen said the program is even expected to grow internationally.
Amber Alerts, some of which can now be sent to the cell phones of people who sign up to receive notifications, are only issued when several criteria are met. The missing child must be younger than 18 and believed to be in imminent danger.
Officials must also have information such as a car model or a description of the abductor to provide in the alert, and authorities must be certain that the child has been abducted by a stranger (in some states, this provision is extended to include family members).
Had an alert of this kind been around at the time of Amber's disappearance, her mother believes she might have been rescued.
"I always said that if the Amber Alert saved one child's life I'd be satisfied, and I am, but I just wish there was something like [this] when Amber went missing," Norris said.
But Allen recognizes that there is still work to be done and that "tragic cases like Amber's" still occur, such as the recent case of 7-year-old Somer Thompson in Orange Park, Fla.
Thompson vanished on her walk home from school and was found dead a few days later in a Georgia landfill. As with Amber's case, nobody has been arrested in the abduction and murder.
Amber's mother said she sympathizes with parents like her and offered words of advice to the Thompson family.
"I'd tell them don't give up hope and keep fighting for your baby," Norris said. "If people don't catch the bad person, God will take care of him.
"Have faith, and have hope."