Tragedy

Too Smart for Strangers

TW: Abduction, almost abduction, murder, sexual assault

This is a piece I wrote for what I hope will eventually become my memoir. Some people in my life know about these events, but some do not. January 17th was the anniversary of when Amber Hagerman’s body was found. Amber Hagerman’s abduction and murder were the reason for the creation of the AMBER Alert. This is a really tough one for me to share. Please try to be gentle.

It’s December 26, 2020. The time is 3:32pm. At 3:29PM I was sitting in the living room with my mother, father, and brother, when all of our phones made the emergency alarm sound. I knew, without looking, what was happening. I felt shock and fear and confusion because I KNOW I turned AMBER Alerts off on my phone while I was in residential treatment at The Refuge. Apparently, with one of the recent software updates to the iPhone, that setting changed and had to be switched back. It’s the day after Christmas. I had a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my immediate family, while Amber Hagerman’s family probably spent the holiday missing her and wishing she was with them. Every time I hear or see about an AMBER Alert, my body is flooded with chills. I am filled with grief and sorrow and guilt and shame.

Winnie the Pooh saved my life. I often say this to get a smile out of people, but the reality of the story is much more sinister. I was about four years old when I was almost abducted. We were living in Duncanville, Texas and I was picking dandelions outside in the front yard by myself when a white man pulled up in front of our brick mailbox and stopped his black pickup truck. The passenger side window was down and he said, “do you know how to get to the post office?” I shook my head no. He persisted, “Why don’t you get in the truck and show me how to get there?”

Shortly before this, my parents and I had made a trip to our local Blockbuster, a once prolific business that now has a single video rental store in Oregon. I had chosen a VHS of a film called Too Smart for Strangers with Winnie the Pooh, which explained what strangers are and how to safely avoid them. Because I had watched this movie on our living room tv one afternoon, I knew that the man in the black truck was a stranger and that I shouldn’t go with him. I had seen somewhere else that you don’t want strangers to know where you live, so I sprinted in front of the next door neighbor’s house, through their side yard, and down the alley behind our house. I flung open the gate into our backyard then ran through the back door into the kitchen. I frantically told my mother what had happened. My mother, who had pretty severe depression at the time, did not call the police. I wasn’t allowed to play outside alone anymore.

The story would be scary enough if it ended there, but a few years later, nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted by a man in a black pickup truck in Arlington, Texas less than twenty miles away from our house. She was sexually assaulted, murdered, and left in a creek behind an apartment complex less than five miles away from the abandoned Winn Dixie in Arlington where she was taken. I’ll never know for sure if it was the same man in the same black truck, but I feel somehow responsible for her death. Four year old me wasn’t capable of making the decision to call the police and alert them to the man’s suspicious behavior. Four year old me couldn’t have saved Amber. Maybe the police wouldn’t have done anything about it anyways, but I’ve always wished my parents had called them. I asked them prior to going to residential treatment at The Refuge why they didn’t call the police. They didn’t have any answers for me. I didn’t realize what a huge impact this event had on my life until shortly before I was at The Refuge when I did some EMDR surrounding it with my wonderful therapist, Alli. Up until then, it was just a story I told parts of to be funny or for shock value. With Alli and at The Refuge, I realized that thirty-one-year-old me still harbors a lot of guilt and shame about Amber’s death. I wonder if I or the adults in my life could have done anything to stop it. I wonder what would have happened if I had gotten in the truck with the man. I wonder what would have happened if my parents had called the police. I wonder if Amber would still be alive.

This story came up several times while I was at The Refuge unpacking many of the traumas I’ve experienced in my life. My dear friend, Ashley, who was in many of my trauma process groups, pointed out something important. She said that if a man was abducting children in my area, it’s unlikely that he would have stopped after he got me, and she’s right. It’s unlikely that he would have gotten all of the evil out of his system. It’s possible that I wasn’t the first kid he attempted to do this to and it’s possible that Amber wasn’t the first or the last child he took and killed. There’s no way of knowing for sure if it was even the same man since Amber’s murderer was never identified, but I find it difficult to believe there were two men in the same color and type of vehicle abducting or attempting to abduct children in the same 20 mile area. It’s devastating to me that Amber died, and it’s also true that the resulting Amber Alert has saved over 900 abducted children from meeting a similar fate. I was raised Catholic, so I have a pretty intimate relationship with guilt and shame. Recently, I’ve been trying to let go of the pain I feel every time an Amber Alert is issued. I’ve been trying to honor Amber by living my life and growing up to be someone who helps people. I’m trying to feel less survivor’s guilt and more gratitude for the fact that I knew enough not to get into a truck with a strange man. I feel that it’s important to honor that Amber, too, knew enough not to get into a truck with a strange man. A witness to her abduction said she was kicking and fighting as she was dragged into the truck. It’s painful for me that Amber knew not to get in the truck but was still taken and I managed to get away. It’s painful that our inaction could have been instrumental in the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of a nine year old girl. It’s painful that I lived and she did not. If I could speak to Amber or her family today, I would tell her that I’m sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t call the police. I’m sorry we didn’t warn anyone about what was potentially coming. Mostly, I’m sorry that she had to die a horrific death and I got to live.

For more information about the AMBER Alert, you can visit https://amberalert.ojp.gov/.

For more information about Amber Hagerman, you can visit https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/how-did-amber-alerts-start-amber-hagerman or https://dfw.cbslocal.com/tag/amber-hagerman/

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