SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — An Amber Alert can mean the difference between life or death for a missing child.
It is one of the fastest, most effective ways to find kidnapped kids, helping hundreds get back home safe.
Over two decades, the California Highway Patrol has become the leader in enhancing the system with cutting-edge technology.
The system began in Texas, and it was brought over to California in 2002 when an Orange County girl was kidnapped. The kidnapping of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman happened in Arlington, Texas in 1996.
“Almost instantly we knew we were dealing with a very serious child abduction,” Dee Anderson, retired Tarrant County Sheriff, said.
Anderson, who helped search for Amber Hagerman was an Arlington police officer at the time. He was also instrumental in creating the Amber Alert system.
He remembers the Saturday afternoon when she was abducted.
“We really had no way to push the information out instantly,” Anderson recalled.
There were no TV newscasts scheduled until hours later. There was no social media — No cellphones. There were only bulletins among law enforcement agencies until Dallas area stations reported the story.
“Why the Amber Alert began was because of the frustration that we couldn’t notify the public in a quicker manner. This was a tailor-made case. We’ve often said if we’d a been smart enough to think of the Amber plan before this happened, we might’ve gotten her back because we actually had an eyewitness and a vehicle description,” Anderson said. “If we would’ve gotten that out very quickly, to the masses, to the public, someone may have seen that pickup truck with her in it.”
Following around-the-clock searches, Amber’s body was found a week later.
The sheriff said, after several months of hard work, the Amber Alert system evolved from the same system used to warn about and tornados and other severe weather.
“I never use the word something good would come out of her death. But something that would help other children and would maybe lessen the pain,” Anderson said. “And it certainly has. I know for Donna, her mother, she’s spoken on that subject many times. She feels so much better knowing that this program, named after her daughter, and created because of her daughter, has saved a thousand kids.”
Six years later, in July of 2002, 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was abducted from outside her home in Stanton, California, in Orange County. Her body was found the very next day.
With the 20th anniversary this month of Samantha Runnion’s kidnapping, there are so many memories that fill the heart of her mother, Erin Runnion.
“It’s hard to imagine. But be brave comes from Samantha,” Erin Runnion said. “She told her little brother every day, be brave. Leave us notes, be brave. That’s what echoes in my daily life.”
Her daughter’s death would not be in vain. Just three days after, Gov. Gray Davis called Erin Runnion to tell her he would be signing Amber Alert into law in California.
“And less than two weeks later, the first two girls were rescued as a result,” Erin Runnion recalled.
In memory of her daughter, Erin Runnion founded The Joyful Child Foundation, which is dedicated to preventing crimes against children through programs that educate and empower families.
“That was a catalyst for me too because it made me realize that something significantly positive and proactive can actually happen as a result of such a senseless tragedy,” Erin Runnion said.
The CHP Headquarters in Sacramento houses the nerve center which handles possible Amber Alert emergencies. Sergeant Matthew Whitworth trains officers on how to respond. He said it’s both daunting and rewarding.
“Very good to see how many kids have been safely recovered. We have a 97% recovery rate for our children here,” Whitworth said.
In the 20 years that the Amber Alert has been around, it has been instrumental in bringing more than 370 kids safely back home. Sheriff Anderson credits California, for being the first to get the Amber Alerts on freeway signs. Texas has since followed.
“A lot of guys worked very hard and came up with cutting-edge technology. And we are the first state. That’s why we’re the leader in Amber Alerts currently. We’re the first state to wireless emergency alert and launch that on to a Twitter page,” Whitworth said.
“This is something that will live on beyond all of us. That will be a legacy that we can leave behind, at least help other children when they’re in danger,” Anderson said.