Dealing with the Unbearable Randomness of Child Homicides and Abductions
Fewer kids are being murdered, but that doesn’t help the victims’ family members
Donna Williams has seen much more loss than anyone should.
In 1996, her fiancé was killed in a car wreck. Two years later, a sister died at age 32 from a seizure. In 2009, her husband of nine years was felled by a heart attack and her father to cancer.
But the loss that continues to haunt Williams the most, the one that keeps her up at night, was the one that ironically led to an alert system credited with helping to save almost 1,000 missing and abducted kids. In 1996, her 9-year-old daughter, Amber Hagerman, was grabbed by a man as she rode her bike in an abandoned shopping center in Arlington not far from the Six Flags Over Texas theme park and Texas Rangers’ baseball stadium. Four days later, she was found dead in a drainage ditch a few miles away, with her throat slashed.
Despite several thousand leads, widespread national publicity, and the implementation of the comprehensive child-abduction alert system named after Amber, police were no closer to solving the case in 2018 than they were that dark day she disappeared.
Williams admitted to this writer that she was “almost ready to give up hope” of finding the murderer of Amber. “I still speak to a lot of people, but a lot of them don’t want to hear about it,” she said. “I’m happy that the Amber [Alert] plan has done some good in finding some children, but sometimes I feel like Amber herself has been forgotten.”
The alert system is credited with helping more than 900 missing children returned safely as of early 2018, according to federal figures. Some credit the alerts to reducing even more child abductions by strangers before they drag out. “Cases have shown that some perpetrators release the abducted child after hearing the Amber Alert,” U.S. Justice officials said. 1
Williams remains involved with missing-children organizations, gives interviews, and maintains social media sites. It is surprising that with more than 8,000 leads and national publicity that even included a 2006 Lifetime television movie, the case remains unsolved, retired Arlington Police Sgt. Mark Simpson said. “This case has been investigated more intensely than anything we’ve ever done in Arlington,” said Simpson, who led the initial task force formed to find Amber’s killer. 2
Retiree Jim Kevil has been the only eyewitness to come forward. From his backyard, he said he observed Amber snatched by a white or Hispanic man between age 25 and 40 and take her in a black pickup truck. He wasn’t in a position to chase the suspect, so he called police.
“She was kicking and screaming,” Simpson said in a 2016 police video, so it was obvious Amber was being abducted. 3
Amber’s younger brother, Ricky Hagerman, was riding with her when he returned home by himself. He was then five years old. “She was my best friend, like a second mother,” he said in 2016. 4
Fort Worth massage therapist Diana Simone first discussed the idea of an alert system by calling a talk radio program shortly after she heard about the killing. Several radio stations began broadcasting alerts for child abductions similar to severe weather warnings. The system, coordinated by the U.S. Justice Department, has grown worldwide to include television stations, electronic highway message boards, texts, and more.
Fewer child abductions but more online child sex reports filed
There were some 651,000 reports of missing children filed in the U.S. in 2017, according to FBI figures. While that seems like a lot, more than 90 percent of cases were cleared, with 96 percent involving voluntary runaways and only 0.1 percent being an abduction by a stranger. The number of reports declined by 20 percent from 2007. 5
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which formed in 1984, assisted law enforcement and families with about 27,000 missing children cases in 2017. About 14 percent of those were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
The Alexandria, Va.-based group’s CyberTipline received some 10 million reports in 2017 — more than double the number in 2015. Most were related to child sexual abuse images, online enticement, child sex trafficking, and molestation. 6
While the scope of such reports continue to be alarming, one welcoming trend is that fewer children are being murdered, despite the high-profile school shooting incidents. The homicide rate for kids between ages five and 14 in 2015 was 0.7 cases per 100,000, down slightly from 0.8 a decade earlier, according to federal statistics. The homicide rate for young people ages 15 to 24 was 10.8 per 100,000 in 2015, down from 13.0 a decade before. 7
However, the teen suicide rate rose in both categories over the past decade. In the 15 to 24 age group, the rate increased to 12.5 from 9.9 between 2005 and 2015. Among ages five to 14, suicides rose to 1.0 per 100,000 from 0.7. Still, many more children under 15 died in accidents.
Of course, the decline in child murders was little consolation for family members of victims, especially the horrifying school shootings. In 2015, there were still almost 700 kids under age 15 killed. Another roughly 400 committed suicide. Still another 50,000 or so children die through illnesses, accidents, and other causes each year.
A child being murdered is particularly rough since it is such a sudden, violent incident. For many family members dealing with the aftermath of a murdered child, even seeing the perpetrator put to death is not much of a relief. “I don’t ever expect to really get over this,” Carolyn Barker of Grand Prairie, Tx., said about the 1998 killing of her granddaughter, Amy Robinson. 8
Amy had Turner’s syndrome, a rare genetic disorder found only in women causing a lack of sexual development at puberty. Prosecutors described her as mentally challenged and trusting as she climbed into a vehicle under the urgings of Michael Wayne Hall and Robert Neville Jr. The pair had been fired from the same Arlington Kroger grocery store where Amy worked.
Hall and Neville drove to a secluded field in Fort Worth, where they convinced Amy to get out and tortured her by shooting her with a pellet gun and firing arrows at her. Then, Neville fired a shot into her head, and they left Amy to die. They later returned to the site and pumped several more shots into her. Her body was not discovered until 17 days later.
Hall and Neville were arrested two weeks later trying to escape into Mexico. They told reporters they laughed as Amy pleaded for her life and were targeting racial minorities. Amy was part American Indian. Neville was executed in 2006 and Hall in 2011. 9
For some, going to support groups help to deal with the aftermath of such horrific crimes. The National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, started in 1978 by a Cincinnati couple, Charlotte and Bob Hullinger, whose daughter, Lisa, was killed by an ex-boyfriend, has grown to have numerous chapters across the country.
“You have to keep busy, you have to keep your mind occupied,” said Barker, who raised Amy after her daughter was killed. “Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is the support I get from these groups.”
Feelings of wanting to die can surface, said Brenda O’Quin, who helped form the North Texas POMC chapter after her son, Michael McEachern, and his friend, Katy Nesbit, were killed on their way home from a party in 1995. Two teens were convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison.
“They were killed over a car stereo,” said O’Quin, referring to police determining the motive was robbery of Michael’s stereo. “I remember feeling like a robot and how I would like to die.” 10
Child’s death leads to physical, mental problems
Whatever the cause, few life events are more devastating than the death of a child, psychiatrists say. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” said Renee Binder, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and past president of the American Psychiatric Association. “Parents are supposed to die first. It’s a violation of the natural order.” 11
Such tragedies have not skipped over presidents. Four of the six kids that Thomas Jefferson fathered with his wife, Martha, died before they were 4 years old. Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., died in 1924 of a staph infection after playing tennis without socks. John F. Kennedy suffered the loss of his son, Patrick, to infant respiratory distress syndrome in 1963, just a few months before he was assassinated. Christine Reagan, daughter of Ronald Reagan, was born prematurely in 1947 and died the same day. Pauline Bush, daughter of George H.W. Bush, died at age 3 in 1953 of leukemia.
Parents who lost a child report more symptoms of depression, a lower sense of purpose, and more cardiovascular health problems than those who sail through marriage without such a major tragedy occurring, according to studies. They are more likely to get divorced or separated, though there is not much difference in career impact. While exact rates of divorce among grieving parents are difficult to pin down, informal reports cite it as high as 80 percent for couples experiencing a child’s death. 12
The death “elicits severe anxiety and other negative emotions associated with loss,” psychologists wrote in one study. “Parents might also experience guilt about having been unable to protect the child.” 13
The typical timeline of grieving begins with shock and intense grief for two weeks, followed by two months of strong grieving and a slow recovery that takes about two years.
A Michigan parent whose son died in his sleep while on pain medication after another guy gave him a broken nose, said it was beyond difficult to forgive the perpetrator and resume everyday life. The parent took to drinking, was diagnosed with lymphoma, and survived. 14
Another father felt like he “failed my son” after a 2015 car accident that took his boy’s life. Three other sons survived. “We are an emotional bomb, never knowing when it’s going to go off,” he wrote in an online post. Still another said he died when he lost his only son and felt like “a ghost trapped here for eternity to watch others live their lives.” 15
Besides the parents, such a death can have profound impacts on surviving siblings. About two-thirds of teens and children in a 2012 poll by the National Alliance for Grieving Children said the death of a family member was the worst thing that ever happened to them. Only half said their friends treated them the same as before the death and they had more trouble focusing on school work. The top two things respondents said the death of a family member taught them was how important family is and that life is not fair. 16
Some 15 percent of respondents to one survey said they lost a parent or sibling before they turned 20. Such an early loss “can make a child more resilient, more responsible, and more independent,” said Lynne Hughes, founder of Richmond, Va.-based Comfort Zone Camp for Grieving Children, who lost both her parents by age 12. But that “comes at a fierce price, namely one’s childhood.” 17
Many parents who have lost children question long-held beliefs and values. Some turn away from religion; others embrace it more strongly.
The question of why some kids die and others don’t in similar circumstances is one to which no one has a good answer, said Roger E. Olson, professor of Christian theology of ethics at Baylor University. “There is no consensus among devout believers about why there is innocent suffering in God’s world,” he said in a speech. “And every time a new book appears purporting to solve the dilemma, those of us steeped in the tradition of Christian theological reflection on it recognize a new form of an old answer. None has achieved the much sought, but elusive, status of ‘solution.’” 18
The tragedy can become so unbearable that many repeat mindless platitudes that make little sense. Some talk about “God’s plan” and advise putting your trust in a higher power. Others want no part of such a power, if the plan includes letting innocent kids die.
After John Kennedy Jr. died in 1999 at age 38, journalist Jeff Greenfield wrote about hearing a well-known televangelist say that tragedy was “all part of God’s plan.” At Kennedy’s funeral, Greenfield asked a young Catholic priest if he thought the accident was part of God’s plan. “Oh, no,” the priest replied. “This sucks.” 19
Innocent suffering is not God’s will, Olson said. He will one day abolish innocent suffering, which exists “because of the defection from God,” he said. “We are living in an interim period before that day of liberation. Why God waits is not revealed to us. We must learn to wait in hope.” 20
Moreover, there is not a satisfying intellectual solution to the problem of suffering, he noted. “The question lingers of why God does not stop innocent suffering now rather than later. All we can say is that God has His reasons even if we cannot fathom what they are.”
Some question such beliefs as foolishness. How can we be sure that one day God or some higher power is going to just magically abolish innocent dying and suffering? Isn’t the notion of waiting around until God or some entity fixes things an excuse to merely continue what you’re doing?
I’m of the belief that there has to be a more logical reason why the innocent die and suffer, and that it often comes down to something that those in charge failed to do. But there are times when even that theory doesn’t hold water.
In instances where every precaution and preparation that one can imagine have been taken, luck seems to be the most important factor in determining human survival and fortune. As cruel as it sounds, sometimes it just comes down to a roll of a dice.
Greenfield described how “part of the involuntary bargain” we make in being alive to enjoy nature, art, love, and other positive aspects is that our time here can be ended in an instant by “illness, injury, natural disaster, or pure evil…. There are good people who are dealt a bad hand by fate, and bad people who live long, comfortable, privileged lives. A small twist of fate can save or end a life; random chance is a permanent, powerful player in each of our lives, and in human history as well.” 21
Buddhist leader Dalai Lama XIV sees such tragedies as spiritual challenges. “When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways — either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength.” 22
So life is all some insane, nonsensical test of wills, a Survivor show run by an unseen lunatic behind the curtain? And to win this game, we just have to keep moving forward no matter what happens and who we lose, huh?
It does amaze me how those like Donna Williams can soldier on in life in the face of so much tragedy.
Marianne Rankin is another who astonished me during an interview for a story about amputees. Her world literally blew apart in 1978, when her Knoxville, Tenn., house exploded due to what she believed was gunpowder stored in her basement. She lost her husband and two young daughters, not to mention both of her legs from below the knee.
Eventually, Rankin lifted herself up to tour the country leading seminars and speaking to fellow amputees as a volunteer board member of the Amputee Coalition.
“You have to think of what you’re thankful for,” said Rankin, who worked as an administrative assistant with the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2000. “The explosion at my house could have been worse. It happened at 11 a.m. on a Sunday when we just returned from church. We had my daughter’s birthday party scheduled that afternoon, and I’m just thankful it didn’t happen then.” 23
- Kevin J. Shay, “Shoulders to cry on: Support groups offer solace to those affected by murder of family members.” The Dallas Morning News/Arlington Morning News, Aug. 29, 1999.
- Alexa Conomos, 20th anniversary of Amber Hagerman case: ‘Someone knows something.’ WFAA Channel 8 News, Jan. 13, 2016.
- “Amber Hagerman 20th Anniversary Special Edition.” Inside Arlington Police Department program, January 2016.
- Naheed Rajwani, “20 years later, police and relatives seek answers in death of Arlington girl who inspired Amber Alerts.” The Dallas Morning News, Jan. 12, 2016.
- NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics for 2017, FBI.
- “Key Facts.” National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
- “Deaths: Final Data for 2015.” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports, Nov. 27, 2017.
- Shay, op. cit.
- Michael Graczyk, “Second man set to die for 1998 abduction, slaying of mentally challenged Arlington teen.” The Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2011.
- Tony Plohetski, “Offenders at state school hear from victims in rehabilitation effort: Counselors hope offenders learn how crime changes lives.” Austin American-Statesman, May 16, 2009.
- Joshua Kendall, “Parental Grief Has Often Been a Factor in Presidential Politics.” The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2015.
- Catherine H. Rogers, Frank J. Floyd, Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Jan Greenberg, and Jinkuk Hong. “Long-Term Effects of the Death of a Child on Parents’ Adjustment in Midlife.” Journal of Family Psychology, April 2008; Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann. “Losing a Child: A Parent’s Worst Nightmare.” Metro Parent for Southeast Michigan, Sept. 29, 2017.
- Bluethmann, op. cit.
- “National Poll of Bereaved Children and Teenagers.” New York Life Foundation/National Alliance for Grieving Children, 2012.
- “The Untold Burden: One in Seven Americans Lose a Parent or Sibling Before the Age of 20.” Comfort Zone Camp news release, March 22, 2010.
- Roger A. Olson, “A talk on God and suffering.” Theology Live, Beeville, Tx. Patheos, June 25, 2013.
- Jeff Greenfield, “In tragedy, consolation only goes so far.” Yahoo News, May 21, 2013.
- Olson, op. cit.
- Greenfield, op. cit.
- Dalai Lama XIV, GoodReads Quotes.
- Shay, “Amputee Coalition helps survivors cope.” The Dallas Morning News, 2000.