With flowing blond hair and a vibrant personality, Rae Leigh Bradbury easily fits the profile of a model teenager. She’s the varsity cheer captain at Fort Worth’s Boswell High School, senior class secretary and a member of the National Honor Society. Adulthood is just around the corner with the approach of her 18th birthday in September.
In November 1998, when she was only 8 weeks old, Bradbury became the first abducted child to be rescued by an Amber Alert, a then-fledgling program that evolved from the abduction and slaying of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington more than two years earlier.
Abducted by a babysitter, Bradbury was found asleep and unharmed in a baby seat after a motorist spotted the abductor’s vehicle and notified police just 90 minutes after the alert was issued.
After two decades of Amber Alerts, hundreds of endangered children have joined Rae Leigh Bradbury as success stories in a program born of a devastating tragedy.
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“She’s like a guardian angel,” Bradbury says of the Arlington third-grader.
To the amazement of many who helped pioneer the Amber Alert program in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area 20 years ago, the results have eclipsed expectations.
It now operates in all 50 states and at least a half-dozen foreign countries, trumpeting abducted-children alerts on venues including digital highway signs to lottery boards. A total of 830 children nationally have been rescued as a result of Amber Alerts, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
In Texas, 148 children have been recovered successfully after state Amber Alerts were issued by the Department of Public Safety although there are no available statistics to show whether the recoveries were the direct result of the alerts. Amber Alerts have also led to several successful child rescues in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
Albuquerque police released video of an officer finding a 9-month-old who was kidnapped in mid-April. Ariana Smith was dehydrated after being left alone in an SUV with the windows up for an extended period of time.
Amber Alerts have become so familiar that they sometimes turn up in fictional TV crime dramas and have found their way into the lyrics of a country song by Brooks & Dunn, God Must Be Busy. The U.S. Postal Service issued an Amber Alert stamp in 2006, 10 years after Amber Hagerman’s abduction.
“We never dreamed what would happen,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said.
As media relations coordinator for the Arlington Police Department in the 1990s, Anderson worked with local and regional broadcasters and law enforcement to help launch the alert system in the immediate aftermath of the Amber Hagerman slaying.
That limited regional start-up ultimately became the model for today’s global Amber network.
“It just got bigger and bigger and better and better,” Anderson recalled. “It became an unbelievable phenomenon.”
The program has been widely adjudged as an overwhelming success but not every alert ends happily. Of children who were sought in Amber Alerts between 2005-2015, 95.3 percent were recovered alive, 3.5 percent were found dead and 1.2 percent remain missing.
In 2015, nearly all of 224 reported-missing children were safely recovered, but eight, ages 1 to 9, were dead, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which assists the U.S. Justice Department in a national Amber program created in 2003. Two teen-age girls were sexually assaulted during their abductions.
“The system is extremely successful, but we always want to do more,” said Mike Murphy, the Amber Alert program manager for NCMEC. “Whether there are five deaths, or whether there is one death, that’s one too many. Our goal is to get these kids back safely.”
‘I still have hope’
The determination to protect children gripped the Metroplex after Amber’s body was discovered on Jan. 17, 1996, four days after she was abducted while riding her bicycle near a vacant Winn-Dixie store. A man working in his backyard told police he heard her screams and saw a man grab Amber from her bike and drive away with her in a dark-colored pickup. The witness then called police.
Nearly 50 detectives were assigned to the case as part of an Amber task force that lasted for about 18 months before leads began to dwindle. Over the past two decades, investigators have combed through at least 8,000 leads and still receive about a dozen tips a year, typically after a news story profiling Amber’s case.
At a Jan. 13 news conference on the 20th anniversary of the abduction, Arlington police officials said the case remains an active investigation and vowed that it will one day be solved.
“As her mother, I’m not going to give up,” said Donna Williams at the news conference. “I still have hope that he will be caught one day.”
To Rae Leigh Bradbury, Amber is never far away. She says she unfailingly thanks Amber in her prayers and is certain that Amber’s legacy saved her life.
“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here,” Bradbury says in describing what she prayerfully tells Amber, who would now be almost 30. “I thank her for saving my life.”
Blessed to have Amber Alert
Bradbury was abducted from her home in an Arlington apartment complex by Sandra Joyce Fallis, a babysitter who seemed to have solid qualifications. Instead, authorities later discovered that she had had two DWI convictions and her husband told police that she wanted a baby for herself, according to news accounts.
Rae Leigh’s mother recalls that she had never heard of Amber Alerts before the one that led to her daughter’s recovery.
“Back then, it was so brand new, we didn’t realize what it was,” said Patricia Sokolowski, a property manager who has since remarried. “We were just praying for any kind of hope. The Amber Alert gave us hope, gave us a sign that there is a possibility for her to come home.”
Since then, Bradbury has become an Amber Alert ambassador for NCMEC and was present at the 2003 White House ceremony in which then-President George W. Bush signed national Amber legislation. In many respects, she embodies the core purpose of Amber alerts: rescuing endangered children and putting them back on course to a promising future.
“She’s awesome,” Sokolowski says of her daughter. “She’s just going and going. We were very blessed with the Amber Alert. It’s brought a lot of children home. It brought Rae home.”
The early components of an Amber plan began falling into place in the days immediately after Amber’s death. Among the first to advance the idea was Diana Simone, a Granbury massage therapist who called and then wrote to a local radio station to outline a plan for all local radio stations to interrupt programming with emergency alerts in verified child abduction cases.
In her letter to KDMX Station Manager Jennifer Grimm, she made one other request: that it be known as Amber’s plan.
Grimm presented Simone’s letter to the Radio and TV Managers Association in Fort Worth, and the project ultimately became a collaborative effort between local broadcasting and law enforcement. A leading proponent from the broadcasting industry was Tyler Cox, operations manager for WBAP. Dee Anderson was law enforcement’s point man in the discussions. (Anderson was elected Tarrant County sheriff in 2001 but lost the Republican primary and will leave office Jan. 1.)
Initially, radio stations relied on faxes to spread the alerts but that system was often troubled by something as simple as a busy line. Cox and Anderson acknowledged that there were early hiccups, in addition to natural competitive tension among broadcasters and an inherent adversarial relationship between law enforcement and the media.
“We made about every mistake you could make in the book to get it up off the ground,” Anderson recalled. “If it could be done wrong, we did it wrong starting out.”
But both sides worked past any differences and smoothed out initial flaws. A big breakthrough, Anderson said, came when stations began using the federal Emergency Alert System, originally designed to protect the nation against enemy attack.
“This was a monumental group effort by people in the radio industry who were usually highly competitive with one another,” said Cox, “but we all saw the need to do this for our community and came together for the common good on that.”
To the national level
Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison played a major role in expanding Amber Alerts to the national level as co-sponsor of the bill that established a federal Amber program under the Justice Department. At the time the bill was introduced in 2002, only 17 states and some cities had Amber Alert plans.
The 2003 PROTECT Act, which Hutchison, a Republicanm co-sponsored with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, created a national Amber coordinator in the Justice Department as well as minimum criteria for issuing an Amber Alert. It also gave the program an upper-case designation: AMBER (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. )
Hutchison, who served in the Senate 20 years before leaving in 2013, said the act “made a big difference” by authorizing multi-state Amber Alerts to speed the pursuit of child abductors who cross state lines. The measure had overwhelming bipartisan support, she said in a recent telephone interview, and “was very easy to pass.”
The Amber Alert is rooted in the concept of drawing as many people as possible into the search for a missing child, and a vast array of industries, Internet providers, government agencies and service organizations have offered their resources on a so-called secondary distribution network coordinated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The Justice Department issues minimum criteria that states can use voluntarily in their own Amber plans. Under the state plan in Texas, Amber Alerts are activated in which the child is 17 or younger, was abducted involuntarily, is in immediate danger of sexual assault, death or serious bodily injury and if there is sufficient information to help locate the child, suspect or vehicle used in the abduction.
“A lot of times, we spend time explaining to parents why their 15-year-old who ran away with her boyfriend is not an Amber Alert,” said Sgt. John Phillips, supervisor of major case missing persons in the Fort Worth Police Department. “That happens so often that if we used the Amber alert for that, people would become tired of it and not pay attention to it.”
But the public unquestionably paid attention in a case that Phillips’ team brought to a successful conclusion with the help of an Amber Alert in November 2015. The alert listed 15-month-old Twinkle Twinkie Twilight, also known as Twinkle Miles, as being in “grave or immediate danger” after she was taken from her foster home by her biological mother, Vicki Lynn Dixon. The girl was found in good condition with her mother at a house in east Fort Worth after more than 30 officers working around-the-clock conducted a house-to-house search of the neighborhood.
Phillips said the Amber Alert was “integral” to recovering the girl.
“It put her out there enough that family and people in the neighborhoods were calling and letting us know,” he said. “People pay attention to those Amber Alerts.”
Benbrook Police Chief James Mills said an Amber Alert was “our saving grace” in the recovery of 9-year-old Caitlyn Williams, who police said was kidnapped by an uncle, Jessie Nicholas Williams of Arlington. The uncle became a suspect after the girl failed to return home from a friend’s house.
“It looked like he was leaving with no intention of coming back,” Mills recalled.
Within hours after an Amber Alert was issued, Benbrook police received a call from a Walmart clerk in Bossier City, La., reporting seeing the man and the victim inside the store. In a subsequent call prompted by the Amber Alert, a hotel clerk at Bossier City said they were staying at the hotel and had been seen near the swimming pool.
Acting on the information from Benbrook police, FBI agents descended on the hotel, where they recovered the girl after a struggle with the uncle in which an agent was shot in the leg. The uncle was killed when he turned his gun on himself, Mills said.
“The Amber Alert was what solved the case for us and got the girl back to her parents,” Mills said.