Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on KHOU.com on May 25, 2016.
Achilles Lambert was a budding 11-month-old boy growing up in southwest Harris County when he became the forefront of a nationwide manhunt.
Lambert, with his curly black hair and adorable smile, was abducted by his father in December, who allegedly killed his 27-year-old mother, stuffed her body in a refrigerator inside their home and fled the area. For three weeks, Patrick Lambert was on the run before a maintenance man noticed a putrid smell seeping from the couple’s apartment.
Investigators learned that Patrick hadn’t been seen for weeks, and neither had his son. A statewide Amber Alert was issued to find Achilles.
For 19 years, Amber Alerts have helped locate more than 700 of those children.
The alerts allow law enforcement officials to send mass information on missing children and their abductors directly to people in a specific region or across the state. What started as a system that would broadcast missing children on the radio now reaches people through their TVs, smartphones, the internet and social media—Facebook now notifies users of active Amber Alerts in their area in their news feeds.
Because in terms of missing children, every second counts. And in a world where nearly everyone is connected, those seconds can be saved.
But it’s a system that was founded by heartbreak.
Amber Hagerman was a 9-year-old girl riding her bike in a North Texas neighborhood when tragedy struck in January 1996. A man grabbed Hagerman off her bike in an Arlington grocery store parking lot near her grandmother’s house and threw her in the back of his van. A witness called police and said a black pickup truck driven by a white or Hispanic male had abducted a young girl. At the time, there was no system for law enforcement officials to alert the public that a child was missing in their area.
Hagerman’s body was found four days later in a river with her throat cut.
“Here in the (Dallas/Fort Worth) Metroplex and in Arlington, the community really reacted like a small town,” said Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, who was an Arlington police officer at the time of Hagerman’s disappearance and help found the Amber Alert system. “It hit the town hard weeks and weeks afterward.”
Hagerman’s family has never forgotten their freckled-faced loved one. Hagerman’s smiling pictures continue to hang in her grandmother’s home, where Glenda Whitson still smiles back and talks to her granddaughter. Hagerman’s mother, Donna Norris, knows if there was ever a silver lining in her daughter’s death, it’s that the tragedy has saved hundreds of children’s lives, including the daughter of Norris’ co-worker.
Deborah Stafford’s daughter was abducted by a stranger in 2002, six years after Hagerman’s death. Stafford’s daughter was found a day after she went missing in a store after the owner recognized her from an Amber Alert. The owner grabbed her from the man and she was reunited with her mother.
In each case, both girls were abducted by strangers—a common occurrence before the explosion in technology.
“In a stereotypical abduction—back in 2003, it happened 110 times,” said Robert Lowry, the executive director with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “We’re starting to see that trending downward.”
As technology has evolved and people have become more connected with smartphones and social media, so, too, have way to get alerts to reach the public—such as Facebook, which has 1.4 billion active worldwide users as of March 2015.
“I was really, really excited,” Norris said of the Facebook news. “I’m glad they’re on board with this.”
With all the benefits technology provides, it’s also a double-edge sword.
In an online-fueled world where real identities can be hidden behind an anonymous online persona—in a world where you can be whomever you want to be—leads to the chance of children fallen victim to an anonymous predator.
Those predators use a variety of tactics to befriend young, naïve children—from befriending them on social media pretending to be someone their age, to trying to lure a child to an unpopulated place where the child can easily be abducted.
That’s why parents, now more than ever, need to educate their children on the dangers of those people preying in cyberspace, Lowry said.
“It shouldn’t paralyze us, but it’s something children need to be mindful of,” he said. “Make sure to scan who your kids are talking to. Have talks with your children, let them know that there are people who want to harm them. … Tell them to never go meet someone they don’t know.”
It wasn’t long after the search for Achilles was upgraded to a nationwide manhunt that included help from the FBI after authorities named Patrick a person of interest in the murder of his wife, Anastacia. Police had difficulty tracking down Patrick because they didn’t know what kind of vehicle he was driving and didn’t have a license plate number. Investigators learned from neighbors that he was talking about leaving town two weeks before Anastacia was found.
Through an extensive investigation by the Houston Police Department, the FBI and Mexican authorities, Achilles was found Dec. 12, four days after the Amber Alert was issued, in Querétaro, Mexico, a town about 10 hours south of the border, where he was abandoned by his father.
Patrick was later found in Mexico and extradited back to Houston on Dec. 17, where he was charged with fatally stabbing his estranged wife.
Though each case of a missing child is a horror story, the chance of finding a missing child today is 97 percent, compared to 62 percent in 1990, according to the NCMEC.
In April, the Justice Network, a crime and investigation entertainment network aired on KHOU 11’s digital subchannel 11.3, helped locate Divine Barron, a 17-year-old Houston girl who had been missing for nearly two years.
“Someone watching the Justice Network recognized this child and did the right thing,” said John Walsh, a co-founder of the Justice Network and a national advocate for the protection of children. “The public’s involvement is crucial and really does help save lives. This is one more victory in the fight to bring missing children home.”
Walsh carries his own pain of losing a missing child.
Walsh’s 6-year-old son, Adam, was abducted from a Florida mall near his home in 1981. His body was found two weeks later. Adam’s death led Walsh and his wife Revé into the national spotlight as advocates for missing children. In 1988, Walsh was named the host of ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ a TV show that focused on capturing America’s most wanted criminals and helping find missing people. During its 24 years on air, the show helped capture more than 1,000 criminals and find more than 60 missing people.
“One call, one tip, that’s often all it takes to bring a child safely home,” Walsh said.
And with ever-evolving technology and continued advancements in the Amber Alert system, more missing children, like Achilles, are being found.
“You would never have dreamed this is where it ended up,” Anderson said, citing the early days and struggles of the Amber Alert system.
The search continues for many missing children.
Each one with the same goal.
To bring them home.