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What started as a documentary about a family living on welfare transformed into a story about the search for a killer.
It was an unexpected turn for WFAA news producer Pam Curry, who found herself in a unique position when documentary participant Amber Hagerman was kidnapped in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 13, 1996.
“I can remember that night. We're outside — of course, back in the day when we had all the satellite trucks; they rolled in from everywhere in the country, and they're on this little residential street in Arlington, Texas. And I looked at the two photographers who shot most of the documentary with me, John Doty and Paul Parisot, and I said, why are we in the middle of this?” she told Oxygen.com while discussing the Peacock documentary “Amber: The Girl Behind the Alert,” in which she appears.
Unlike the other reporters gathered on the street, they had hours of footage of Amber and unprecedented access to the girl’s family.
But Curry had grown close to Amber, her brother Ricky and her mother Donna Williams, making it unthinkable for her to use this tragedy as a way to advance her career. “I had been a part of their life. I'd been at Amber's birthday party, done so many things with her,” Curry said.
“We very quickly had to make a decision with our news director, because we had all this footage that was exclusive to us, which, in the television business, is what everybody wants,” Pam said. “So we had to make a decision: Do we keep that for ourselves, or do we hand it out and hopefully that will result in her being found?”
They ultimately made a video including footage of Amber, sending it to local news stations so that viewers at home could also participate in the search for the 9-year-old.
And the efforts to find Amber didn’t stop there. Williams made numerous television appearances, pleading to the public and the kidnapper for her daughter’s safe return. She even invited the WFAA cameras into her family home, Curry said, giving them rare insight into every parent’s “worst nightmare.”
“She called me first and wanted me in there. You know, it wasn't something I forced myself into," Curry said.
The cameras were still rolling when Williams learned that Amber’s remains had been found in a creek.
"Sitting there with them, watching that and the agonizing minute by minute waiting for somebody to come knock on the door,” Curry remembered. “And then when it finally came, not wanting it to come but you know, really needing for it to come. Then, in that moment how terrible it was to actually know that was her.”
Through covering this vulnerable moment, Curry came to understand just how important it is that journalists approach such stories with sympathy for the victim’s families, saying, “I have both perspectives now.”
A year later, WFAA released the documentary “After Amber,” documenting the murder and Amber’s mother’s efforts to create the Amber Alert system, which alerts people to missing and endangered children.
Though Amber’s murder remains unsolved, Curry has found comfort in the fact that the 9-year-old's memory lives on through this system.
“Now it's so common. But to me, it will always mean something different,” Curry said.
To learn more about the creation of the system, watch “Amber: The Girl Behind The Alert,” streaming Jan. 17 on Peacock.
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