Updated May 15, 2021 - 8:30 am
A quarter-century ago in Arlington, Texas, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was riding a bicycle near her home when she was abducted and killed.
An arrest has never been made in the case.
But Amber’s legacy lives on across much of North America via the Amber Alert law enforcement notification system. An Amber Alert allows police to push out urgent information about child abductions on highway signs and through cellphone notifications and the media.
“Amber Alerts save lives,” said Margarita Edwards, executive director of the nonprofit Nevada Child Seekers, which regularly assists police in finding missing children in Southern Nevada. “Once activated, everyone with a cellphone, radio, a visible billboard and access to the news can see vital information and help bring a kidnapped child home.”
Yet, when 2-year-old Amari Nicholson vanished from the Emerald Suites apartments on Paradise Road in Las Vegas a little more than a week ago, Las Vegas police didn’t issue an Amber Alert. The reason, according to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, is Amari’s case didn’t meet the requirements necessary under Nevada law. State law requires police to have specific information about an abductor or a vehicle used in the abduction before an alert can be issued. Police didn’t have either.
“It is very restrictive for Amber Alerts,” Lombardo said of the requirements. “They don’t want overuse because people become immune to it, or (they may) not pay attention to it when it is overused.”
Amari disappeared the morning of May 5. Police were called to the Emerald Suites twice that day by Amari’s mother, Tayler Nicholson. Nicholson was in Colorado visiting family when the first call was made. She said her boyfriend, Terrell Rhodes, 27, informed her that a woman showed up that morning at the couple’s apartment and took Amari. The woman, according to Rhodes, claimed Nicholson approved of the child’s transfer, but Nicholson said that wasn’t the case.
When officers responded the first time, they viewed the case as a “potential family abduction” and a “civil matter over a possible child custody dispute,” police said in an arrest report for Rhodes.
Later that day, Nicholson returned to the Emerald Suites and called police again to report her child was kidnapped. A weeklong police investigation followed. Volunteers and paternal family members conducted a frantic search for Amari throughout the central corridor of Las Vegas over the next several days.
The child was already dead. Rhodes, police said, eventually confessed to fatally beating Amari after the toddler urinated in his pants in the early morning May 5. He disposed of the toddler’s body at a nearby apartment complex, police said.
Rhodes, who is charged with murder and is being held in the Clark County Detention Center without bail, is scheduled to appear in court Monday.
‘Letter of the law’
Sgt. Matt Downing of the Metropolitan Police Department’s missing persons detail said police face strict requirements for issuing an Amber Alert. An Amber Alert can only be issued for what the state describes as “the most serious, time-critical child abduction cases.” The state also dictates an Amber Alert is not meant for runaways or parental abductions unless police have evidence that the abduction threatens a life. Police also can’t issue an Amber Alert unless the person reporting the missing child can offer a specific description of an abductor or a vehicle used in the abduction.
Downing said Las Vegas police also rely on Department of Justice guidelines for issuing an Amber Alert, which align with Nevada law.
“We are going to follow the letter of the law the best we can, but I think the requirements are a good balance,” Downing said. “If we are going to issue an alert of that nature, we want to have as much information as possible. But, we want to make sure it is a legitimate alert.”
The goal of the guidelines, Downing said, is to make sure Amber Alerts aren’t so frequent that the public ignores them.
“If everything is an emergency, then nothing is an emergency,” Downing said. “If you overuse something, then people stop paying attention to it and it doesn’t become important to them anymore.”
In Amari’s case, Metro did issue a missing persons alert to the media as part of what police refer to as a critical outreach network. Downing described that network as an alliance that includes Nevada Child Seekers, hotels, hospitals, businesses and the Regional Transportation Commission.
“We send those out a lot,” Downing said.