08/08/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
California's "Amber Alert" child-abduction warning system has nothing to do with the stoplight color for caution. The messages that flashed on hundreds of freeway signs around the state -- part of the system that was initiated just days before the Lancaster kidnapping -- are named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, who was abducted near her home and murdered in 1996 by a still-unknown assailant.
"Finding Amber's body is a sad moment I'll never forget," says Tarrant County sheriff Dee Anderson, 46, who has since played a key role in getting the system adopted around the country. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a total of 43 state and regional plans are now in operation, and they have aided in the recovery of at least 21 children.
The Amber plan "applies only to a stranger abduction of a person under 17 who is in grave danger" says California Assemblyman George Runner, 50, who battled for two years to see it instituted in his state. "If you dilute it with other cases, it won't work."
But in the Lancaster case, as the whole country now knows, it worked exactly as it was intended. "I'm so happy those two girls are home where they belong," says Amber's mother, Donna Norris, 34. "My daughter is in heaven watching out for those girls." PEOPLE Cover Story:
Braver Then They Knew