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Donna Whitson touches a picture of her daughter, Amber Hagerman, who was kidnapped and slain in 1996. Whitson gave approval to Jake Tinsley, 14, to retell Amber’s story in a comic book in hopes of generating new leads in the still-unsolved case.
TODAY books
updated 8/18/2009 1:16:39 PM ET 2009-08-18T17:16:39

Jake Tinsley is a certified graphic novel wunderkind — at the tender age of 14, he already has five published comic books and some 20 strips under his belt. But the young teen is moving from escapist entertainment and putting his ink-drawn superhero the Night Owl smack in the middle of a real-life tragedy.

In September, Jake is set to publish his sixth comic. “Amber Hagerman Deserves Justice — A Night Owl Comic” is rooted squarely in the reality of the 1996 murder of Amber, a 10-year-old Arlington, Texas, girl who was abducted and murdered. Today her name lives on in the nationwide Amber Alert system that tries to locate kidnapped children.

Jake told TODAY’s Natalie Morales he usually goes for more escapist fare in his Night Owl comics, but found the horrific story of Amber Hagerman too compelling to ignore. And more important, it may stir debate and draw new leads in the unsolved murder.

Unsolved mystery
“Amber’s case was a perfect fit for my comic book, because Night Owl’s entire purpose in life is to abolish evil,” Jake told Morales.

Although the high school freshman was just 1 year old at the time of Amber’s abduction and murder, the case was close to his family’s heart. His late grandfather, Jack Tinsley, was the executive editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time of the Amber case, and his father, Ben, was a reporter on the paper covering the story.

Dad Ben’s internal wheels began turning when he learned the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI) at Bauder College in Texas was looking at Amber’s murder case anew.

“He saw an advertisement on Facebook and he told me, ‘I remember the case,’ ” Jake said. “I said, ‘We might want to get the word out about that.’ So we made the comic book.”

Jake Tinsley says that “Amber Hagerman Deserves Justice: A Night Owl Comic” is designed to inform young readers, not scare them.
Indeed, “Amber Hagerman Deserves Justice” might prove to be more than just a good read when it’s distributed next month; it may also spur new leads in what has long been regarded as a dead-end case.

According to the only eyewitness who saw the abductor, Amber was picked up by a man in a black pickup truck in an abandoned Arlington grocery store parking lot, where the child was riding her bicycle. Four days after her abduction, Amber was found lying dead in a creek bed. Despite large reward offers and an extensive manhunt, her killer was never found, and a task force was disbanded a year after it was formed.

Publication with a purpose
Pretty grim stuff for a comic book. But Jake told Morales his intent is not to scare children with his story. “It’s an informational comic book; it’s not just for kids,” he said. “If kids want to learn, they can always pick it up, and it’s got some good tips in it on how to avoid stranger danger.”

Amber’s mother, Donna Whitson, gave her approval for Jake to do the story, and the CCIRI enthusiastically partnered with him. The group’s executive director, Sheryl McCollum, believes Jake’s Night Owl comic can make a real difference.

“A number of people are going to pick that up and go, ‘Oh yeah, what did happen to her?’ ” McCollum told NBC. “We’re going to start this conversation that’s not going on right now. Somebody knows something.”

Jake Tinsley’s father, Ben, was a reporter covering the Amber Hagerman murder-kidnapping.

Jake added, “If we have one shred of evidence that we didn’t have before, I’ll consider my job done.”

Jake is an outgoing, animated boy — he made Morales chuckle with his elaborate use of sound effects to describe his creative process. And speaking like a true kid, he’s said in interviews he hopes his comics “make people laugh until they poop their pants.”

But there’s also an underlying maturity to his work. He told NBC it took him a long time to “get it into my head that people were evil, that there are evil people out there,” and thus, his Night Owl character is heroic in his efforts to protect young children. With his glowing green eyes, ability to fly and shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers, he has plenty of weapons at his disposal to take down the scum of the earth.

Jake said he believes Night Owl’s job is to “rid the world of evil. Utterly and totally.

“If you ask me,” he added, “he’s got his work cut out for him.”

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

Video: Web only: His superhero tackles real mystery


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