When Amber Lundgren was a little girl, her mother would pick her up from school and ask how her day went. “Oh, it was OK,” little Amber would always say, “but I cried for you at nap time.”
The endearing response became and would continue to be a special exchange between the mother and daughter throughout Amber’s short life.
“She was such a wonderful kid,” Amber’s mother, Debi Lundgren, told Dateline. “She was happy-go-lucky and just had this big, caring heart.”
The blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty was born on February 7, 1977 to her young, single mother who devoted her life to her only child. The mother-daughter duo spent a large part of Amber’s life in Florida, where she was doted on by her maternal grandparents and three adoring uncles.
“She was the light of our lives,” Debi said.
When Debi’s brother, Orrin Lundgren, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, Debi and Amber followed, excited to start the next chapter of their lives. Described by her mother as a deep soul, Amber began to express her creative side through her writing, her art and even her looks, which she was constantly changing with different hair colors, tattoos and piercings.
Debi told Dateline she was a little worried people would judge Amber based on appearances, but said her daughter would tell her that if someone judged her based on looks, it’s not someone she would want to be around anyway.
“I always think about that – she was always teaching me something new,” Debi said. “And acceptance was something that was important to her. She accepted everyone for who they were.”
In the summer of 1997, Amber was 20 years old, had a boyfriend, several close friends, and was working as an assistant manager at Pier 1. She was considering going to University of North Carolina Asheville in the near future, but she wasn’t in a rush.
“Amber was never one to run through life, she always took the scenic route,” her mother said with a small laugh. “She preferred to enjoy the journey. And that’s what she did.”
But her journey ended in the early morning hours of June 7, 1997. Just hours earlier, Amber was getting dressed up for a night out with her friends. They were planning to dance the night away at a recently opened venue, Bar Code, which was considered to be one of the nicest and safest clubs in town.
Debi spoke to her daughter just before she went out for the night.
“She called me and told me she was hungry,” Debi told Dateline. “I offered to bring her food, but she was getting ready to go out with her friends. I just remember telling her to be careful. But I always told her that.”
Two weeks before that summer night, Debi remembers waking up screaming from two separate nightmares about Amber that had left her with an uneasy feeling.
As with many nights out with her friends, Amber was the designated driver that evening. If she decided to drink, she promised to call a cab. If the girls became separated, they planned to meet back up at Amber’s apartment. But the night didn’t go as planned.
It was Amber’s good friend, Nadia Pidgeon, who first noticed she was missing the next day. The two friends, who were planning to move into a 2-bedroom apartment later that month, were supposed to meet to sell off some of their things at a garage sale.
“It wasn’t like Amber to be late,” Nadia told Dateline. “And then she just never showed up.”
Nadia said she called Pier 1 to see if her friend had been called into work. But she wasn’t there. She called their friends, Amber’s boyfriend, Paul, Mission Hospital, and Amber’s family. At 5 p.m., Nadia called the police to report her missing.
Amber’s mother wasn’t aware of the news until she got home from her job at Mission Hospital. Her brother urged her to call Nadia right away.
Back at Mission Hospital, detectives were working on identifying a body that had been found in a ditch alongside Azalea Road by someone walking their dog around 8:30 a.m.
After giving police a full description of Amber and filing the missing persons report, Nadia said the detectives showed her photos of a couple of unique tattoos — a band circling an arm, and a sun around a belly button.
“When they showed me the polaroids, I thought they were showing me generic pictures of the tattoos,” Nadia said. “I’m thinking, yes those are her tattoos. But that’s not her.”
It took a few minutes before Nadia could register that they were showing her photos of her missing friend.
“I knew something was wrong all day, but at 19 years old, the realm of possibility of something being wrong was that she got mugged or attacked, but nothing like this,’ Nadia said. “They were showing me a picture of a body. It was her.”
Detective Kevin Taylor, now retired from the Asheville Police Department, continues to work part-time on Amber’s case, something he’s been dedicated to solving since the beginning.
“I was one of the investigators on her case from the beginning,” Det. Taylor told Dateline. “We’ve all since retired, but haven’t given up investigating Amber’s case. We all want justice.”
Detective Taylor told Dateline that their investigation revealed that Amber left Bar Code around 3 a.m. after she got separated from her friends. She is believed to have left alone on foot and witnesses, who did not know Amber, reported seeing her walking either up Broadway or the next street over, Lexington Avenue.
Nadia told Dateline she later found out that Amber had asked the bartender, who was a friend of theirs, if he had seen the girls she was with, but then left when he said he hadn’t seen them.
“We think she went to another bar nearby to look for the other girls,” Nadia said. “I just know that she had the responsibility of getting people home safe so she would not have left without them.”
Nadia told Dateline there are also reports that she got into an unknown vehicle, but added that she would have never gotten in with someone she didn’t know.
“She would’ve never, never, gotten a ride with a stranger,” Nadia said. “She was the most cautious person – she wasn’t a risk taker. She always left her TV on when she was planning on returning late, stuff like that.”
But her friends and family think if she vaguely knew the person, she might have trusted them which, in the end, could have been her downfall.
Within hours of leaving Bar Code, water trickled over Amber’s body in a ditch alongside Azalea Road. She had a single stab wound to her neck, defensive wounds to her hands and arms that were “consistent with a struggle,” and her clothes were strewn on the ground nearby, according to Det. Taylor.
Amber’s body was taken to Mission Hospital where she remained a Jane Doe until later that evening when Nadia was able to positively identify her.
“She was a Jane Doe practically down the hall from where I was working all day,” her mother added. “She was there the whole day and I didn’t know.”
Detective Taylor told Dateline that dozens of people have been questioned over the years. He confirmed there were persons of interest at the time, and persons of interest now, but would not elaborate on details due to the ongoing investigation.
DNA evidence was collected at the scene that Det. Taylor said he hopes can be retested using modern technology. He confirmed to Dateline there have been recent developments in the case, but was not able to comment further on them at the time.
Nearly 24 years have passed and Nadia is still haunted by her friend’s murder. Even though she has long since moved away from Asheville, she stays in touch with Amber’s mother and Det. Taylor keeps her updated on the investigation, which is considered to be active and ongoing.
The detective stressed that “solving this case has always been a goal of the Asheville Police Department.”
“I just want to appeal to the person who did this, or knows something, to come forward,” Nadia told Dateline. “Her life was taken from her. She deserves justice. Do the right thing.”
Nadia told Dateline she often wonders what her friend would be like if she were still alive today.
“Amber had so many goals,” Nadia said. “She wanted to go to college. She wanted to go to Europe. She wanted to teach French and eventually have a family.”
Debi, who still lives in Asheville, told Dateline she knows her daughter had the potential to do many great things in life… but it was taken from her in an instant.
Amber’s grandmother, who is 92 and living in Florida, is still hoping for closure, an ending to her granddaughter’s case.
“They meant the world to each other. It took her heart,” Debi said. “She wants an ending – justice. I would just like to know what happened. I would like to meet them and talk to the person or people who did this. I have so many questions. Are they married? Do they have children? Do they feel remorse? Getting those answers would be justice for me.”
Now retired with a lot of free time on her hands, Debi often comes face to face with the loss of her daughter.
“Every moment she’s on my mind,” Debi said. “Would she be married now? What would her career be? Would I be a grandmother?”
But as Amber would always see the beauty in the smallest things, Debi said she’s inspired to do the same.
“We were fortunate to have her with us even for a short time,” Debi said. “She gave us so much joy. I couldn’t stop what happened, but I can be grateful for what we had. So we honor her by living.”
Debi said her daughter’s life is perfectly summed up by one of her poems, now inscribed on her gravestone.
“A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam
and for a brief moment its glory and beauty
belong to our world
but then it flies on again.
And though we wish it could have stayed
we feel lucky to have seen it
for a little while.”
Sunday, February 7, 2021, would have been Amber’s 44th birthday. To remember her daughter’s soul around this time, Debi told Dateline she sometimes reads one of Amber’s letters or poems.
And it’s the signature marked on each one that’s the most special to her, and brings 20 short years of memories flooding back — X’s for kisses, O’s for hugs, and teardrops… for the tears she used to cry at nap time.