Editor’s note: This article was published July 2, 1997 in Mountain Xpress. It is being republished in light of current interest in Amber. See UNCA’s Blue Banner March 3, 2010 coverage, “Thirteen years later, Asheville murder remains unsolved.
She was a muse, a glittering light, many people’s favorite elfin spirit.
When Amber Lundgren was murdered in the early hours of June 7, 1997 it was as if a rainbow had been busted into tiny shards. Though people tend to eulogize the dead—especially the young dead—Amber’s friends and family say she really was an extraordinary soul.
Post-murder media coverage has left some area residents with the residual feeling that she was a party girl who lived for the club scene. The truth is that, yes, she loved dancing, she loved going out, and she loved to plan exactly what she would wear and how she would do her hair.
But remembering Amber as a party girl would be like remembering the refracted light of a prism as one shade of blue.
“She’d find pleasure in the smallest things,” says one of her friends, Amy Stroupe, age 20. “She’d see a butterfly, and it’d make her so happy.”
“I dream of silver snow on a big full moon, allowing the mischief to continue with a grin on his face …,” Amber wrote in her notebook, “the sweet taste of moon juice trickling down the top of my throat. Angel soup is good food. …”
Amber Lundgren was an only child born Feb. 7, 1977, the blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter of a 21-year-old single mother. Her maternal grandparents and three adoring uncles welcomed her into the world.
As far as the Catholic church was concerned, her spiritual life began with her baptism on June 12, 1977. Her body would be laid to rest on June 12, 1997.
Amber grew up in Tampa, Fla., where her mother Debi Lundgren took endless pictures of her playing in her wading pool with oversized sunglasses and big bows in her hair. When Amber was old enough for school, Debi would ask how her day went. Oh, it was Ok, Amber would always say, “but I cried for you at nap time.”
“She was a wonderful kid,” Debi says. “You could take her anywhere. Very pleasant to be around, never difficult.”
Amber played softball, the littlest kid on her team. She did well in school. She loved to clip out magazine pictures of fancy houses and little cottages; she called them her dreams and collected them in her desk. One day her mother mistook the pictures for trash and tossed them out. “I can still hear her,” Debi remembers. “‘My dreams!’
“Basically, Amber and I kind of grew up together,” Debi says. They depended on each other because it was just the two of them. What resulted was a more candid relationship than most mothers and daughters have. “In so many ways, we were just friends,” Debi says. “She would tell me things going on with her life, and I would tell her things about my life.”
Occasionally, her family would offer to help Amber find her father. She always turned them down. “She’s always had good male figures in her life,” Debi says. “She was at peace with all that.”
After her uncle Orrin Lundgren moved up to Asheville, Amber and Debi followed. Amber spent most of her high school years at T.C. Roberson, then she briefly attended Asheville High and graduated there.
As she got older, Amber stopped applying herself academically. She turned her focus to having fun and constantly reinvented her looks. Sometimes her hair was straight and dyed black; sometimes she came off as preppy; sometimes her hair was a ratty, burgundy gothic.
Debi was mortified when Amber started getting tattoos and had her eyebrow pierced. Debi tried to tell her little girl that appearances could make her life more difficult, that people judge each other by their looks. Amber would say that anyone who would look down on her based on her appearance was not someone she wanted to be around.
“She was real good with teaching me things, like to accept people,” Debi says. “She would do her own thing, against my better advice. But in so many ways, that was what I liked about her.
“I can’t say what Amber would have become” if it hadn’t been for the “accident,” as Debi calls it. “I don’t think she would have walked the normal path I would have wanted. [But] I think she really meant well. I think she wanted to do something good. She had a lot of kindness in her.”
All through her teenage years, Amber spent her private time inscribing cards, collecting letters from friends, and recording her feelings in notebooks. After her death, Amber’s family found notes and letters she had never mailed. She signed her most affectionate letters with X’s for kisses, O’s for hugs, and teardrops for the tears she used to cry at nap time.
“The primal sound of the Orient tiptoes around in my head like playful fairies …,” Amber wrote, “leaving moon juice everywhere.”
Over her apartment doorway hung holiday pillows from Christmas. On her windowsill was an Easter display. On her TV stood scarecrows from Halloween.
All around her apartment, Amber had strung little pink Italian lights.
“Everything festive stayed up,” says friend Nadia Pidgeon, age 19. “Everything was fun.”
To Amber, holidays were serious business, extremely good reasons to commemorate the moment. “She loved little celebrations,” Amy says. “She’d always plan like three days ahead the colors she would wear, and how she would do her hair.”
More than a month before this Fourth of July, Amber knew how she wanted to spend the holiday: She and two friends would have gone out, each wearing a wig—one red, one white and one blue.
Amber liked bright colors and anything tastefully wacky. She adored the word “Poot” (the name of a girls clothing line), so she had a Poot T-shirt and Poot bumper stickers. She also loved tattoos: She had an intricate band drawn around one arm and a sun around her navel. She talked about getting a tiny tattoo on the back of her neck: She thought one of those hot pink marshmallow Easter bunnies would be so cute.
Amber drove a 1968 blue Mercedes with matching hubcaps. “It fit her so well,” Amy says. “We wouldn’t look good in it.”
Amber also had a really big thing for fairies. She had a book describing the personalities of various (and sadly misunderstood) fairies, such as the Stinky Armpit Fairy. She loved Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, a journal that attempts to prove fairies really do exist (with pressed fairies captured inside as evidence).
“I guess she was like a little fairy,” Amy says. “She loved the tricks the fairies played. That’s kind of how she was. … She would get these balls and put them up to her eyes and buzz like a bee. She was just a happy spirit.”
At Pier 1, where Amber was an assistant manager, she would hide behind a corner and tickle people with the long decorative grasses that people buy for vases.
“She was like a female Puck,” says friend Shawn Kirschbaum, age 21.
Amber also was perennially perky, someone who loved meeting new people and took time to talk to practically everyone—even people her friends thought were annoying. “She’d be like, ‘Well you know what? They can’t help that,’” Nadia says.
It’s perhaps the child-like sincerity that Amber’s friends will miss the most.
“Our circle of friends is pretty diverse,” Shawn says. “I’d say she was the sweetest of our group.”
“She would go out of her way to help people out,” Amy says. For instance, there was the time Amy was coming home from college and needed to stay at Amber’s apartment. Amber wasn’t exactly a neat freak, but “she cleaned it all up just for me. She said ‘Amy, I made the bed up for you all nice.’
Part of Amber’s appeal was her naiveté, in spite of the fact that she seemed to know the score.
“You can’t be more cautious than she was,” Nadia says. After living on her own for more than two years, Amber was careful to keep her doors locked. She left her TV on when she was planning on returning late. When she was out, she was aware of the people around her.
Still, she wasn’t the type to judge people. She didn’t avoid people because of how they looked or acted.
That may have been Amber’s downfall.
“Like [her grandmother] said, ‘She always had this attitude that she could walk among the snakes and not get bit,’” Debi says.
“Crazy seeing myself talk but I suppose that’s OK there’s too many people who don’t know how to listen and talk to themselves it helps to have an imaginary friend or an imaginary schoolroom where I am the teacher giving out presents for those that are good or spelled all their words correctly,” Amber wrote.
Amber was an unusual mix of innocence and maturity, according to her friends. Many of them worked with her at Pier 1, where they saw her ability to take charge while making the job as pleasant as possible for everyone.
Each time Erin Colley arrived at work and saw Amber’s car parked outside, she felt relieved to know that the day would run smoothly.
Even though Erin was 13 years older than Amber, she never minded having the 20-year-old for a supervisor because Amber handled the responsibility gracefully. Besides, Amber was fun.
“Amber loved chocolate. We used to go on chocolate runs for her,” Erin says. Usually it was chocolate-covered peanuts or turtles from K mart. “She loved to eat, and she never gained an ounce.”
Erin remembers getting frustrated one day because the cash register was getting caught on a notebook beside it. Erin grumbled about it, so Amber simply rearranged the notebook. It was the sort of thing anyone could have done, but it was Amber who did it.
Erin remembers saying, “You may think this is silly, but you would make a good mother.” Amber looked quizzical and asked her why. “Because you fix everything,” Erin told her. “You make it all good.”
Customers liked having Amber wait on them because of her upbeat attitude, her friendliness, the fact that she wouldn’t think twice about making the extra effort to get something out of storage if that’s what they might want.
“She was the type of person people were drawn to,” Erin says. “I don’t think I’ve ever known [anyone] as positive as Amber. It was a very unusual combination. She was like a little Tinkerbell. She had a real child-like innocence about her. I think that’s what made her so special. And yet, she was beyond her years. She was very professional, and very giving, and a very loving person.”
Occasionally gossip-mongers will stop by the store, asking, “Do you have any more leads on the girl who was murdered?” At those moments, Amy says, it’s hard to be polite.
But more often than not, Amber’s old customers seem to be sharing the anguish. Amy remembers one older woman in particular. “She was like, ‘It kills me to come in here.’ Tears were in her eyes. She said, ‘Because of Amber.’ That just tore me up.
“It’s hard for me to keep composed all the time,” Amy says.
“‘If you find your animal it will help you navigate your way through life.’ Quel interessant, n’est pas?” Amber wrote. “Little pieces of pen dropping on my paper, and I’m so drowsy from the journeys back and forth from my two worlds, the mundane and the insane. Is everyone more comfortable than I am, is that why they are all asleep?”
Amber had been looking forward to that night.
She had bought a set of sponge curlers a few days before, and she was thrilled with the peppy curls they made. Nadia teased her and called it “ruffle-butt” hair—comparing the back of Amber’s head to the stiff ruffles on little girls’ pants.
Normally, the only place Amber felt she could go dancing was Scandals, a gay club known for its “straight night” on Thursdays. But then the Bar Code opened in January, and Amber felt like she had found somewhere she really belonged.
“Amber loved that place,” Amy says. “She was like, ‘This is the best place I’ve ever been.’ She was like, ‘I feel alive again. I can dance and have fun.’ She just liked to dance and have a good time.”
“Aesthetically, Bar Code is the nicest club in town. We considered it the safest club in town,” says Shawn, who worked at the Bar Code until the murder. The club kept a battalion of bouncers stationed at the door and inside to make sure no one got unwanted attention, he says. “We had more bouncers than all the other clubs.”
To Amber, a chance to go out meant a chance to dress up. “That Friday night she was laughing on the phone with her mother while I was getting ready,” Amy recalls. “She was doing my hair for me. She painted a fake little mole on my chin.”
June 6 was Disco Night at the Bar Code, and the young women were hoping to win a prize. “We went there and were having a great time,” Amy says.
Amber, Amy and another girlfriend agreed that if they got separated, they would meet back at Amber’s apartment and spend the night there. Amber’s apartment was nearby, on Linden Avenue, just off Merrimon.
The friends say Amber was the designated driver that night. They agreed that if Amber changed her mind during the evening and started drinking, she was supposed to call a cab.
Since the murder, an increasing number of rumors have circulated suggesting that Amber was under the influence that night.
But “she didn’t really drink,” Nadia says. “Normally she was the one to drive because of that.”
Amber was well known downtown, partly because she and her friends spent so much time there. The night before she had been to Be Here Now because she wanted to hear Gran Torino and its jazzy horns.
“We lived downtown, basically,” Nadia says. When the friends would walk down the street, it seemed that everyone greeted Amber. “She didn’t have any enemies,” Amy says.
As far as the Asheville police can tell, Amber left the Bar Code at about 3 a.m. and was seen walking on Lexington Avenue, turning left onto Walnut Street.
In retrospect, her friends suggest that Amber may have been headed for Gatsby’s, where a friend’s brother is a bartender.
It’s hard for Erin to imagine Amber being careless enough to walk downtown by herself at 3 a.m. “She wouldn’t do it. She’s too responsible,” Erin insists.
But Nadia trusts that the witness got the right person. With Amber’s distinctive clothing, her petite but womanly figure, and that ruffle-butt hair, Nadia says, “it’d be pretty hard to get her confused.”
The confusing part is the fact that no one reported hearing Amber scream, despite the large number of people out at 3 a.m. near Gatsby’s. That means Amber may have gotten into a car willingly. “She would not get in a car with someone she didn’t know,” Amy says.
By the time Amy started looking for her, Amber may have already been dead. “I thought maybe she had gone off with [a friend] somewhere,” Amy says. But when Amy got to Amber’s apartment, the doors still were locked. “It was like 4:30, 5 o’clock in the morning, and no one was there.”
Later that day, it was a nervous group of friends who worked together at Pier 1. Nadia stopped by the store looking for Amber, who was supposed to go to a garage sale with her that morning.
It wasn’t like Amber to be late.
The friends called the family. After searching for her until 5 p.m., Nadia called the police.
Detectives already had a body that they hadn’t been able to identify.
To see if it was Amber, police showed Nadia photos of a couple unique tattoos—a band circling an arm, and a sun around a belly button.
The cops haven’t said much about how Amber died. Frankly, her friends don’t want to know.
“I still picture her laughing on the porch, the profile of her face and the laughing,” Amy says. “That’s what I want to keep in my head. Wherever she is now, she’s still laughing.”
“And where is my Spanish castle sitting on top of a mountain with a huge green house in the middle of the forest—with silicone flowers and bugs, a beige pool with butterflies fluttering around and terry-cloth-covered loungers to sleep on?” Amber wrote. “Peek-a-boo. Keep warm. Sand through my toes would feel good today, ‘cause I haven’t had a Florida winter in years. …”
Perhaps the saddest thing about Amber’s murder is the fact that she had so many unfulfilled dreams.
“Amber had so many goals,” Nadia says. “Everything was a work-in-progress.”
She wanted to go to college. She wanted to go to Europe. She wanted a new car and a nicer home. She had a list of books she wanted to be sure to read. Eventually, she wanted children.
“She was never satisfied with what she had,” Nadia says. “She always wanted something greater and something bigger. She knew she could always do more.”
Ironically, Amber was moving toward some of her goals before she died. On June 15, she and Nadia would have moved into a beautiful new two-bedroom apartment. Amber would have had cathedral ceilings, a fireplace and skylights. Debi was relieved that Amber would have a roommate who would help with the financial burdens.
This fall, Amber planned to ease back into academia with a class in photography or art at UNCA.
“She had the potential to do whatever she wanted to,” Debi says. Amber talked about teaching French, but she also talked about nursing and the Peace Corps. She didn’t want to study anything until she was sure that’s what she wanted to do, Debi says, making her tend to procrastinate.
Just a week before the “accident,” Debi and Amber took a walk together and talked about the future. “She was starting to take her life a little more seriously,” Debi says. While they walked, Amber clung to her mother’s arm—which she loved to do, even though Debi felt people would stare. They found a tiny waterfall. Debi remembers telling Amber it was the kind of place her fairies would be.
Of course, it’s impossible to say how Amber’s life would have turned out. However, her family and friends are convinced she would have been successful.
There’s also a strong likelihood that she would have gotten a little fairy tattoo.
“My goal in life is to speak fluent French,” Amber wrote in her notebook. “My head just won’t go to bed. Those goodnight songs just aren’t working. Seventy-eight degrees and ice cream. Yummy.”
Amber wouldn’t have wanted it to be this way.
Amber was always the girl who took care of other people, the one who cheered everyone else.
“There’s a Before This Happened and After This Happened,” Nadia says. “I miss her a whole lot. The person I normally would have talked to about all this isn’t here. This is the person who normally would be taking care of me.”
At first, “I was scared to get up in the morning and take a shower by myself,” Amy says. “I tried going to a party the other night, and I couldn’t stay for three minutes. Just looking at all the different people. I mean, who do you trust now?”
Nadia sees the murder as a political issue. While she, too, is afraid, she says, “I don’t think it has anything to do with crime.” She calls it a fear based on the realization of mortality and “the degree of fear every female feels after dark.”
Amber’s friends are angry that the Bar Code is mentioned as the last place she was seen alive. “It could have been by Ingle’s. It doesn’t mean all Ingle’s are unsafe,” Nadia says. “I think [Amber] would be horribly irritated at the references to the Bar Code, as if that had something to do with it.”
Amber’s survivors now suffer nightmares and unusual dreams that are partly about dealing with their fears, partly about facing their loss.
One night, Erin woke up at 11:04 and pushed herself up from her pillow. “I woke up feeling that someone was in the room with me,” Erin says. She looked around her bedroom and suddenly felt very comforted. “For some reason, I felt like it was OK, that she’s all right.”
It would be just like Amber to return to reassure her friends.
“She would be like ‘Guys, I’m OK. I’m in a better place.’ She’d be worried about us,” Amy says. “She wouldn’t want us to be sad.”
So they try to be upbeat. Which isn’t always easy.
“I want to see it solved. I want closure to this part of it,” Shawn says. “I personally feel confident because it sounds to me like whoever did it wasn’t too bright.” Because Amber knew so many people, he says, someone will surface with the truth.
“People want justice here,” Amy says. “They want it.”
But the friends figure Amber probably already has forgiven her killer and moved on.
The friends and family sent on her way with flowers, trinkets, jewelry and a photo of Uncle Orrin’s cats tucked in her casket.
“I know she believed there was life after death,” Amy says. Amber also talked about reincarnation.
“One of our friends planted some wildflowers in her memory,” Amy says. “I like to think that’s her coming back to life.”