Heather Lee Ann Hibbs, 21, stopped by the security office at a Fairfield, California shopping mall January 23, 2002 to ask if she could use the phone.
It was the last time anyone is known to have seen her alive.
Three weeks later, Hibbs’ half-clothed body was found face down, floating in a rural irrigation canal 14 miles from her Vacaville home.
Hibbs had been beaten to death. Her body was naked from the waist down. The Solano County Coroner’s Office determined she died from blunt force injury.
“They didn’t just hit her,” said Hibbs’ mother Wendy Burton, “they continued and continued and continued.”
Burton said her daughter was also the victim of a sexual assault.
Hibbs’ killer has never been identified.
“The case is cold because my daughter was killed in one place, then her body was dragged out to a waterway where it sat for at least two weeks,” said Burton.
Hibbs was reported missing January 29, only after her mother learned she had left St. Anthony Farm, a rehabilitation center outside of Petaluma. Hibbs had been receiving treatment for substance abuse. Burton said toxicology results showed Heather's body was completely free of substances.
“The day Heather arrived there she called me and she said everything’s fine,” Burton said. “I gave her some space and didn’t bother her.”
“Heather was very smart and she had people in her life a phone call away,” her mother said. “It was kind of obvious that she was doing okay because she didn’t call.”
“I said, what do you mean she left? This place is in the middle of nowhere.”
“I was on her emergency contact list and they didn’t call me,” Burton said.
During Burton’s visit to the center an employee revealed she had driven Heather to a bus station in Petaluma.
“So everything we had done up to the point was an utter waste of time. They put us weeks behind the eight ball.”
After weeks of searching and distributing missing person’s fliers, Burton received the news on February 10 that Heather’s body had been found. She said the delay in knowing that her daughter was missing, combined with a lack of investigative resources has left a dry trail to finding her daughter’s killer.
Burton said although DNA was taken from the crime scene, it took nearly seven years to receive test results and that the sample has not yet led to Heather's killer.
Burton expressed frustration with other investigative stones she believes were left unturned, including her request that detectives search the 8-foot-deep canal where Heather’s body was found.
“I know that it was never searched,” she said.
Burton said she and Hibbs’ stepfather were the ones who located the pants Heather was likely wearing before she was assaulted. They made the discovery during their own search of crime scene area.
Multiple calls to the Salano County Sheriff’s Office were not returned by deadline.
Budgetary constraints in Solano County further frustrated the investigation.
“We unfortunately disbanded our cold case unit about a year ago,” said Chief Kurtis Cardwell from the Solano County District Attorney’s Office. Cardwell would not comment on the case, but said he partially oversaw the investigation before it was transferred back to the Sheriff’s Office.
Unless somebody comes forward, Burton said, there is little chance of solving Heather’s murder.
“There are people who know what happened, but they won’t come forward,” she said.
Burton said, as far as she knows, detectives have not verified through phone records who Heather called from Solano Mall.
“As a parent or citizen, you don’t have access to this kind of stuff,” she said.
“I know she was there at the mall and as far as I understand someone picked her up in a small Toyota Tacoma truck,” Burton said.
According to Burton, police did identify several people who they believe could be involved in Heather’s murder; however, the investigation became complicated because all three of the individuals drove a Toyota Tacoma truck.
“All the same color, same style,” Burton said.
Burton said it appeared that her daughter was on her way home, and that her killer was familiar with the area.
“It’s a gravel road. It’s just too remote,” she said. “Someone knew the area.”
Hibbs’ case has been closed twice, most recently in August 2011.
“They handed me an envelope and got in their car and left,” Burton said.
Burton claimed offers to help write grants for case funding have been turned down by Solano County Sheriff’s Office.
“You feel hopeless, like you have utterly failed on the grandest scale,” she said.
“I’ve lost so much and I can’t do anything about it. That’s hard for a parent to accept.”
A $50,000 reward remains in place for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Hibbs’ murder. Information and case tips can be reported to the Solano County Sheriff’s office at 707.784.7050.
A Myspace page containing additional information about Heather is posted at www.myspace.com/justiceforheather.