I tend to watch TV as I drift off to sleep and have become a bit of an archive hound. Unsolved Mysteries is a TV show that originally ran from 1987. It has been stopped and then restarted over the years. Recently Netflix have picked up some of the format along with the title and they have produced extended episodes.
The show is a bit like the UK’s Crimewatch but it does esoteric stories and some milder human interest pieces. The bulk of the show’s broadcasts deal with crime. Many of these stories investigate unsolved murders. Currently the back catalogue is on YouTube.
Last night I came across the story of Rhonda Hinson. I looked it up immediately only to find that it is sadly still without conclusion 40 years later.
The Brief Circumstances
On 22nd December 1981 this 19 year old woman attended her employer’s Christmas party in Hickory, North Carolina. This was her first such gathering. She was recently hired after she had graduated high school that year. After the event ended Rhonda made her way with friends to pick up her car. At one of her friend’s houses she called her boyfriend. This was at about midnight.
She got into her beige Datsun and set out to drive home to where she lived with her parents in Valdese. Her route required her to drive on some quiet roads. As she drove up a hill near home she was killed by a single shot from a high powered rifle. The shot went first in to the rear of her car and travelled through to strike her in her heart. I have seen it estimated she would have lived for just 15 seconds or so from the time she was hit.
Her car was found after it is believed it rolled backwards from its direction of travel and came to rest in a ditch. When the vehicle was found the drivers door was open and Ms Hinson was lying on her back with her hands at her sides. The engine was running and there were signs of violence. This comprised of a tear to her pantyhose near one foot and a bruise like mark under her breast. There has been some debate about the bruise. Technically it is a specific type of mark that could have been caused from the fragmentation of the bullet. Other opinions lean toward the mark being from a blow before the shot was fired.
The cops and the forensic examiners combined the findings and believe Ms Hinson was removed from the car by someone and placed where she was found. On the Burke County Sheriff’s website they state that over the years the police enquiries were extensive. As an idea of the scale of this murder hunt several filing cabinets contain the statements and evidence gathered.
Since 8th January 1982 a reward has existed for more information and it is still an active case.
In this case my view comprises of information from Burke County Sheriff’s office and also the Facebook page which exists for Ms Hinson. I have not seen such a detailed and sympathetic account on any law enforcement website. That said when you look at the Facebook page there are very interesting extra details. Ms Hinson must have been well thought of because all these years later people are posting and keeping her memory alive.
In the many entries and comments Ms Hinson’s boyfriend comes up time and time again. He is described as being possessive in the extreme. Greg McDowell was the son of a local pastor. He was at college for most of the time leading up to 22nd December but he was home for the holidays by then. This I assume is the boyfriend who was called by Ms Hinson as she left her friends to drive home that night.
A series of articles is written and posted on the page. The author, Larry J. Griffin, is an investigative journalist for a publication called The Wilkes Record. Wilkes Grove was apparently the home of McDowell. I have left a link below to the many articles this writer has published about the case.
In one of these ( numbered part 69) mention is made of the contents of Ms Hinson’s car when it was found in the ditch. A jacket referred to as her East Burke Letter jacket was there in the car. The problem is that jacket was in the possession of Greg McDowell when Ms Hinson went to work. The clear inference is that people believe McDowell had contact with Ms Hinson after she called him from her friend’s house that night. The jacket and other items were seen as ‘break up’ items returned at some point between Ms Hinson calling him and her being shot dead.
As to how McDowell explained this is known only to him and maybe the police. Sadly I cannot read through the 80 plus parts of Mr Griffin’s account but the details make for compelling reading. I will say that a good amount of it is written as a narrative. Even a a couple of the theories have the intention and thinking of characters described. This can only be based on speculation. It may well be logical and well informed speculation, but in the final analysis it is not evidence.
I did see an interview ( Unsolved Mysteries) with Ms Hinson’s father and he said that his daughter had been concerned about something. Sometimes when she went into town she would ask him to accompany her. Previously she had always been confident alone. On one such trip she said she had something to tell him but then didn’t.
On the Facebook page there are references to a journal Ms Hinson’s mother kept. In that she paints a picture of a ridiculously obsessive McDowell. On one occasion mother and daughter went for a shopping trip. When they returned, McDowell had not only called all day looking for her but her brother reported he was angry at her being out so long.
I would not be me without looking at the only other possible explanation. Was this a case of a random killer or an accidental shooting? A sniper who was stalking that hilly road and Ms Hinson was in the the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it a hunter or prankster who made a fatal error?
There is no evidence to support this. She was well liked and had no apparent enemies. The district was not plagued by such things as far as I can tell. In addition there is the shot itself.
I am no expert, but I have fired more than my share of rifles. The bullet went through the boot (trunk) of the Datsun. It went through the back of the seats etc. If you wanted to hurt a driver that is not a deliberate shot. It could well be the shot was intended to go through the rear window of the car and strike the driver. That makes more sense.
I would argue that a hunting type accident is highly improbable. The shot went from someone in or near the edge of the road. It went up and into the car on the driver’s side of the Datsun. Who hunts in a line up a hard top road? As for a prankster this shot seems clearly aimed at the driver. A random shot could have been delivered at or near the car where it would have had little chance of injuring anyone.
So what about a random killer?
So this was a poorly placed shot at the driver. It was a single shot. The car then stops because it is going up hill and the driver is mortally injured? It rolls backwards into the ditch with the engine still running. That means as it was in a forward gear the driver took it out of gear. A car in a forward gear would stall and probably stay where it had stopped. It’s possible that Ms Hinson did this. After all she had been shot so applying logic to any of her last brief moments would be a bit redundant.
Still dealing with the outside chance that the killer was a sort of ‘Zodiac Killer’ with a rifle what does he then do? He gets Ms Hinson out of the car and she is placed in the ditch unmolested. she is not posed or interfered with.
The way she is found appears to me to fit the actions of someone gripped by a sudden panic. They fire a shot with intent to kill sure, but the realisation that they have hit makes them act as if they want to help their victim. I am not sympathising with the killer. I am just adding this sequence of events to say it is unlikely the shooter was a random thrill seeker.
There is another issue that stands out to me. Ms Hinson had been asked to go shopping in the days before this incident. The boyfriend of one of her friends, called Mark Turner, wanted to get the love of his life the perfect gift. Ms Hinson said that was fine and checked with her friend that such an arrangement would be OK. It was. During the shopping trip Ms Hinson left a sweat jacket in Turner’s car. That too was not in her possession during the day she was killed. She still had to get it back. The problem is it was in her car when she was shot.
Ms Hinson had got a ride with a friend into work on the 22nd December. Her car was only driven by her after she returned home, got ready for the party and then left her home address. No-one from the family recalls either of these jackets being in the car. They should have been obvious as one was on the rear shelf and would have been visible through the back window of the Datsun.
Ms Hinson had met her boyfriend for lunch that day but the family have no recollection of her coming home carrying the jackets. She did not mention them. She probably would have said she had them. She and her mother had had a discussion on the morning of the 22nd about just this issue. Even if she had been given them at the lunch meeting why would she have placed them in her car before she walked in the house?
While Ms Hinson was driving home from the party her friend was being driven home by Turner. As she got to her house she gathered her things. There in the back of his car was the grey sweat jacket that belonged to Ms Hinson. She commented on it and asked if she should take it to return it. Turner allegedly said he would give it to Greg McDowell when he next saw him. This was at 12.35 am on 23rd December. This would have been just half an hour before Ms Hinson was shot according to Mr Griffin’s articles.
You might know how I feel about witness testimony. You might also know that I count myself as about as unreliable as anyone else. It has to be said that much of this evidence was only said 15 years later. There are all sorts of hints at an incomplete investigation in 1981. More praise is given for a detective who took over the case in the mid 90s.
If this is accurate though Turner somehow got the grey sweat jacket via direct or indirect means into Ms Hinson’s car within 30 minutes. How could that be? These days a quick text could have arranged such a thing. There was nothing on earth that could have done that in 1981.
This boyfriend apparently knew Greg McDowell well. They hung out together and there is a suggestion they had met up during the day on 22nd December. When asked how the sweat jacket could have gotten into Ms Hinson’s car this young man said he recalls dropping his girlfriend home. He recalls the jacket being in his car but he claims not to have any recollection of how it ended up in the Datsun. He recalls dropping his girlfriend off and driving on the I40 back toward Hickory but otherwise he can not be sure of anything.
To me the obvious link is the junction with the I40. It was from the turn off from the I40 that the shot was fired. Ms Hinson was driving away from that junction up a hill when killed. Turner dropped his girlfriend off in the same town that Ms Hinson was driving too. It seems very likely Turner drove to the I40 and saw McDowell and Ms Hinson there. If she left her friends in Hickory at about midnight and driven straight home she would have been home in half an hour at most. Of course she didn’t get home. An hour after she left Hickory to drive the 14 or so miles home she was shot as she drove up the hill from the I40 junction.
The episode of Unsolved Mysteries that covers this story is Season 7,E22. There both Mrs Hinson and her husband are interviewed. During the clips Ms Hinson said that her daughter had asked a curious thing not long before she died. She had asked if it was ever OK to go out with a married man. Her mother responded in a very sensible way as you would expect. It does leave the question hanging though. Was there something else going on in this young woman’s life at that time that could turn theories on their head?
Time and tide mean I have to leave it there. Check out the links below for all the sources and I would love to hear what you think happened to this poor young woman. As always I am very sorry for the family’s loss. It is an outrageous fact that whoever took their daughter from them seems to have got away with it…So far.
This last one is from several years ago. In it, interestingly, Ms Hinson’s mother says she believes the murder was intentional. she also mentions that her husband does not. He leans towards this being and accidental and reckless shooting.