One of the few remaining photos of Joy Hibbs shows her sitting at a kitchen table, grinning widely as she holds her infant son. Countless other snapshots and family keepsakes have been lost, ravaged by time or destroyed in the Bucks County fire that hid the tracks of the person who killed her 30 years ago.
Charlie Hibbs keeps the photo on the wall of his home in Westport, Wash., a fishing mecca tucked along the state’s coastline. It keeps her memory alive.
At 66, Hibbs grows wistful as he looks back at three decades spent robbed of Joy, his wife and high school sweetheart, a woman he says lived up to her cheerful name.
Now, he’s offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who took her life on the afternoon of April 19, 1991, in Croydon in one of the most confounding cold cases in Bucks County history.
“This is something you can’t put behind you. You just learn to live with it,” Hibbs said. “I’m just reaching out for help. She was a good woman and she never harmed anyone in her life.
“She didn’t deserve what happened and neither did my children.”
Joy Hibbs, 35, spent the last morning of her life like any other. She deposited her paycheck at the bank and picked up staples at a nearby grocery store. She was due at the office of Leon Cattolico, a Bensalem doctor, later that day for her evening shift as a medical assistant.
But between noon and 1 p.m., investigators believe, someone went to the Hibbses’ home on Spencer Drive, strangled her with a power cord from a computer, and stabbed her five times inside a second-floor bedroom.
The killer then set the house on fire, they concluded. . The blaze spread quickly and had reached the kitchen by the time Hibbs’ 12-year-old son, David, came home from school.
Now 42, David Hibbs, still remembers the ink-black smoke pouring out of the windows when he arrived home that day. And then the panic and confusion as neighbors called 911 and first responders arrived. At one point, he said, someone led him into the back of an ambulance for his safety.
Eventually, a paramedic delivered the terrible news. “Your mother is dead,” the medic said flatly, without emotion, as if delivering an update on the fire.
“For me, in that moment, my entire world ended,” David Hibbs said in a recent interview. “And I couldn’t comprehend why the world kept going around me.”
Hibbs’ sister, Angie, 16, arrived soon after, as did their father, who received word of the fire while working at a job site in Northeast Philadelphia for a property management firm.
The house was gutted by the flames. Charlie Hibbs spent the next few months rebuilding his life, literally and figuratively. His bosses at Posell Management pitched in with the materials for the restoration. The labor was therapeutic for Hibbs, he said. It kept his hands occupied and thoughts diverted.
His children, however, wrestled with anxiety and uncertainty. Stares and whispers greeted them in the hallways at school. Fear gnawed at them, especially after the family were told that Joy Hibbs had been killed before the fire was set and that the blaze was meant to destroy the evidence.
“It was frightening to think that somebody who targeted my family and killed my mom could still be out there,” David Hibbs said. “I felt vulnerable, and that didn’t go away after moving to different houses. That moves with you.”
Bristol Township Police Lt. Richard Bilson remembers the phone call from the county coroner on the day after the fire. An autopsy revealed Hibbs’ stab wounds, and the case became a murder investigation.
“That’s one that still bothers me,” said Bilson, long retired and living in Volusia County, Fla. “I worked a lot of homicides over the years, but I never forgot her.”
Bilson canvassed the small, tight-knit neighborhood. Everyone had something nice to say about the charming, gregarious woman who loved the outdoors and enjoyed making recipes from her native Florida for houseguests. No one had any idea who would want to harm her, or why.
Any DNA evidence left behind at the scene had been destroyed by the fire, or the vast streams of water from firefighters’ hoses, Bilson said.
There was one person of interest, a neighbor the family believed may have been involved, but Bilson said that person had an alibi and was nowhere near the home at the time of the murder.
The Hibbs family did their best to move on. Charlie Hibbs sold the house about a year later, and traded Pennsylvania for Washington in 2000, to be closer to his aging mother.
He never remarried but has been in a serious relationship the last five years, he said. In an odd twist of fate, his partner is a widow whose husband was murdered. The shared loss drew them together, he said.
The only difference is that her husband’s killer was caught and convicted, giving her the closure Charlie Hibbs desperately craves.
“She was good enough to forgive this guy,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m capable of that. But the police owe it to Joy and to my family to figure out who it was.”
David Hibbs left Bucks County as soon as he could, attending college first in New York and later Washington, where he eventually settled down not far from his father. Only Angie Hibbs stayed in Bucks County, where she lives a few miles from her childhood home.
From the outside, it appears unchanged from her father’s restoration. But she tends to avoid Spencer Lane as much as she can.
“I’m just tired of not knowing,” she said. “I think of the empty holidays I have suffered, and about how these people, whoever they are, get to have Christmas and Mother’s Day with their kids. And they robbed me of that.”
In 2014, Bristol Township Detective Mike Slaughter launched a new review of the case and contacted the Hibbs family. Despite some new theories, the crime remained unsolved.
Slaughter declined to be interviewed for this story.
That promise of new hope dashed deeply frustrated the Hibbs family, particularly David. He blames the Bristol Township officers who first handled the case for not doing enough, a failure that haunts him.
“It’s not a fear, it’s a frustration that there won’t be justice,” he said. “The police are supposed to protect and serve, and they did neither.”
Bilson, the retired lieutenant, said he did everything he could. And so has Bucks County Detective Martin McDonough, whose office is now overseeing the 30-year-old case file.
Between the original interviews in 1991 and the work by Slaughter in the last seven years, there simply isn’t enough evidence to charge anyone with Hibbs’ murder, according to McDonough.
“I know there’s a number of theories out there, but we can’t just arrest someone on a theory,” he said. “We’re trying to put together a case where we not only arrest someone, but convict them in a crime.”
He said he understands the family’s frustration but stressed that the case remains active and open. (McDonough urged anyone with information to call his office at 215-348-6354.)
Charlie Hibbs, thousands of miles away, is waiting for that moment. He hopes the reward, part of his life savings, will be enough to coax someone to come forward.
“I owe this much to Joy. I should’ve done more, but I didn’t know how at the time,” he said. “I don’t have closure. And I think if I had closure, I’d be able to move on.”
Until then, he said, all he has are his memories.