A man who authorities said was working as a confidential informant for Bristol Township Police, and was an early person of interest, was charged Wednesday in a decades-old cold case of a mom found dead in her burning Croydon home in 1991.
Robert Atkins, 56, of Fairless Hills in Bristol Township, was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, seven counts of arson and two counts of robbery in the death of Joy Hibbs. He was arraigned by Judge Frank Peranteau, Sr. in Bristol and ordered to Bucks County Correctional Center without bail.
Hibbs, a 35-years-old mother of two, was found dead inside her Spencer Drive home on April 19, 1991. Her son found the house ablaze when he returned home and ran for help knowing his mother was inside. It would be 31 years until police would be able to tell the family what they believed happened leading up to the fire, and who they say was responsible.
In January, the case was forwarded to the Bucks County Investigating Grand Jury, and after five months the panel indicted Atkins, a former neighbor who authorities said would sell small amounts of pot to Hibbs and her husband.
The affidavit of probable cause alleges Atkins and the Hibbs had argued but he was never charged.
The court document revealed Atkins, at the time of the murder, was working as a confidential informant for Bristol Township police, making drug deals and reporting back to the narcotics units. He would be questioned a few times over the year, but not arrested and charged until this week.
Bucks County Detectives opened an investigation into the murder last November, months after Hibbs' husband, Charlie, now 66, and living in Washington State; his son, David, and a third unidentified person last year offered a combined $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
Atkins, who was 25 in 1991, told Peranteau at his arraignment Wednesday that he is disabled and unemployed, but the indictment said he sells memorabilia on E-Bay. Bucks County prosecutor Jen Schorn noted that Atkins has a previous arrest history, but no convictions.
No one answered the door at the Bristol Township home where Atkins said he lived with his adult son Wednesday afternoon, though a white Chrysler 300C with dark tinted windows was parked in the driveway. A "No Trespassing" sign was planted in the front yard and an American flag beside the front door bore the phrase, "When tyranny becomes law, Rebellion become duty."
The Bucks County District Attorney's Office held a news conference later Wednesday afternoon with DA Matt Weintraub saying it was a "gratifying day" when he could bring closure to the Hibbs family with an arrest. This news organization was unsuccessful Wednesday in reaching members of the Hibbs family for comment.
In a statement, read of behalf of the family by Weintraub, Joy Hibbs was described as a "sweet, charming southern girl" and "a loving and devoted wife and mother."
"For 31 years our family has been haunted by this tragic loss knowing, without a doubt, that Robert Atkins was the perpetrator," the statement read. "Our family has waited 31 years for justice to prevail."
A fire quickly determined to be a cover-up of murder
Initially police believed that Hibbs died in an accidental house fire. She was found in the bedroom of her son David, who at the time was 12. Police found four gas burners on the kitchen stove were turned on and ignited, and a small fire on the stove, according to the 35-page grand jury presentment.
Police would determine Hibbs was dead before the fire was set. An autopsy showed no smoke entered her lungs. Police discovered what was later found to be a computer cord wrapped around Joy's upper torso. An autopsy determined she had been stabbed five times, strangled and badly beaten.
The autopsy also showed what would turn out to be an important detail. Joy Hibbs had smoked marijuana the morning of her death, the indictment said.
Fire investigators quickly concluded the fire was set to destroy evidence of the crime, and authorities said, it was largely successful as much of the forensic evidence police would hope to find was destroyed. The fire marshal found four areas where the fire started and in at least one spot accelerant was likely used authorities said.
Without the forensic evidence, Bristol Township police dug into Hibbs' life, creating a working timeline for the murder and arson.
She left a paper trail showing her moves on the morning of her murder. She cashed her paycheck at a bank, and went grocery shopping, which was her normal Friday routine. She came home around 11 a.m. and a neighbor reported seeing her walking the family's new puppy, "Major."
Two people from the Bensalem Baptist Church where Hibbs attended Easter services dropped by to talk about joining their congregation sometime after 11 a.m. They left before noon, police said. It was shortly after 1 p.m. when son, David, returned home from school to find the house on fire.
Police were able to determine the murder most likely occurred between 11:50 a.m. and 12:50 p.m., according to the indictment.
Hibbs' wallet was later found in the cushions of the living room couch, but it was empty, though she had cashed her check hours earlier. Her purse was found on the kitchen floor with its contents dumped on the floor.
Police interviewed her employer, friends, neighbors and family, but found that everyone who knew her seemed to love the mom who grew up the youngest of nine children in Central Florida. She camped, hiked, fished, grew vegetables and loved making fried okra.
There was no sign of trouble in her marriage. The couple, who were high school sweethearts, celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary less than a week before the murder.
Charlie Hibbs had a solid alibi at the time of the murder. He was on a job site in Philadelphia, something coworkers confirmed.
The only thing out of the ordinary that day was a dark-colored Monte Carlo parked three feet from the curb near the Hibbs' home. A neighbor who noticed the vehicle later reported it to police telling them it was unusual for a car to be parked directly in front of the Hibbs' home, which was at a T-intersection.
At the time, Robert Atkins owned a Chevy Monte Carlo and had access to other vehicles, authorities learned. Back in 1991 the Hibbs' son David also said, "April" had a blue Monte Carlo, the indictment said.
April was the name of Atkins' wife and the mother of his children, according to court documents.
Decades later, April Atkins would be key in the arrest of her then ex-husband, according to court documents.
More on the 1991 murder of Joy Hibbs:Joy Hibbs (Bristol Township 1991)
Croydon cold case gets another look
Robert Atkins was among several suspects considered as an early "person of interest" in the crime. He sold marijuana occasionally to Joy Hibbs, and at the time of the crime the two had argued over the quality of the drug he sold her, and refused to refund the money, the indictment said.
The case made the rounds around Bristol Township police detectives over the years until it was assigned to Bristol Township Detective Michael Slaughter in 2014. He dug into the reports and re-interviewed investigating officers and witnesses from 1991.
Slaughter also determined that Robert Atkins and his then wife, April, were persons of interest, though the couple divorced in 2007, seven years after they separated.
When Slaughter show up for a "surprise" interview with April Atkins in 2014, she told him that Bristol Township police had never interviewed her about her ex-husband, despite his alibi that placed the couple together in the Poconos with their children the weekend of Hibbs' murder.
"This was the first time anyone had spoken to her about Joy Hibbs' murder," the indictment said.
April Atkins told Slaughter that she and her husband and children were in the Poconos the weekend of the murder and when they returned they heard about the murder. The Bristol Township detective interviewed Robert Atkins two days after he spoke with his ex-wife in 2014.
During that interview, Robert Atkins admitted he was a confidential informant for Bristol Township Police Department at the time of the murder and that he had been a methamphetamine user and got the drug for other people, though he didn't consider himself a "dealer," according to the indictment.
He told Slaughter he had "a good relationship" with then Bristol Township Narcotics detectives including Tommy Mills, who would later take over the department as its chief.
He also allegedly admitted to the dispute over poor quality marijuana with Joy Hibbs, but denied threatening her or her family. He just simply couldn't give the Hibbs a refund, he told the detective.
Atkins claimed he had left Bristol Township around noon the day of the murder for a weekend trip to the Poconos with his wife and children. He said he could provide an alibi, too, telling Slaughter "a lady," later described as a co-worker of his wife could confirm his whereabouts in 1991, according to the indictment.
Atkins also said that Bristol Township police checked the hotel where he stayed in the Poconos and that "cleared him further," according to the indictment. The document did not say if Bristol Township police verified Atkins' alibi.
More than a year later, in a December 2015 interview with Slaughter, former chief Tom Mills confirmed that in 1991 Atkins was a confidential informant for the police purchasing methamphetamine and marijuana, the indictment said.
Mills told Slaughter that he interviewed Atkins for the first time two days after the murder in 1991 when he was asked by a lieutenant to deliver a message to Atkins to contact police because his name came up in the investigation. Mills and Detective Al Eastlack — who was Atkins' "handler" — went to Atkins' apartment, but he wouldn't let them inside.
Mills said he noticed a dark-colored 70's vintage Monte Carlo in the apartment complex parking lot.
No arrest was made, and it was not immediately known what happened next in the 1991 investigation.
No arrest came in 2014, either.
In 2016, April Atkins showed up at the Bristol Township police station on a Sunday. She wanted to tell Slaughter, whose business card she saved, what really happened the day Joy Hibbs was murdered, according to court documents.
She said that day her ex-husband showed up at home covered in blood. He confessed he had stabbed someone and set the house on fire. He ordered her to call out of work and pack up their kids. The family fled to the Poconos for two days.
April Atkins, who at the time shared a young child and a baby with her husband, learned about Joy Hibbs' murder only after the family returned, she told police.
April Atkins said she didn't tell police what she knew when Slaughter first interviewed her in 2014 because she feared for her third and youngest child's safety because he lived with Robert Atkins at the time.
But another five years would pass before Bucks County Detectives would speak with Robert Atkins' alleged alibi, a former coworker of April Atkins, who provided Robert Atkins with what authorities now say is a fake alibi.
The woman told investigators last year that police interviewed her in June of 1991, three days after Robert Atkins shared her contact information with them. The woman told police she called the Atkins home between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. on April 19, 1991 and Robert Atkins answered the phone.
April Atkins would later testify before the grand jury that Robert had the woman sign a paper claiming she called the home the day of the murder and Robert was in the house during the call. It was a lie, she told the panel.
Last December, April Atkins, who no longer lives in Pennsylvania, agreed to allow Bucks County Detective David Hanks intercept communication between Robert and her. Robert Atkins was led to believe that police showed up unannounced at April's apartment to interview her and her roommate about the Hibbs murder.
During his appearance before the grand jury, when Robert Atkins was confronted with evidence that his timeline for the day of the murder made no sense and his claims of an alibi failed, he repeatedly asserted his 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, according to the affidavit.
Excerpts of the alleged intercepted conversations were played for the grand jury and included Robert Atkins allegedly making statements telling his ex-wife not to talk to police and plead the 5th Amendment.
In one of the excerpts, he said, "The phone is probably being tapped right now," according to the indictment.
During the Wednesday news conference, Weintraub could not offer an explanation for why it took six years to bring the case to the grand jury after April Atkins came forward in 2016 implicating her ex-husband.
"There is no great reason," he said, before adding that April Atkins allegations alone would not be enough evidence to indict her ex-husband.
Authorities continue to investigate and anyone with information should contact either Det. Hanks at 215-348-6056 or Sgt. Slaughter at 215-785-4040. Tips can also be submitted at bucksda.org
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This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Man charged in 1991 murder of Joy Hibbs found dead in fire at Croydon home