More than thirty years after Joy Hibbs was found dead inside of her burning suburban-Philadelphia home, the decades-long search for her killer has ended in an arrest.
Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub announced Wednesday the arrest of Robert Francis Atkins, 56, of Fairless Hills for the murder of Hibbs, 35, in 1991. Atkins is charged with first-degree and second-degree murder, arson, robbery and other related offenses.
NBC10's Deanna Durante was there Wednesday as Atkins was taken into custody. She reported Atkins said nothing inside the court room.
The cold case murder made national headlines over the years before the breakthrough announcement from Bucks County officials.
On Friday, April 19, 1991, Hibbs’ 12-year-old son was dismissed early from elementary school and arrived at their home along the 1200 block of Spencer Drive in the Croydon section of Bristol Township around 1:05 p.m. to find the kitchen on fire.
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Hibbs’ son couldn’t get past the kitchen due to the flames and smoke. He then ran to neighbors for help.
After the fire was extinguished, Joy Hibbs was found dead on a bed in her son’s bedroom.
Investigators initially believed Hibbs died in an accidental fire. An autopsy the next day however revealed she had been repeatedly stabbed. Her ribs were also fractured and she was likely asphyxiated. The autopsy also determined there was no smoke in her lungs and she likely died prior to the fire.
The Fire Marshal then determined fires were intentionally set in the kitchen, Hibbs’ son’s bedroom and in the hallway.
Investigators later learned Hibbs had cashed her paycheck hours before her death and her wallet was found stuffed in the living room couch. Her purse was also found with items emptied and strewn out in the kitchen while cash was never located.
Police said Hibbs was likely murdered between 11:50 a.m. and 12:50 p.m. that day. During that one-hour window, witnesses spotted a blue Chevrolet Monte Carlo parked outside Hibbs’ home. At the time, investigators named several suspects, including Atkins who had a blue Chevy Monte Carlo and also at one point lived two doors away from Hibbs.
Police also said Atkins occasionally sold marijuana to Hibbs and her husband.
Atkins remained a person of interest in the murder for the next three decades. During that time, he was interviewed by police at least twice but maintained his innocence.
During one interview, Atkins told investigators that he had been a "Confidential Informant" for the Bristol Township Police Department at the time of the murder, and had a "good relationship" with Bristol Township narcotics detectives, according to the criminal complaint. Former Bristol Township Police Chief Thomas Mills later confirmed that in 1991, Atkins had been working for them as a CI purchasing meth and marijuana.
Atkins also told investigators about a fight he had with Hibbs and her husband over their claims of low-quality marijuana, but denied threatening her or her family.
In January of this year, the case was submitted to the Bucks County Investigating Grand Jury. Atkins’ ex-wife, April Atkins, was one of the people who testified.
April Atkins told the Grand Jury that in the afternoon of April 19 1991, Robert Akins came home, covered in blood. She said her then-husband told her he had stabbed someone and lit their house on fire. He then told her to call out of work and get their children because they were taking a trip to the Poconos, according to the criminal complaint.
April Atkins said she then put his bloody clothes in the wash and showered.
April and Robert Atkins then arrived in the Poconos shortly before 5 p.m. that day and stayed for two more days before returning to their home on Sunday, April 21, 1991, according to records. April Atkins said she then discovered that day that it was Joy Hibbs who had been killed.
April Atkins told investigators she feared for her own safety if she spoke the truth about her then-husband's role in the murder.
Robert Atkins was arraigned Wednesday with his bail denied. He was then remanded to the Bucks County Correctional Facility.
“The immense grief and suffering our family has endured over the last three decades will never disappear,” Hibbs’ family wrote in a statement. “For thirty-one years, our family has been haunted by this tragic loss, knowing, without a doubt, that Robert Atkins was the perpetrator. Our family has waited thirty-one years for justice to prevail.”