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Slow quest for justice in Ricky Bible case
- Murder case timeline
- Slideshow: Looking back on Wilson case
- Missing person flyer circulated at time of disappearance
- Article: Supreme Court denies stay of Bible's execution
- Article: Then-Sheriff Phipps shared Wilsons' ordeal
- Article: Slain girl's family to gather for graveside prayers during execution
Hours turned into days with no sign of Jennifer.
Days turned into weeks.
When police found her, an entire community's spirits sank. Jennifer was found dead.
Jennifer Wilson was 9 years old on June 6, 1988, the day a local young man named Ricky Bible pulled up to her in a stolen truck, forced her off the bike she was riding down Old Walnut Canyon Road and abducted her. He molested and bludgeoned her likely not long after and stashed her body under a heap of twigs and oak leaves atop Sheep Hill.
Nearly three weeks later, hikers found the clothing so meticulously described in news reports: the white, long-sleeved Punky Brewster pullover shirt with the red trim, the Cheetah-brand high-top sneaker with a child's doodles on the toes. Police followed the grim trail to the body.
Twenty-three years ago, Jennifer's grieving father cradled her in his arms and carried her to a police helicopter.
More than two years later, a Coconino County Superior Court judge sentenced her killer, Richard Lynn Bible, to death after a six-week trial. In 1990, he was confined to 86 square feet in one of Arizona's highest-security prison blocks.
Weeks turned into months turned into years. Years turned into decades. And then, decades turned again into weeks that are turning into days.
Last month, on what would have been Jennifer Wilson's 32nd birthday, the state of Arizona issued a warrant for Bible's execution.
Today (Thursday), Bible will lay dead in the execution chamber at the state prison in Florence, assuming no delay in his punishment.
Death sentences are rare in Coconino County. Bible is one of only two locally condemned out of the 130 inmates currently on the Arizona Department of Corrections' death row (by comparison, 78 originated in Maricopa County). His execution will be Coconino County's first in 11 years.
Today, as on many days, the people at the heart of the quest for justice remember the little girl whose shockingly savage death shook Flagstaff to its core: the lawyer who wept in court pleading for his client to be spared the death penalty; the prosecutor whose victory was both commanding and hollow; the detective who went home every night to wake his peacefully sleeping daughter.
Flagstaff isn't a large city now, and it wasn't in 1988, when Jennifer disappeared during a family vacation from Yuma. The murder was a dubious highlight in the careers of the case's key players, many of whom still live in Flagstaff.
The investigators: an execution they'll attend
“Rich wept loudly... it was a wail from his heart. It was a pain that he felt.” — Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards; Arizona Daily Sun, March 11, 1990
On June 25, 1988, Joe Richards marched up Sheep Hill to join the other investigators who gathered around Jennifer's body. As sheriff, Richards was in every position to delegate. No deputy outranked him. But he was also at the remote crime scene, processing evidence.
Rich was Richard Wilson, Jennifer's father. When he heard that his girl had been found, he also hiked up Sheep Hill. Wilson was hysterical but resolute. Officers kept him at a distance but let him stay through the night while they guarded her body.
It was one image seared into Richards' mind over the 44 years he spent in law enforcement, most of them as sheriff before his 2004 retirement. Another is when he found locks of long auburn hair in the tall grass near Jennifer's body.
His whisper broke and his eyes welled as he curled his fingers with the memory.
“What kind of a monster could do that to a child?”
Jim Driscoll was the lieutenant in charge of the sheriff's search and rescue unit at the time. He worked with the girl's family right after her disappearance to gather items that could teach search dogs her scent. He factually explained his process to the Wilsons.
“That job comes first. You can cry later,” said Driscoll, now the chief deputy at the sheriff's office.
Gerry Blair is an affable, grandfatherly type whose lightness suits him to his current job as the community programming director for the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, organizing neighborhood watch and other citizen volunteer groups. When he recalls the Jennifer Wilson murder, he becomes more solemn.
Blair was a detective sergeant with the Flagstaff Police Department at the time. He said it's hard to compare any murder to another. The circumstances vary.
Murder is, by definition, far from polite. But Jennifer's indignities were “especially cruel,” according to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Blair and his officers found the girl nude, hands bound with her own shoelace, her clothing leading up to her like a trail of crumbs and her panties ensnared in a tree. Hair like the strands Richards found showed it was cut on one end, ripped on the other. Prosecutor Fred Newton suggested to the jury that her killer had intimidated her by pulling it out of her scalp and sawing through it with a knife. An autopsy showed that her face and head had been beaten with enough force to shatter her skull with two wounds that would have been fatal. She also suffered a broken jaw.
That was hard for a young father like Blair to take. When he'd come home from long days well after Jennifer had been moved off the hill, he'd head to his daughter's crib and wake her just to see her alive.
He said again and again that his concern is for victims. Police are trained to respond coolly to crisis.
Blair started working as a local police officer in the 1970s. He's been invited to more than one execution but he's never wanted to attend. He will attend Bible's. So will Richards and Driscoll.
The lawmen said the public sentiment toward Jennifer's kidnapping was strong and unifying. People supported the police, but there was mystery and fear.
Flagstaff seems to have moved on from the trauma, Blair said, but “I wouldn't say maybe 100 percent, though.”
Lee Phillips: Death threats and harassment for Bible's defender
“I regret things worked out the way they did. But there were no surprises, at least today. We saw this coming and we had prepared Rick for this. You always hope. No matter how much you know, you always hope.” — Coconino County Deputy Public Defender Lee Phillips; Arizona Daily Sun, June 13, 1990
The Richard Bible case was Lee Phillips' first murder trial and the only one he's lost. And it was his only child murder case.
The Daily Sun reported that while the prosecution quietly absorbed the death sentence that they had urged of Judge Richard Mangum — in those days, the judge, not the jury, pronounced death sentences — the defense team was crestfallen. Phillips had cried when he asked Mangum to keep Bible off death row.
“There were no winners in that thing,” Phillips said this month. “Everyone, I think in a way, was worse for the effort, no matter which side you were on.”
Phillips said the Bible case made him a pariah. He had tense encounters with the public, which he said was gripped with emotion over the murder. He recalled being approached in a restaurant by people who told him they hoped he had children someday and that something horrendous would happen to his family so he'd understand the Wilsons' pain. He received telephone death threats. A vandal threw a brick through his apartment window. He had a security detail and waited until the Wilsons left the courtroom before he did.
Phillips, who still keeps an office in downtown Flagstaff, went into private practice in 1991 and has maintained a high profile as a defender, although he prefers less intensely personal drug cases. The Bible case and the starkest felonies that immediately followed, also assigned to him, showed him why. He said some people still think of him as Bible's lawyer.
Jennifer's autopsy photos gave him nightmares and he couldn't help but feel sympathy for her survivors, but he said emotion can't interfere with a defender's work. He kept in mind that Bible's family were victims, too.
Although Bible claimed in an unsuccessful appeal that Phillips and his Phoenix-based co-counsel Francis Koopman were ineffective, Phillips said that a committed defender will try to find something positive in his client and forge a trusting bond. That's something he felt he did with Bible.
“I'd like to at least think that, given the circumstance again, I would step up to the plate and do my best to represent someone like Rick,” he said.
Camille Bibles: DNA expertise before O.J.
“After considering all factors and evidence for nearly two years as well as all the case law — the death penalty is warranted.” — Deputy Coconino County Attorney Camille Bibles; pre-sentencing report for Richard Bible, May 1990
Camille Bibles said she still feels a professional and moral obligation to the Wilson/Bible case. A look at Sheep Hill on the horizon takes her back.
She said there's a sense of relief, yet emptiness, when a death sentence is announced.
“Part of it was relief, because that is the sentence that needed to be handed down. The other part,” she said, pausing, “is more difficult to explain.”
Bibles was a young attorney when she moved to Flagstaff in 1987 to work in the civil division of the county attorney's office. She had been interested in environmental law. That's why she earned an undergraduate degree in zoology.
Though she studied animals, universal biological principles — especially of DNA — are what moved her to the then-cutting edge of criminal law and crimes against people.
Bibles was assigned to the Bible case when it became apparent that Jennifer had a rare blood subtype and that DNA evidence would be critical. (Bibles, now a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Flagstaff, noted the “S” in her name and that she researched to ensure she was no relation to the accused.)
The Bible case was years before the ubiquitous O.J. Simpson trial. DNA technology was still emerging in a forensic context. In 1987, DNA “fingerprinting” was first used to convict a murderer in England; later that year it was used as the key evidence against a serial rapist in Florida, the first DNA-based conviction in the United States. In 1988, it convicted its first murderer, a serial rapist and killer sent to death row in Virginia. Bible's case was the first Arizona criminal case that involved the use of DNA evidence. The DNA evidence withstood Bible's appeal.
People desperately wanted to find Jennifer alive. Bibles told of locals who scanned grocery store parking lots, hoping to find the girl wandering the blacktop after being dropped off by her captor.
A few weeks before Bible's scheduled execution, Bibles already had plans to attend; she opened her desk drawer to unfold an official letter, signed personally by the state prisons director, inviting her to witness the event. It will be her third execution. In addition to Bible, she assisted at some point with the cases of the last two men executed from Coconino County, the only two local inmates to be put to death in the last 20 years — John G. Brewer, who strangled his pregnant girlfriend in their east Flagstaff apartment in 1987 and was executed in 1993, and Anthony L. Chaney, who was executed in 2000 for ambushing and shooting a Coconino County sheriff's deputy in 1982. She also prosecuted Todd L. Smith, who has been on death row since 1997 for the robbery-murder of an elderly couple at a Lake Mary-area campsite.
In cases like this, she said prosecutors work hard for justice. And yet ...
“You don't bring Jennifer back. You have saved society from this monster. But you turn and you look at the family,” she said, and know that their loved one will never return.
She thinks not so much about how Jennifer died, but how she would have lived.
“What would she have done with her life?”
Hillary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-928-556-2261.