It’s a September day in Arizona, and young Vicki Lynne Hoskinson leaves home alone for the first time. But when she doesn’t return, her sister goes to look for her and finds only Vicki’s bike abandoned by the roadside. Then, seven months later, a hiker stumbles upon something disturbing in the desert.
Vicki was born on February 2, 1976, and lived with her family in Flowing Wells, on the outskirts of Tucson, AZ. Her mother, Debbie, was a food industry worker while her stepfather, George, was employed by a bottling company. Together, they shared a home with George’s daughter, Carie, and Vicki’s older sister, Stephanie. Completing the busy household was Brian, Debbie and George’s young son.
And Debbie was a strict mother. She never let the kids go out alone, in fact. Instead, she used the buddy system to ensure that they were monitored at all times. Then, on September 17, 1984, she decided to break the habit and allow eight-year-old Vicki some independence.
That day, Vicki had been studying at Tucson’s Homer Davis Elementary School. When she returned home, she asked her mother for permission to cycle down to a nearby mailbox. Apparently, Vicki wanted to send her aunt a birthday card. At the time, Flowing Wells was considered to be a safe area and Debbie consequently agreed to her daughter’s request.
Worryingly, though, Vicki did not come back. After more than a quarter of an hour had passed without any sign of the girl, Debbie sent Stephanie, 11, out to find her. But when Stephanie returned, she had some disturbing news. Although she hadn’t found her little sister, she had discovered Vicki’s trusty pink bicycle – abandoned just blocks away from their home.
After this development, Debbie wasted no time in contacting the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Detective Gary Dhaemers was soon on the case, and a command center was established to coordinate the search for the missing girl.
As Vicki’s family used media coverage to beg for help in locating the girl, fliers appealing for information were given out across the local area. Soon, a number of people came forward to report that, on the day of the disappearance, they’d observed a dark vehicle driven by an unidentified man close to Vicki’s school.
Apparently, school sports coach Sam Hall had spotted the unidentified male earlier that day. Hall had reportedly been overseeing some pupils when he grew alarmed by the individual in question, who Hall said was gesturing in a peculiar manner and having difficulty operating his vehicle.
Concerned, Hall recorded the license plate of the man’s car. And when he heard that Vicki had disappeared, he handed the information over to the police. Intriguingly, Hall wasn’t the only one to report spotting a man behaving oddly near the school. Apparently, a young girl had seen a stranger making crude gestures, while another witness had observed a dark-colored car running into a telephone pole.
And there was more. Apparently, other witnesses claimed that they’d spotted the same dark vehicle not long afterwards – this time with a child inside. Investigators subsequently traced the license plate and found it was registered to a man named Frank Jarvis Atwood.
While investigating Atwood, police soon discovered that he had previously faced charges of kidnapping and child molestation. In fact, he had once attacked and abused a young boy on a bicycle – a crime with eerie echoes of Vicki’s disappearance. At the time, Atwood was in California on parole.
Wanting to take a closer look at Atwood, investigators visited the address to which his vehicle was registered. It turned out to be the home of Atwood’s parents, however, and the 28-year-old was not at home. But shortly afterwards, he telephoned his mom and dad asking for money to fix his car – and the couple turned him in.
With his parents’ assistance, the FBI were able to track Atwood to Kerrville, a Texas city more than 800 miles east of Flowing Wells. On September 20, 1984, the young man was detained along with his associate, James MacDonald. Then, the interrogation began. And before long, Atwood admitted that he had indeed been in Arizona when Vicki had disappeared.
According to Atwood, on September 17 he had been living temporarily in a park close to Vicki’s home. Then, at around 3:00 p.m., he had gone to purchase some narcotics. He claimed that he’d arrived back at the park about two hours later. What he wouldn’t tell police, however, was what had happened in between.
According to MacDonald, the pair had argued and Atwood had subsequently left the park. When Atwood returned, his clothes and hands were allegedly stained with blood. When MacDonald questioned Atwood about his appearance, Atwood told his associate that he’d stabbed a drug dealer during a fight.
Soon, investigators came across two more individuals whose stories cast suspicion upon Atwood. Apparently, Atwood had stayed in their trailer for a short period. Significantly, they also reported that he had bloodstains on his hands and clothing, and that he’d claimed to have wounded a drug dealer during a disagreement.
Although this testimony was damning, police still needed physical evidence to link Atwood to Vicki’s disappearance. Eventually, experts were able to determine that paint on the bumper of Atwood’s car was the same color as Vicki’s bike. Additionally, they found that pieces of nickel from the bumper were present on the bicycle.
And experts also spotted a damaged mailbox close to the spot where Vicki’s bike had been found. Apparently, the height of the impact matched that of Atwood’s car. With this evidence in mind, investigators theorized that Atwood had driven at low speed into the girl’s bicycle. Finally, on September 27 he was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping.
However, many questions remained unanswered about what had happened to Vicki that fateful day. Then, on April 12, 1985, a hiker in the desert outside Tucson stumbled upon a small skull. Although investigators were able to determine that it belonged to Vicki, the rest of her remains had been disturbed by animals, which meant that the cause of her death could not be established. Nonetheless, Atwood was found guilty of murder and subsequently sentenced to death.
Currently, Atwood is one of the longest-serving inhabitants of death row in the U.S. But while Debbie has expressed frustration at the delay in his execution, Atwood himself protests his innocence and has launched a number of appeals over the years. The last, in September 2017, was denied like the others.