When Rhonda Hinson was invited to attend her company’s Christmas party on Tuesday, December 22, 1981, she wasn’t initially sure she wanted to go. The 19-year-old had only been working at Hickory Steel Company in Hickory, North Carolina for about three months, but she was friendly with one of her co-workers and eventually decided to go to the party with her. She left the party after midnight and started driving to the Valdese, North Carolina home she shared with her parents. She never made it. Her body was found underneath an overpass less than a mile from her home; she had been shot once in the back with a high-powered rifle.
Rhonda had originally planned to spend the night at her co-worker’s home; it’s unclear why she changed her mind and decided to drive back to Valdese. After the party ended, Rhonda went back to her friend’s house briefly so she could pick up her vehicle and call her boyfriend. At 12:20 am, she started making the 25-minute drive home, taking Interstate 40 to Highway 350. She was just minutes away from home when she was shot. The bullet was fired into the trunk of her car and went through the backseat and the driver’s seat before hitting Rhonda in the heart and lungs, kil*ling her instantly. She was found outside of her vehicle; investigators believed her ki*ller dragged her into a ditch on the side of the road.
The Hinson family knew something bad had happened when they heard a knock on the door at 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday. Judy knew right away that her daughter was de*ad, but she didn’t want to believe it, so she tried to lie to the police that they were at the wrong house. The loss was terrible for her and her husband.
Burke County Sheriff’s Department investigators said they weren’t sure if Rhonda was going to be shot or if it was an accident. The police talked to everyone who knew Rhonda, but they couldn’t figure out why she was attacked because her family and friends thought she didn’t have any enemies.
Judy couldn’t figure out why someone would want to hurt her daughter. What a happy person she was. Her smile was how everyone who knew her knew her. She was the kind of friend who never got mad or hurt someone.
Those who knew Rhonda were shocked by how she died. Judy tried to make sense of it. “She didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.” I’m sure she had to die because she was too good for this world.
Rhonda almost didn’t go to the Christmas party because she liked being at home and didn’t like driving late at night. At last, she chose to go to the party because it was her first real job and she didn’t want to upset any of her coworkers. So she wouldn’t have to drive home late at night, she planned to stay the night with an office friend. Judy wasn’t sure what had changed her mind and made her decide to drive home.
An official from the sheriff’s office said Rhonda was driving when she was shot. “We think she might have been shifting gears when she was hit.” Her car was in park. It had gone off the road and stopped. Next to it, she was found lying in a ditch. A driver saw her body and called the police just after midnight.
Rhonda’s family and friends had a bad holiday season. Along with Rhonda’s family and friends, they were at her viewing on Christmas Eve and her funeral on Christmas Day. The teenager’s friends and family were all hoping that the ki*ller would be caught quickly. But a week after the funeral, police still hadn’t found the k*iller.
North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt said on January 8, 1982, that the state would pay $5,000 for information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of Rhonda’s kil*ler. Investigators had gotten a few tips but hadn’t been able to follow them up. They were hoping that the offer would lead them to some new information.
About one month after Rhonda was kil*led, police in Burke County told truck drivers to be careful when they were in the area where the mur*der happened. That week, two truck drivers said that shots were fired through their windshields. Police told all drivers in the area to be careful when going under any overpasses. Forrest Gaines, who ran a trucking company, said that his workers knew what was going on. “They know to be very careful or stop if they see someone on a bridge,”
Police weren’t sure if the two events, which happened about a mile from where Rhonda was shot, had anything to do with her de*ath. The police quickly found out that the trucks had not been shot at; instead, rocks had broken the windows. After the three young men admitted to throwing rocks and bottles at cars going under the Interstate 40 overpass, they were arrested and charged with misdemeanor property damage. The men said they didn’t have any guns and weren’t thought to have anything to do with Rhonda’s de*ath.
Detectives had talked to almost 40 people about Rhonda’s de*ath by the end of January, but they told reporters that they still didn’t have any leads. Burke County Sheriff’s Capt. Joe Puett said, “It was a strange de*ath in that we can’t figure out any motive whatsoever, and that makes an investigation difficult.” If Rhonda’s mur*der had been so random, police knew they wouldn’t have a good chance of finding the k*iller.
Early in February, the reward for information about Rhonda’s case was raised to over $11,000 thanks to donations from people in Burke County and the town of Valdese. It went up to $18,000 by the end of the month. Even though the number of tips increased, detectives didn’t get many and couldn’t find any solid leads.
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation was helpful with the case, and a spokesperson said they were not going to give up. “We’ve ruled out all the obvious possibilities, like boyfriends and so on.” There’s nothing there. That being said, we’re now focusing on a completely different area. We’re not going to write it off yet; it’s just getting started.
When Bobby and Judy thought about the weeks and months before their daughter was k*illed, they remembered how Rhonda had behaved like she was upset. “I could just tell [there was] a difference,” Judy said later. Bobby, who worked at a bakery, would usually leave for work at 2:00 am. She didn’t look as happy. “He would walk by her window while she was awake and looking out it.”
Parents and younger brother and sister of Rhonda had always been very close, but they noticed that she was spending more time alone, as if she were thinking over something. She also started taking showers more often. Her parents were interested in what was going on, but they thought she would tell them when she was ready.
Rhonda told her father a few days before she was ki*lled that she wanted to tell him something but was afraid he would get mad. He was interested, but he knew his daughter had always been very private, so he didn’t ask her too many questions. She never brought it up again, so he didn’t know what was going through her mind.
As the months went by with no progress on the case, Bobby and Judy became more and more bitter and angry about being put in this situation. They admitted that they were too protective of their only remaining child, 13-year-old Robbie, and that their anger at the person who k*illed their daughter was always simmering below the surface. Judy was scared all the time. I have been suffocating Robbie. A part of me thinks that someone shouldn’t be waiting outside to kil*l the rest of the family. But I worry about Robbie. “I’m scared for us.”
The Hinson family was still having a hard time adjusting to their new life six months after the m*urder. Judy finally got the courage to go into Rhonda’s room for the first time since her de*ath. She also called a group for parents of mur*dered children to get help with how to de*al with life without her daughter.
A lot of people in the community were there for the family and wanted to help them get over their grief, but as time went on, most people forgot about Rhonda’s mu*rder. A local newspaper wrote a story about the family and how they were trying to get better. One man wrote to the editor and said that Judy and Bobby were “wallowing in self-pity” and that they should get over it. Some news stories wrote about the case after that.
Eight years after Rhonda was ki*lled, her case was shown on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” to try to find new clues. The case had been closed for years, and detectives still didn’t know if Rhonda had been targeted or if her de*ath was just a terrible accident.
The show “Unsolved Mysteries” became interested in the case because Rhonda seemed to be having a hard time in the weeks before she died. A producer for the TV show named Kathleen Cromley said, “Rhonda was a bit of a mystery.” Some people may not have known about the things going on in her life.
Kathleen told reporters that they would only show cases that they thought could be solved, and they hoped that a viewer would be able to help the police finally close the case. “Someone knows something.” Someone knows what took place with Rhonda Hinson.
It first aired on November 15, 1989. Judy was hopeful that the show would teach her something new. “This is going to be seen all over the country, so we’re hoping that the problem will be solved. It was really hard to do this, but it’s worth it if it can help.”
Ralph Johnson, the sheriff of Burke County, was also hopeful that the case would be solved with the help of people all over the country. Detectives got more than 100 calls about the case in the days after the show. “We’re hoping this program will shake a couple pieces of the puzzle loose.” Several of the callers gave detectives information about new possible suspects that hadn’t been questioned during the first investigation. Detectives followed up on all of them. Sad to say, none of them worked, and the case remained a mystery.
In December 1992, someone called the police and said they saw a dark-colored Pontiac Trans Am and a green Chevrolet Nova at the scene of the mu*rder soon after Rhonda was shot. The Nova was made in the late 1960s, and the Trans Am looked like it was made in the mid-1970s. Detectives wanted to talk to anyone who could help them figure out who was driving the two sports cars, but it wasn’t clear why the witness had waited so long to come forward.
Sheriff Johnson told the press that he thought the witness was telling the truth and was hopeful that this new clue would help them catch the k*iller. “This is just something we came up with this year.” We feel really good about it. But he told people not to jump to conclusions because the drivers of the cars were not being called suspects. “It’s possible that they are suspects, and it’s also possible that they could give us information that could help us find suspects. Right now, we need more information.”
Over the next few years, nothing new happened with the case. In 1996, detectives did something they didn’t usually do: they talked to three psychics to see if they could help them figure out what was going on. When asked about his experience with one of the psychics, Burke County Sheriff’s Lt. Lee Turner said it had been strange. “Seeing him work was really strange.” He began to meditate and almost fall into a trance. Some of the things he did would give you chills down your back.
Lt. Turner said that the psychic had picked up on changes in the area that had happened since the mu*rder, even though the psychic had never been there. “He couldn’t have known that,” I said. The psychic also gave detailed descriptions of two men he said were involved in the mur*der. Detectives found two men who matched these descriptions, but they passed polygraph tests and were not thought to be suspects.
According to reporters, Lt. John Vickers of the Hickory Police Department normally wouldn’t ask psychics to help with criminal cases. But the case of Rhonda’s mur*der had been closed for a long time and they had used up all of their other options. Anything was fair game to solve the case.
Bobby told the press that all he wanted to know was who had taken his daughter. “We could move on with our lives if we knew who ki*lled Rhonda.” The person who did this made me want to k*ill them at one point. I only need to know who they are now. It makes me sick to not know.”
The police said in December 1997 that they had used a new surveying method to figure out where the shooter was standing when he fired the shot that ki*lled Rhonda. It had been thought for years that the shooting might have happened by chance, but now they think the kil*ler was much closer to Rhonda’s car when the gun went off. This made it seem like Rhonda might have been the target.
According to Sheriff Richard Epley, Rhonda’s case got more attention than any other in the county, and they were eager to solve it. It was so close to Christmas that Rhonda’s de*ath must have affected almost everyone in this county at the time. She was a popular young girl. We’d go to the ends of the world to solve the problem.
In 1999, investigators said they had narrowed down a group of hundreds of possible suspects to just a few. However, the case had once again become stuck. It was sent to the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit so that a profile of the suspect could be made. This would help them narrow down the list of possible suspects even more.
The case soon got stuck and went cold again because there wasn’t much physical evidence and there were no solid leads. Almost everyone in Burke County had an idea about how the crime happened, but the k*iller was still out there. Some of Rhonda’s friends thought she knew the person who shot her. The shot probably came from right behind her car, which means the person may have followed her after she left the party. A lot of people thought it was just bad road rage that got out of hand.
Even though Rhonda’s case is still being looked into, Bobby and Judy have been waiting for justice for more than 40 years and don’t think it will ever be solved. Judy said she hopes the killer will tell the truth and do the right thing. “They took Rhonda’s life and they’ve taken 40 years of our life. They owe it to us. They owe it to us to tell us what happened.”
Rhonda Hinson was just 19 years old when she was shot and ki*lled while driving home from a Christmas party in Valdese, North Carolina in December 1981. She was a friendly and athletic teenager who excelled at tennis, running track, and playing basketball. Detectives have been trying to solve Rhonda’s mu*rder for more than 40 years, but with little physical evidence, they have struggled to determine the motive for the crime and name a suspect. Rhonda had been acting strangely in the days leading up to her mur*der, but those closest to her have no idea what was going on in her life that may have upset her. If you have any information about Rhonda’s mur*der, please contact Lt. Rodney Norman at 828–438–5506 or Morgantown/Burke County Crime Stoppers at 828–437–3333. There is a $20,000 reward available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Rhonda’s ki*ller.