Joel Wright Gibbs was stabbed to death on Jan. 25, 1996 after entering his estranged wife’s residence in Hewitt to pick up his son’s lunch. (Courtesy photo)
Ed’s Note: The statements attributed to U.S. District Court documents in this story are filed in W-97-CV-41, styled Carolyn J. Gibbs vs Ashley C. Gibbs and Andrew F. Gibbs vs Great American Insurance Company, a federal lawsuit to compel payment of insurance benefits.
HEWITT (October 25, 2012)—Police investigators think somebody was already inside when Joel Wright Gibbs entered his estranged wife’s residence in Hewitt on January 25, 1996 to pick up his son’s lunch.
Hewitt Police Department investigators told Eugene Gibbs, Joel’s father, they believed the murder was the result of a residential burglary gone bad.
But today, more than 16 years later, Eugene Stover Gibbs, a retired college professor, still wants to know who killed his son, and why.
The confrontation between Gibbs and his attacker left the apartment in shambles and Gibbs lying on the floor in an upstairs hallway with several stab wounds and his throat slashed, dead.
The problem police had then – and they still have today – is they don’t know who the attacker was and virtually all the evidence at the crime scene is gone.
Hewitt police Deputy Chief Tuck Saunders, who was a sergeant back then and was at the bloody crime scene, said he revisits the case even now every couple of months.
“We’re always looking for new leads or new information. This is an open investigation,” Saunders said recently.
But Eugene Gibbs, in a telephone interview from his home in Wisconsin, told News 10 he hasn’t heard from investigators for more than three years.
Joel Gibbs was born in California and came to Waco to attend Baylor University, where he eventually earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
He met the woman he would marry at Baylor, where she, too was in school.
Then Joel Gibbs landed a job at a Waco medical imaging company.
Eventually the marriage hit some rocky spots and the couple separated, and the two planned a divorce, which actually had been filed more than a month before Joel Gibbs was murdered.
But before the divorce could be finalized, Joel Gibbs died in a furious fight that to this day leaves questions about his death.
Gibbs’ estranged wife, Carolyn J. Gibbs, testified in U.S. District Court in Waco, that she had taken her children Ashley and Andrew to a mother’s day out program at Crestview Church of Christ just like she did every Tuesday and Thursday so she could attend classes at Baylor University.
But on this day her son forgot his lunch.
After she dropped off the children, civil court records show, she called her estranged husband’s office and asked an employee there to have Joel Gibbs go to her apartment, get Andrew’s lunch and take it to the church.
A document entitled Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Evidence entered into evidence later in federal court in a lawsuit over insurance benefits showed Joel Gibbs left his office at 9:50 a.m. and went to Carolyn Gibbs’ townhouse at 311-A Romana Circle, in Hewitt, but he didn’t leave alive.
Ellen Watson, who worked at the medical office with Joel Gibbs, said she remembers those events clearly because she had a doctor’s appointment scheduled that day and was concerned that Gibbs might not get back before she had to leave.
She said Gibbs told her he’d only be gone a few minutes and he’d be back in time for her to make her appointment, which was that morning.
When Gibbs failed to return, Watson began to worry and that’s when she said the office sent a driver by the Hewitt address to check on Gibbs and the driver reported he saw Gibbs’ car in the driveway but didn’t see any other cars there.
That’s when office staff notified police.
Carolyn Gibbs, according to court documents and her own testimony in the trial of the insurance lawsuit, left Baylor at about 2 p.m. and went to the church to pick up her children.
When she got there her son reported his father had never showed up with his lunch.
Federal court documents say Carolyn drove to her apartment and there, at about 2:30 p.m., she found Joel Gibbs’ car in the driveway and Hewitt police officers outside.
Carolyn Gibbs warned officers not to enter the backyard because of a dog, but she went in, noticed the house was in shambles and eventually found her estranged husband on the floor of an upstairs hallway, covered in his own blood.
She went downstairs to let police in and, according to her own testimony, said, “He’s here. He’s upstairs and there’s a lot of blood. He needs an ambulance.”
She directed police to the body and took her children outside.
A short time later, she testified, the officer told her he thought Joel Gibbs might have taken his own life and that he had been dead for hours.
Carolyn Gibbs called her father, she testified, and told him Joel had killed himself.
McLennan County Justice of the Peace Cindy Evans ordered Joel Gibbs body taken to Anatomic and Forensic Pathology Consultants, in Fort Worth for autopsy.
By 5 p.m. on the same day Joel Gibbs’ body was discovered, Hewitt police released the bloody, disheveled crime scene to Carolyn Gibbs.
Court documents indicate her father came to Waco that night from Colorado Springs.
The next morning Carolyn Gibbs’ father organized a group of Carolyn’s friends and Sunday school members to remove and replace the bloodstained carpeting and the floorboards and clean and paint the bloody walls.
“They ripped up the carpet and cleaned the bloody walls so Joel’s parents wouldn’t have to see all his blood when they came to the funeral,” said Carolyn Gibbs, who spoke with News 10 by telephone from her home in Colorado Springs.
Another female friend took a bundle of personal love letters she had written to her lover out of the apartment and destroyed them, according to federal court documents.
According to Carolyn Gibbs court testimony, about 30 friends showed up to clean up the crime scene “so that when Joel’s parents got there they wouldn’t have to, you know, deal with all of the blood.”
Under direct examination during the civil trial in federal court, Carolyn Gibbs was asked if Hewitt police knew her friends were sterilizing the crime scene.
Her answer: “They had some kit and they said they were going to check for the evidence of blood, and that we needed to stop painting because the fumes could disrupt (the test), and that we needed to stop cleaning.
“And I just was kind of like, ‘Well, we’ve already cleaned the whole place.’
“I mean, that was that at that time,” she testified.
By the time Hewitt police had called in the Texas Rangers to help with the investigation, the evidence was long gone.
When the report of autopsy came back to Judge Evans, it showed Joel Gibbs had died from “cardiac, pulmonary and vascular stab wounds due to multiple stab wounds of the chest and neck”, and that the manner of death was homicide.
Carolyn Gibbs said she, herself, found the murder weapon in her kitchen, one of her own kitchen knives, wiped clean and in the knife block in her kitchen.
She said she turned the knife over to Hewitt police.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court confirmed that in it’s order published on May 11, 2000.
On January 31, 1996, when Carolyn Gibb s returned for one final cleaning of the house, she found a bit more evidence – some blood-stained carpet that hadn’t been removed earlier, and turned it over to Hewitt police.
Carolyn Gibbs and her children moved in with her friend, Susan Truitt, for about a month, then moved to Colorado Springs to live with her parents.
Federal court records show Carolyn Gibbs’ lover, Bart Bell, moved to Colorado Springs in January 1997 and the couple married in July of that year.
An affidavit admitted into evidence in U.S. District Court shows Bell had been with Carolyn Gibbs the weekend before Joel Gibbs was murdered.
Another document that is part of the court’s file entitled Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, states Carolyn Gibbs refused to submit to a Department of Public Safety polygraph test shortly after Joel Gibbs’ murder.
But later, after she took a privately administered polygraph, which she passed, she agreed to take the DPS exam.
According to records submitted in court, this time, however, she “proved deceptive in her answers” between 56 and 99 percent.
The document entitled Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law Judge Smith says: “It is likely that Plaintiff (Carolyn Gibbs) was involved in the death of Gibbs (her husband), but, in a close case the evidence presented does not prove her involvement by a preponderance of the evidence. While Plaintiff was a suspect in her husband’s death before this trial, she became even more of a suspect afterwards.”
Two primary questions remain in the cold case murder Joel Gibbs.
First, can authorities identify a viable suspect, and second, does enough evidence still exist to convict a suspect, should one be identified?
Carolyn Gibbs says she doesn’t believe her late husband died as a result of a botched burglary, mainly because of what was reported taken from the house.
“They only took a class ring, a camcorder and silver baby’s cup that belonged to my daughter,” Carolyn Gibbs said.
Carolyn Gibbs said that seemed curious because she had jewelry and other things of value lying on top of her dresser in plain sight.
“I don’t think a thief would have left that behind,” she said
“I think whoever got into the house had a key because there was no sign of forced entry,” she said.
“I think they were looking for something that they didn’t find,” she said, because the apartment had been ransacked.
Carolyn Gibbs did say something curious happened in the months after Joel Gibbs was murdered that she told police about.
“I received two threatening letters in the mail that contained pictures of me that belonged to Joel,” she said.
“There were two notes in them; one that said ‘You’ll never escape me’ and another that said ‘I’ll never forget you.’”
Carolyn Gibbs said she turned the letters over to Hewitt police and Hewitt police verified the letters were in their possession.
Carolyn Gibbs said police never asked her about the letters and she hasn’t heard from anyone in law enforcement about the murder in more than 12 years.
She did say, however, she keeps a criminal defense lawyer in Austin on retainer.
News 10 filed Freedom of Information requests with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Hewitt Police Department, both of which were denied citing the fact that the case remains under investigation.
The response from Hewitt, which was written by city attorney Charlie Buenger, states, “The identity of the suspects will be disclosed by responding to the request as submitted.”
Hewitt Deputy Chief Saunders says the case remains open and is still being investigated.
Saunders said there is ample evidence that remains to get a conviction if a suspect is identified.
Although he would not discuss existing evidence in detail, Saunders said given the advances in forensic technology since 1996, there could be information police could obtain if the evidence were re-scrutinized.
“That’s a possibility we’re currently looking into,” Saunders said.
The report of autopsy states there was blood evidence in Joel Gibb’s clothing when it was recovered.
That could, experts say, provide a lead that might be submitted to a national DNA database, from which could come a suspect’s identity.
Court documents indicate the murder weapon was recovered inside the crime scene.
The autopsy also said a hair that was foreign to Gibbs was found on his body, and that, too, could provide a lead.
The Gibbs murder investigation is the second of three such high-profile investigations undertaken by the Hewitt Police Department that resulted in questionable results.
The first, which happened 10 years earlier in 1986, involved the death of two young boys who burned in a storage shed fire.
Prosecutors two years later were able to get a guilty verdict for capital murder against the boys’ stepfather but police didn’t make it easy because they allowed all the evidence in the burned out shed to be destroyed and carried off to a landfill.
Ed Graf, now 60, and his Waco attorney say the evidence that was destroyed could have exonerated Graf and in fact today are trying to get the case brought back to court so Graf can be proved innocent of the crime.
The Hewitt police chief allowed the shed to be bulldozed and removed from the property on the night of the fire to prevent the boys’ mother from having to look at the scene when she got up the next morning.
The third case also resulted in a conviction but investigators agree the initial investigation was questionable.
Former preacher Matt Baker was convicted of killing his wife but only after her family spent tens-of-thousands of dollars paying private investigators to research the case.
Hewitt police declared the death a suicide, took only limited photographs of the murder scene and did not investigate the death as suspicious.
But the justice of the peace who made the initial pronouncement changed his report after exhumation of Kari Baker’s remains and prosecutors were able to build a case against Matt Baker and get him found guilty of his wife’s murder.
(Matt Howerton contributed to this story)