8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson disappeared when she was riding her bike to mail her aunt a birthday card on September 17, 1984 in Tuscon, Arizona. Through witness testimony and physical evidence, a man was arrested as her abductor.
7 months later, her body was found in the desert 20 miles away from where she went missing. Her abductor and killer was found guilty of first degree murder and was sentenced to death. He has been on death row since 1987.
DISAPPEARANCE AND INVESTIGATION
On Monday, September 17, 1984, 8-year-old Vicki asked her mom if she could ride her bike to a nearby mailbox to send a birthday card to her aunt. Her mother, Debbie Carlson, never let her children go out on their own, always being a proponent of the buddy system. But this time, she let her daughter go alone, not knowing it would be the last time she'd ever see her.
After 20 minutes had passed and Vicki didn't return, Debbie sent her 11-year-old sister Stephanie out to look for her. She found a harrowing sight: her sister's bike lying on the side of the road a few miles away. Debbie put her daughter's bike in the back of her car and called the Pima County Sheriff's Department. A command center was set up within hours.
Not long after she was taken, a tip caller reported seeing a young woman matching Vicki's description in a store, accompanied by an adult woman. A sketch was created of the woman, but the police eventually determined the sighting was unrelated to Vicki's disappearance.
Several witnesses were interviewed, and a coach at the elementary school, Sam Hall, reported seeing a suspicious looking driver parked in his car in an alley by the school. He had been supervising a group of kids when he noticed the suspicious car, and noticed the driver was making weird gestures and struggling with his gearshift. It was so suspicious, in fact, that he memorized the license plate, ran to his car, and wrote it down. Once he heard Vicki went missing, he reported it to the police. (Side note: WAY TO GO COACH HALL! Memorizing and writing down any suspicious information you see is so important. Imagine if he would have just ignored his gut feeling.)
2 other witnesses confirmed the strange car. One driver saw the car back into a telephone pole, while another young girl said a driver made an obscene gesture toward her while he drove by her home.
The police were able to trace the license plate to 28-year-old Frank Jarvis Atwood from Los Angeles. When they ran a background check, they found that he had charges for kidnapping and child molestation. He was out on parole in California.
They went to the address his car was registered to, which was his. parent's home. His father, Frank Jarvis Attwood Sr, was a retired army brigadier general. His wife was "more" protective of their son that Frank. A few hours after the police visited, Atwood called his parents asking for money because his car broke down in Kerrville, Texas. His mother wrote down the address to help him, but his father copied down the information and went to a nearby payphone to report the call to the FBI. Agents from the FBI's Texas Bureau detained Atwood and his friend, James McDonald.
During questioning, he told investigators that he was in Vicki's neighborhood when she went missing, and had been hanging out in a nearby park. In the afternoon, he went to buy drugs and returned to the park 2 hours later, but did not say where he went during those 2 hours. His friend corroborated his story, but he said when he returned after the 2 hours he was gone, he had blood on his hands and clothes. Atwood told James he had gotten into a fight with a drug dealer and stabbed him. James was like, oh, okay, say no more.
They had no physical evidence in the car that could be linked to Vicki, but accident reconstruction experts were able to trace some pink paint on the front of his car to Vicki's bike, and could trace other damage to the car to the pedals of her bike.
ARREST, TRIAL, AND FURTHER UPDATES
10 days after the child disappeared, Atwood was arrested and charged with her kidnapping. The trial was located in Phoenix because of the extreme publicity around the case in Tuscon. Jury selection took nearly 6 weeks. He pleaded not guilty to kidnapping charges on December 3, 1984.
While awaiting trial, on April 12, 1985, a hiker found a small human skull in the desert, about 20 miles away from where Vicki's bike had been found. Animals had scattered the remains, and due to the time that had passed, a cause o death could not be determined, nor could it be determined if she was sexually assaulted. But, they were able to confirm via dental records that the remains belonged to Vicki.
The charges against Atwood were increased to first degree murder. He was sentenced to die on May 8, 1987.
He has now been on death row for 33 years. Since being on death row, he has gotten married, become a Greek Orthodox Christian, got 2 associate degrees, a bachelor's in English and pre-law, and a master's in literature. He has written 6 books and published 5. He has also been working with "people on the outside" to create a website for himself. As of 2012, he was one of the longest serving prisoners on death row.
Since his arrest, he has claimed that police tampered with the evidence found on his car, and that no evidence existed placing Vicki in his car. However, all of his ongoing appeals have been denied. (Let me set the record straight... I FOR SURE think he did it. But it is surprising he was sentenced to death in a case with so little evidence. Some of her bike paint on his bumper and having blood on his clothes doesn't seem like enough to sentence someone to death?)
After Vicki's murder, like many mothers of murdered children, Debbie Carlson became a victims' right activist. She has worked for the passage of Arizona's Victims' Bill of Rights which passed in 1990. She also helped institute Southern Arizona's Amber Alert system in 2000. I am always so very inspired by the parents and loved ones of children who have been killed. To be able to get out of bed and live another day after something like that happened is absolutely more than I can imagine doing... to be able to work to save the lives of other children is amazing. To take something so deeply horrifying and turn it into something better is very inspiring.
Vicki's family and loved ones got closure, but there is so much that is still unfair. They don't know what happened to her. Honestly, I think part of me would be relieved to not know what happened. If you don't know, and know you never can know, it would be easier to hope and pray and tell yourself she wasn't sexually assaulted and she died quickly and painlessly. Still, some people might rather know.
But more than that, her life was stolen from her at the age of 8. She never got to finish school, get married, live her dream. While on death row, her murderer got married, found religion, published books, earned degrees. He is in jail, and he will never hurt anyone again. But it hurts so much to know that he is still getting to experience the amazing things life has to offer while Vicki had her future stolen from her as such a young child.
"I miss her voice," her mother said in 2019. "You know, it's one of the hardest things is remembering the voice." She remembered her daughter as a child with a bright smile, a loving spirit, and a love for sports.
"Would she you know, be a famous athlete, because she was very athletic? You know, but she was also so kind and caring. So you wonder what she had been a doctor, you know? Would she have gone into politics? Which I doubt because I don't know, I just don't see her, I would see her more as a caring person wanting to make a difference in her community." Vicki would be in her 40s today, being the person she was always meant to be, had she not crossed paths with Atwood 36 years ago today.
Her mother is frustrated that it has taken so long to execute her daughter's killer. She says to those who oppose the death penalty for constitutional reasons that nothing is more "cruel" than what happened to her daughter. "Nothing is more cruel than to be out laying in the desert for 6 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days. Nothing's more cruel to only finding a third of your daughter's body."
Her mom said that sometimes she feels her daughter's presence, and feels her communicating with her. "[She tells me] that everything's gonna be okay, I'm here. I love you. I'm with you. I'm never gonna leave you."
Rest in peace, Vicki.