A Christmas Murder Mystery: 14 Facts About the Unsolved Death of Rhonda Hinson

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A Christmas Murder Mystery: 14 Facts About the Unsolved Death of Rhonda Hinson

Driving home from her first Christmas party, a young woman was killed by a bullet that travelled through the trunk and seat of her car, kickstarting a murder mystery that remains unsolved.

In the early hours of 23rd December 1981, in Valdese, California, 19-year-old Rhonda Hinson was driving home from her very first office Christmas party, when she was killed by a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle. Over 40 years later, her murder remains unsolved and an active cold case in the State of California.

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There were changes to Rhonda’s routine.

Shortly after graduating from high school, she took work as an admin assistant at the Hickory Steel Company. Her friends and family began to notice a change in her overall demeanour.

Her parents, Bobby and Judy, started picking up on changes to her routine and became concerned for her wellbeing. Before they could really have a conversation about it, Rhonda was murdered by an unidentified killer.

She attended an office Christmas party the night of the murder.

The party for workers at the Hickory Steel Company took place at the American Legion Hall. It was Rhonda’s first office Christmas party and there was seemingly nothing untoward.

At around midnight, she left the party with two friends and offered to drive them home. After dropping her friends off, she started the ten-mile drive home, but she never made it.

A Christmas Murder Mystery: 14 Facts About the Unsolved Death of Rhonda Hinson
Rhonda Hinson. Public domain.

Her parents used a police scanner to search for her.

Judy Hinson awoke at around 1am with the nagging feeling that something had happened to her daughter. She woke up Bobby and voiced her concerns. In the days before social media, the only source of information were the news channels.

Bobby was in possession of a police scanner and used it to see if anything had happened in the area. When news came through of a car accident not too far from the house, their hearts dropped.

Within minutes, the accident had been reclassified as a murder. They looked out their window and saw flashing lights only half a mile from their home.

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The body was in an unusual position.

Police were made aware of a car accident on Mineral Springs Mountain Road, just a few blocks from where Rhonda Hinson lived with her parents. Police quickly realised it was no accident.

Rhonda was lying on her back in a ditch a few feet from the open driver’s side door. Her arms had been deliberately placed by her side, as if she had been displayed after her death.

Killed by a bullet from a high-powered rifle.

It was quickly concluded she had been shot in the heart by a bullet from a high-powered rifle. The bullet had entered the car through the trunk, then the seat, then hit Rhonda in the back before piercing her heart and lung.

It was a most unusual death. Only a powerful weapon could have caused a bullet to travel through a car, a seat, and then a human body.

At first, it appeared to be a random act of violence, even an accident. But as police spoke to Rhonda’s friends and family, it became clear the attack may have been premeditated.

Unusual conversations with her parents.

In the weeks leading up to the murder, Rhonda asked her father to accompany her on a shopping trip to town. She was normally confident driving alone but she seemed scared. She told him she had bad news and would tell him when the time was right.

A week before the murder, Rhonda asked her mother if it was okay to have a relationship with a married man, to which the answer was a resounding no. Judy believed Rhonda had been asking for a friend but none of her friends had become involved with a married man.

Witnesses saw a blue Chevrolet minutes before the murder.

Rhonda Hinson had not been shot while the car was moving, which meant she had stopped for someone that she knew. She would not have stopped for strangers unless the road was being blocked.

One witness driving home that night saw a blue Chevrolet with two white men inside. It was parked on an off-ramp that Rhonda would have used to drive home. The car was spotted shortly before Rhonda would have made the turning.

Half hour later, another witness claimed to have seen the same blue car with one white man inside. The car was parked less than 200 metres from the scene of the crime.

The same witness passed Rhonda’s car and saw her slumped over the steering wheel. Another white man was standing beside the driver’s door.

A Christmas Murder Mystery: 14 Facts About the Unsolved Death of Rhonda Hinson
Rhonda’s car at the crime scene. Public domain.

The witness underwent hypnosis.

Police were confident the two white men and the blue car were involved in the murder but had minimal evidence to go on. The second witness agreed to hypnosis to see if they could remember any more details.

The witness was able to describe the car in detail, aside from the license plate. The descriptions of the two white men ended up being generic in nature with no defining features.

Fingerprints and DNA were lifted from the scene, but no match has ever been made.

Rhonda Hinson knew something that would cause someone to attack her.

From the conversation with her parents, it became clear she was aware of something dangerous. She could have been having an affair with a married man or knew about an affair at the office.

It was also possible she had gained knowledge of a crime or act of wrongdoing that put her in danger. Her change in demeanour from an outgoing happy young girl to a fearful one, showed something had gone down in the background of her life.

Her on-off boyfriend warned her not to go to the party.

Rhonda had been dating Greg McDowell on and off for many months and claimed he didn’t want her to go to the office Christmas party. He was quickly removed from the suspect list due to alibis and lack of evidence.

After her death, Greg was known to sleep with the lights on as he had become scared of something. Most people believed he had been adversely affected by Rhonda’s death. And yet, there was more to the story.

Greg’s father was a hunter with access to high-powered rifles.

Charles McDowell, Greg’s father, was a hunter who owned numerous rifles capable of firing a bullet through a car into a human body. Suspicions were raised when Charles resigned from his position at the local church three days after Rhonda’s murder.

Greg was known to be clingy and became upset that Rhonda was going to the party. One of her friends later confirmed that Rhonda had phoned Greg from the party to tell him she was headed home.

Over time, Greg and his father cut ties with many of their friends and family, leading to more finger-pointing. However, there was no evidence to prove they had killed Rhonda.

Theory #1: Greg.

Greg knew where Rhonda lived. As he knew she was coming home, he would have been familiar with the road and where to park to sit in wait for her.

It was possible he wanted to argue with her away from her friends and family and stopping her on the road to her home was an ideal location.

Theory #1 suggests that Rhonda was about to drive off when he fired at the car to either stop or scare her, but the bullet travelled through the car and killed her.

Theory #2: Charles.

Charles was married and the only person known to Rhonda who she could have been involved with. The theory stems from the fact that she had asked her mother whether it was okay to have a relationship with a married man.

It was suggested that Rhonda had a consensual or non-consensual encounter with him. It would explain Greg’s anger and urgent need to talk with her.

Perhaps both father and son stopped her on the road that night to argue with her, as they had found out everything that might have been going on. During an argument, Charles could have shot at the car, killing her in the process.

Theory #3: a random shooter.

It is possible, though unlikely, that Rhonda Hinson was killed by a stray bullet from a hunter’s rifle. The bullet could have come from anywhere and travelled through the car into Rhonda.

However, it wouldn’t explain the witness accounts, the fact the car was already stopped, or why the body was removed from the car and placed on the side of the road.

Was Rhonda Hinson killed by a random shooter? Did Greg accidentally kill her in a fit of rage? Was Rhonda privy to some dangerous information that resulted in her death?

For over 40 years, these questions have haunted the Hinson family and cold case investigators the world over. The Valdese Christmas murder mystery remains unsolved to this day.

READ NEXT: 12 Scary Facts About the Deaths of Dutch Hikers Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon in Panama.

Bizarre True Crime Volume 5 Christmas Edition
Read the full story in Bizarre True Crime Volume 5: The Christmas Edition.
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