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Justice delayed, but not denied

Neighbor convicted in 1991 murder of Joy Hibbs


Robert Atkins was convicted Thursday, of first-degree murder and arson for killing Joy Hibbs in April 1991 and then setting her Bristol Township home on fire to cover up the crime. The sentencing hearing began today.

Atkins, 57, of Falls Township, was arrested two years ago, following a “tireless investigation” by Detectives with the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and the Bristol Township Police Department and a recommendation by the County’s Investigating Grand Jury.

“What a powerful moment,” District Attorney Jen Schorn said following the verdict. “This family has suffered for so long and we were able to give them at least this peace. Obviously, their loss is unimaginable, but we are proud that we were able to do this, and I could not have worked with a better team.”

The verdict by Bucks County Common Pleas Judge Wallace H. Bateman Jr. capped an emotional three days of testimony. Thursday morning, in closing arguments, Schorn said, “This family has waited 33 years. Justice has been delayed but it must not be denied.”

In May 2022, Atkins was arrested after an investigation concluded that he murdered Hibbs, a 35-year-old mother of two, on April 19, 1991, at her home at 1200 Spencer Drive in the Croydon section of Bristol Township, and intentionally set the family home on fire to cover up the murder.

Although police had long suspected Atkins, who lived just a few doors down the street from Hibbs, and had interviewed him at least twice, he always maintained his innocence, said authorities.

It was not until his ex-wife, April Atkins, testified before a Bucks County grand jury that the case became much stronger, the District Attorney’s Office said when the arrest was announced.

April Atkins told the grand jury that Robert Atkins came home April 19, 1991 covered in blood and told her to get the couple’s two children because they were going to the Poconos, where they stayed for two days, according to officials.

She also told the grand jury that her husband told her he stabbed someone and lit their house on fire. She said she did not report it to police and denied knowing about the murder because she was afraid of her husband. Matthew Weintraub, who was the district attorney at the time of the arrest, said April Atkins would not face any charges.

During the recent non-jury trial, Hibbs’ husband and two children testified about her life and death.

“She was loved by all, cherished by her family and silly with her son,” Schorn said. “They were joined at the hip, inseparable.”

On the morning of the murder, Hibbs, a medical assistant, was in bed with the family’s new puppy. Before heading to work, her husband scooped up their 12-year-old son, David, and put him on the bed with them, and soon their teenage daughter, Angie, joined them to play with the new four-legged member of the family. “It was a beautifully mundane morning,” Schorn said.

Hours later, David was getting off his school bus after an early dismissal for report card week, when he noticed his mom’s car still parked and smoke coming from the back of the house. Because of the fire and smoke, he could not get past the kitchen and frantically ran to neighbors for help, knowing his mother was home.

When the fire was extinguished, the body of Joy Hibbs was found dead on a bed in David’s bedroom.

For two days, it was believed Joy Hibbs died in an accidental fire, but an autopsy later revealed that she was repeatedly stabbed, had fractured ribs, and was asphyxiated. The autopsy also found there was no smoke in her lungs, which the pathologist said indicated she died prior to the fire.

The Fire Marshal’s investigation determined the fire was intentionally set with four separate points of origin, two in the kitchen, one in David’s bedroom and one in the hallway.

Early in the investigation, detectives developed Atkins as a suspect. He used to live two doors away from the Hibbs and was known to occasionally sell marijuana to Joy Hibbs and her husband.

During the trial, Schorn and Chief Deputy District Attorney Kristin M. McElroy presented testimony from numerous witnesses that pointed the finger at Atkins as the killer. They also presented dozens of pieces of evidence that included surveillance and the interception of communications.

Witnesses testified that Atkins threatened Hibbs in a dispute over the quality of marijuana he sold, and in the weeks leading to the murder, a rock was thrown through their home window, her car tires were slashed, and the back door of the house was kicked in.

Other witnesses included neighbors who testified to seeing a blue Chevrolet Monte Carlo, like the one Atkins was known to drive, parked haphazardly outside the Hibbs’ home around the time of the murder.

Atkins’ ex-wife also testified he came home on the day of the murder covered in blood and soot. He told her to call out of work, losing much-needed income, and then took the family on an impromptu trip to the Poconos, she testified.

The verdict on the 30-plus year cold case, Schorn said, reaffirms that no case is ever too cold to pursue. “If there is a case out there that is unsolved and you think that taking another look – with the benefit of hindsight, the benefit of the passage of time, the benefit of fresh eyes looking over a case (would help) – bring us your cases. We are so privileged to work with great law enforcement in Bucks County.”

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