The young patrolman with the Anniston Police Department said that afternoon he received a call about a strange woman who had shown up, seemingly out of nowhere, on the back porch of a home on Old Gadsden Highway in Saks.
“It was extremely cold and wet, I remember that,” said Lett, sitting in a chair in the back office of Mike’s Treasure Chest recently on Quintard Avenue, where the retired police officer works part-time. “We were getting ready for a shift change and I got a call about a vicious woman.”
Though her remarks were mostly incoherent, Lett said, the woman told him her car broke down and she was trying to get help. Her hair was matted and she had mud on all of her clothes.
“When I encountered her, I thought, ‘This lady must be intoxicated,’” Lett said.
But she wasn’t drunk. She was suffering from hypothermia, likely due to three days wandering in the elements. Within a few hours, she would die after emergency respondents transported her to Regional Medical Center.
In all likelihood, Lett was the last person to ever talk to Audrey Marie Hilley — the infamous “black widow of Anniston,” who died 25 years ago today in a fashion just as mysterious as she had lived her life.
In 1983, Hilley was sentenced to life in prison for killing her husband, Frank Hilley, with arsenic and attempting to do the same to her daughter, Carol. There was also suspicion that she tried to poison her son, Mike, who fell ill while under her care as well.
In between her initial arrest in 1979 and her capture in Vermont four years later, Hilley changed her identity twice, married, left and returned to a man in New Hampshire, and faked her own death. Her life story has been the subject of two true-crime books, a made-for-television movie starring Judith Light, and countless television programs from Unsolved Mysteries to Dr. G Medical Examiner.
And with all the ink that’s been spilled and film stock used up, the woman at the center of the story is still an enigma, a dark piece of Anniston history that’s really never been explained.
“It’s a claim to fame this town doesn’t need,” said Jerry Chandler, a Jacksonville State University professor who worked as a script consultant for the film Wife, Mother, Murderer, the made-for-TV movie about Hilley’s life. “It’s a lesson on how bizarre human nature can be, and, in the case of Audrey Marie Hilley, it’s pretty damn bizzare.”
The Black Widow of Anniston
The life anecdotes of Gary Carroll probably sound more familiar to rock stars than most police officers. Running from photographers at airports, having his story portrayed by TV stars and giving interviews to local, national and even foreign press has followed him since his investigation of Audrey Marie Hilley led to her arrest in 1983.
“Every time someone calls to ask me about it, I say ‘Surely this will be the last time,’” Carroll said. Now retired, Carroll said he’s getting ready to once again talk about the Hilley case with the Discovery Channel for an upcoming program. By his count, it’s the eighth time he’ll have done a show for the channel.
“It’s been pretty unique for a country boy like me,” he said.
And if anyone knows the story of Hilley, it’s Gary Carroll, who first recalled hearing the woman’s name in 1977, two years after the death of her husband, Frank. Two years later, she’d be charged with murdering him.
And while she never suspected the awful truth, Audrey Marie Hilley’s daughter, Carol, said something about her mother always seemed off.
“We never thought we lived anything but normal growing up,” Carol said about her and her brother Mike’s early childhood. “But who knows what normal is?”
After her father died, Carol said, any sense of normalcy went out the window.
“Just something wasn’t right about her,” Carol said, recalling how her mother would make up extravagant lies for seemingly no reason.
“She lied about everything,” Carol said. “Even about just little stuff that didn’t matter at all.”
From the time she was 17 until her mother’s arrest when she was 19, Carol said Audrey would come and go from their home in Anniston, hardly ever telling anyone where she was going or why. On more than one occasion, Carol said, she answered the phone to hear her mother, trying to disguise her voice, and telling her daughter she was going to kill herself.
When Mike moved out of Anniston and to Florida, Carol said, Audrey came home one day saying she needed to fly to see him because he had been in a traffic accident. Carol didn’t believe a word of it, and later that night, her mother returned to their home in Anniston without saying a word of where she’d been.
“It was so hard to keep track of all her lies,” Carol said. “I didn’t believe anything that came out of her mouth. It was a waste of time to get her to tell the truth.”
Not getting her daughter’s attention, Hilley started to tell the police people were out to get her and reported threatening phone calls. Gary Carroll said police would bug Hilley’s phones and she wouldn’t receive the threatening calls that she claimed took place constantly. Then they’d stop investigating and she’d claim they were happening again.
“She would always tell us she was having crimes committed against her,” Carroll said. “She always had alibis or made-up people threatening her.”
Her claims that someone was after her didn’t interest police, but her habit of writing bad checks did. It was clear to her family and police that Hilley was in debt from trying to live an extravagant lifestyle she couldn’t afford on her modest secretary’s salary.
That’s when she took out life insurance on Carol. And that’s when Carol also started feeling deathly sick.
“I didn’t hear about it because I was in Birmingham,” Carol said, recalling how, in the hospital, friends told her Audrey had been arrested. “I thought, what are you talking about, she’s in jail?”
Tests for arsenic poison in Carol proved positive, and Frank Hilley’s body was soon exhumed and also tested positive for arsenic. It was 1979, and Audrey Marie Hilley was indicted for murdering her husband. In November of that year, Hilley made bond and fled the state of Alabama.
Hilley evaded police for three years. When she was found, the story behind those missing years only enhanced her legacy.
While a fugitive in the early 1980s, law enforcement officials searched the country for “the black widow,” asking everywhere if anyone heard the name Audrey Marie Hilley.
But in Cheshire County, N.H., that name didn’t ring any bells. Friends, co-workers, and even her new husband, John Homan, knew Hilley first as Robbi, and then later as her equally fictitious twin sister, Teri Martin.
When Hilley fled from Alabama, she went to Florida, where she met Homan, a New Hampshire native, at a bar. Hilley claimed her name was Robbi Hannon and that she’d spent most of her life in Texas. Within a few months, Homan and “Robbi Hannon” were married.
When Hilley was finally caught in 1983, Carroll said a change of identity didn’t come as a shock. Calling Hilley “very scheming,” Carroll said that when he was investigating Hilley in Anniston, the woman made up secret admirers to get a rise out of her husband and claimed unknown people called her frequently and threatened her.
Another identity? Carroll said that was par for the course in Hilley’s made-up life.
“Marie wanted to live a fantasy lifestyle,” he said. “She had this thought that one day she would inherit a lot of money.”
The newlyweds moved back to Marlow, N.H., Homan’s hometown. Mrs. Homan, as Hilley was known at the time, got a job as a secretary for the Keene Screw Company in nearby Keene, N.H.
If she stuck with that story, it’s entirely possible no one would have heard from Audrey Marie Hilley ever again.
It didn’t work out that way.
Hilley left Marlow in 1982, telling Homan she needed to visit her twin sister in Texas. She returned a few months later, thinner, with a stylish new blonde haircut, and a different personality — one she said belonged to Teri Martin, Robbi’s sister.
The reasons behind Hilley’s crimes have always been a mystery, but her decision to change identities for a second time is even more puzzling. Carroll said he always believed Hilley was laying the groundwork to run away again and leave behind her New England lifestyle.
“John was a decent guy, but I don’t think he was the kind of guy women wanted to spend all winter with,” Carroll said.
So why did she come back?
“I think she might have just changed her mind,” Carroll said. “I don’t really know. A lot of things are still a mystery to me.”
No matter the reason for the sudden transformation from Robbi Homan to Teri Martin, it proved to be Hilley’s ultimate downfall. John Homan and “Teri Martin” placed a fake obituary in The Keene Sentinel for Robbi Homan that said her body had been donated to science at the Medical Research Institute in Texas.
The only problem was, that facility didn’t exist.
Homan might have been fooled by his new wife’s identity, but her friends and co-workers were a harder sell.
“I remember talking to a bunch of women up there who said, ‘We just didn’t buy that,’” Carroll said about his investigation in Vermont and New Hampshire. “That’s not her sister.”
Soon, the FBI investigated. After being tracked down as the woman going by the name Teri Martin in Brattleboro, Vt., in March 1983, Hilley must have decided the jig was up. She told authorities her true identity and that she was wanted for writing bad checks in Alabama.
Hilley’s name was back in the headlines.
“I remember it was a great story,” said Martin Frank, who in 1983 worked for The Keene Sentinel as a crime reporter. “On the bizarro-meter, that’s a 10. You don’t get many stories like that coming down the pike.”
Frank, who now works as an editor with The Valley News in Lebanon, N.H., said Hilley’s story caused a sensation in Keene and nearby Marlow, a community known for keeping quiet and staying out of other people’s business. After the arrest, that all changed.
“I’ve been involved with stories more compelling and I’ve been involved with stories with more significance,” Frank said. “But I’ve never been involved with a story that bizarre.”
In the years after her arrest and death, many have questioned if Homan truly believed his wife died, and that the woman living with him in Marlow was Robbi’s twin sister. Frank got the chance to interview Homan the day after Hilley’s arrest, and any doubt he had about the man’s story evaporated.
“I remember sitting in a car with him on a very cold morning and how forlorn he looked,” Frank said. “It was clear to me he had been completely deceived by her.”
But as time passed, others weren’t so sure. In an article in The Star shortly after Homan’s death in 1989, Robin DeMonia, who interviewed Homan frequently, said she often questioned his professed innocence about the knowledge of his wife’s mysterious past.
“I never reached a conclusion,” she wrote. “The only thing I knew was that he loved her, whoever he believed her to be.”
Carroll said Homan was suspicious of him and other law enforcement officials, believing for years his wife’s claims that there was a vast conspiracy to frame her for crimes she didn’t commit. But after her death, he said, “common sense prevailed.”
“He never admitted it to me, but I don’t think he wanted to rock the boat,” Carroll said. “I think he thought, ‘I’d do whatever I had to do to keep Marie in my life.’”
Homan’s devotion to his wife led him to relocate to Anniston during her trial, where he lived the rest of his life, even after her death.
And when he left New Hampshire, so did the story of Audrey Marie Hilley from Cheshire County.
“I think if you were to ask most people in Keene today, they wouldn’t know about it,” Frank said. “When she disappeared, it all but disappeared.”
‘A long time ago’
An obituary said Robbi Homan was dead, but Audrey Marie Hilley was very much alive, and her return to Anniston caused a stir.
“You could have sold tickets,” Carroll said, remembering the crowded courtroom during Hilley’s trial. “I’m talking about standing room only. I’ve been in law enforcement 44 years and I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.”
Carroll said he got a taste of what was to come when transporting Hilley from Vermont to Atlanta, when he and FBI agents had to sprint through a sea of photographers at the airport to catch their plane. The sea of media only grew when they touched down in Atlanta.
A jury didn’t take long to convict Hilley of murdering her husband and attempting to poison her daughter. She was sentenced to life and entered Tutwiler State Women’s prison in Wetumpka.
But the bizarre story didn’t end there. It just got even stranger.
In 1987, Hilley was released on a weekend furlough and met with Homan in Anniston. She never ended up going back to prison. Once again she fled, and after looking for her for days, police received a phone call on Feb. 26 from a resident in Saks that a strange woman was in their yard.
Carroll said he was the last person Hilley ever saw. After hearing about the woman who mysteriously appeared in Saks, he went to Regional Medical Center to see if it was Hilley.
“She was muddy and soaking wet,” Carroll said. “I called her name, and she opened her eyes and looked at me, and then rolled her eyes back. As far as I know that was the last time she regained consciousness.”
Like most of her life, 25 years later, her death is still a puzzle. Carroll said Hilley was probably following the train tracks after she left John on her furlough, but has no idea where, if anywhere, Hilley planned to escape to.
But Carroll said for all the strange things Hilley did, the motive for her actions was never a doubt.
“Money,” Carroll said. “That was it.”
For Carol Hilley, the daughter she tried to poison, the answers aren’t as straightforward.
“Money, I guess,” she said from her home near Jacksonville on Friday. “But $25,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of money.”
Just like when she was growing up, after Audrey Marie Hilley’s arrest in 1983, Carol said she never bothered to get the truth out of her mother. During her many visits to see her in prison, Carol said she never learned the real reason her mother tried to kill her, and she never asked.
Instead, she tried to approach the situation with a little sense of humor. When Mother’s Day came up not long after the trial, Carol said she remembered shopping for a card with her brother, when they realized nothing quite summed up their feelings.
“I was looking at all the cards, and they would say things like, ‘To the best mother’ and I thought, ‘Nope, that doesn’t work,’” Carol said with a laugh.
But Carol said she has better things to think about now and can’t imagine why anyone would care all these years later about her mother’s story. After working at the Anniston Army Depot for close to 30 years, she retired in September. Today, she’d much rather talk about her other family members — her brother, his wife, kids and now grandchildren — than about her mother.
“I sometimes think how my mother cheated my father out of his grandchildren,” Carol said. “I guess she cheated herself out of them, too.”
For the most part, though, her life growing up in Anniston the daughter of Audrey Marie Hilley is a faded, distant memory.
“It might as well be California, that’s how far away it seems,” she said. “It’s just something that happened a long time ago.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star