"In most criminal cases, the criminals return to the scene of the crime because they get off on it. So it wouldn't surprise me that they came back. Because that's what criminals do, they get off on the pain.”
-Lisa Buske, Heidi's sister
It was the 3rd of April 1994. Easter Sunday. Eighteen year old Heidi Allen was working the morning shift as a clerk at D & W convenience store located at the intersection of State Routes 104 and 104B in the Oswego County Town of New Haven, New York, United States. She had been out the night before. On the Saturday night, Heidi went to her parent's house with her boyfriend Brett. She brought some Easter gifts for her family. Her sister Lisa and Lisa's husband Ed were there too. Heidi was in great form that night. She was singing and having fun but didn't stay up too late as her shift the next morning began early.
Heidi worked at D & W convenience for over two and a half years. She was a determined young woman and full of energy. Heidi was so ambitious that she took her last year of high school and her first year of college simultaneously. And she was on track to graduate from Onondaga Community College in May 1994. Heidi wanted a career in education or counseling.
Heidi wasn't supposed to be at work that morning, the morning of the 3rd of April, but she agreed to work the shift so that her coworker could have the day off to spend it with her children. Heidi's shift began at 5.45am that morning. She wore a gray sweatshirt with a plaid SU logo on the front, light blue jeans and white sneakers to work.
At 7.50 am, a customer went into the store but there was nobody there. It appeared that there was nobody working yet the lights and gas pumps were on. So that customer went out on to the road and flagged down a marked Oswego County Sheriff’s Department patrol unit car.
The police went into the store. Nothing seemed out of place. There was money in the cash register and $9.50 left by another customer on the counter for payment for gas and a newspaper. There were no signs that a struggle had taken place or any indication that anyone had been in distress. The police saw Heidi's car parked outside and her purse and car keys were still inside the store. Even though there were no signs of a struggle, police believed that Heidi may have been abducted and a search for her began immediately.
The news featured Heidi's alleged abduction and the police received a call from a man called Richard Thibodeau. He told police that he saw Heidi that morning as he was in the store and he purchased two packets of cigarettes. That purchase was made at 7.42am.
Another man, Christopher Bivens, came forward and told police that he was driving by the store and saw two men leading a young woman to a van. He said that it looked like one of the men had the woman in a bear hug.
Heidi Allen Missing Poster
Richard went back to the store and helped search for Heidi. His brother Gary and his wife Theresa helped search for her too and helped to put up missing posters in the area.
Police suspected that Richard Thibodeau was somehow involved in Heidi's disappearance due to the time he was in the store. It was just a few minutes before Heidi was reported missing. He also drove a van similar to the one that Christopher described. Police searched his van but nothing was found that connected him or the van to Heidi. He provided his fingerprints, blood and hair samples.
Due to the police's surveillance of Richard, they began to look at Richard's brother Gary Thibodeau in relation to Heidi's disappearance also. The eye witness who saw a van at the store that morning specifically said that they saw two men leading a woman out of the store and into the van.
When police spoke to Gary, he told them that he was at home asleep that morning with his girlfriend. She confirmed that he was. Police had no evidence and still had no idea where Heidi was or what happened to her. Gary was sentenced to a term in prison in relation to a minor drug offense. While he was in prison, police were able to build up a case against him. Two inmates claimed that Gary told them that Heidi was killed with a shovel and that her body would never be found.
Gary and Richard were charged with first degree kidnapping. They were ordered to have separate Trials.
At Gary's Trial, it was the Prosecution's case that Gary and Richard abducted Heidi between 7.41 am and 7.45 am on the morning of the 3rd of April 1994 from the D&W convenience store. It was their case that they forced her into Richard's van and drove off.
There was no physical or forensic evidence in the matter. And Heidi had never been found. But the Prosecution believed that they had a compelling case. They called a witness who believed that they saw Gary outside the convenience store that morning and the Jury heard the testimony of two inmates in relation to what they claimed Gary told them about Heidi.
At the Trial, the Jury heard that Heidi was working on her own that morning and in the space of just thirteen minutes, she disappeared without a trace. The last recorded sale in the cash register was at 7.42 am and that was in relation to Richard Thibodeau's purchase. At 7.55am, a police officer called his dispatcher from the store after a customer had flagged him down to notify him that the store was unattended. So sometime between 7.42am and 7.55am, Heidi disappeared.
During that thirteen minute period, a witness said that they saw two men and a woman in the parking lot of the convenience store beside a van. They described the van as being a "whitish blue" van with two black/dark blue doors in the rear and two similarly colored doors on the right side, as well as a six-inch wide stripe across the center of the right rear panel. It was a distinctive van. And that same witness identified the van as the same one that Richard drove.
Another witness testified. They made a purchase in the store at 7.41 am, just one minute before Richard bought the two packets of cigarettes. That witness also testified that there was a van in the parking lot and they believed it was Richard's van. They saw Richard inside the store and testified that they thought there was a second man inside the van. The engine was running. He testified that he saw some of the license plate and the partial number was a match to Richard's van.
A third witness also saw the van and testified about the distinctive features on the van. She said that the van was driving behind her on the morning of the 3rd of April and it was driving erratically.
The Jury also heard that Gary was with Richard that morning, before Heidi went missing, and Richard's van was parked at Gary's house shortly after Heidi went missing.
Gary was found guilty of kidnapping in the first degree in connection with Heidi's disappearance. He was sentenced to life in prison to serve a minimum term of 25 years.
Richard Thibodeau's Trial included the same evidence but had a different Judge and Jury and the outcome in his case was very different. He was acquitted. Richard's acquittal meant that there were question marks over Gary's conviction. It was the Prosecution's case that both men were at the store that morning in Richard's van. So if Gary was convicted, then why was Richard not?
Gary appealed his conviction based on some details that came to light after his Trial.
The Defense discovered that Heidi was a drug informant. And even though she was a confidential drug informant, her identity had been exposed. Before she went missing,Heidi was working with Deputy Chris Van Patten and he accidentally dropped a card and her photo at the convenience store where Heidi worked. Chris had an index card that listed Heidi as an informant and he had clipped a photo of her on to the card. He dropped it when he was using the payphone at the D & W convenience store where she worked. A store employee found it and gave it back to the police.
The Defense also sought a new Trial based on information they received about incriminating statements three men made in relation to Heidi's disappearance. Tonya Priest gave a statement to police in February 2013.
Tonya told the police that a man called James Sheen said that he, Roger Breckenridge and Michael Bohrer kidnapped Heidi because she was about to report drug dealers to police. Tonya said that James claimed that they took Heidi to the trailer home of Roger's girlfriend at the time. His girlfriend was Jennifer Wescott and she lived in a trailer on Rice Road in the town of Mexico, Oswego County.
According to Tonya, James said that they beat Heidi to death in the garage and the three of them dragged her across Rice Road where they dismembered her body and hid the remains under the floorboards of a cabin.
They put Heidi's clothing in a wood stove at the cabin. Tonya recorded a phone call she had after that discussion with Jennifer. During that call, Jennifer told Tonya that James, Roger and Michael brought an abducted woman in a van to her home. Jennifer believed it was Heidi.
On foot of the new details the police had, two cabins were searched. One cabin was almost directly across the street from where Jennifer lived. When police searched the cabin, it appeared that the floor of the cabin had been recently disturbed. Cadaver dogs alerted police to the possible presence of human remains near a "collapsed structure" in the woods. But a forensic examination conducted at the site by the Medical Examiner's Office yielded no evidence of human remains.
At Gary's appeal, all three men denied kidnapping Heidi.
A man called Richard Murtaugh testified at the appeal. His family owned a local scrap processing facility. He testified that while Gary was incarcerated, he and Roger removed an inoperable van from Gary's property and "scrapped" the vehicle.
They claimed they discussed the possibility that the van could have been used by the Thibodeaus to abduct Heidi but Richard testified that he believed the van was not used for an abduction as he had searched it and found nothing.
James testified that he worked as a driver for a business that transported scrapped vehicles to Canada and through his employment, he had several dealings with Richard. Roger told James that a van James had "scrapped" in Canada was connected to Heidi's kidnapping. James testified that he believes he brought Heidi's body into Canada in a load of crushed cars but did not know he was doing it at the time.
None of the three men have ever been charged in connection with Heidi’s disappearance. James is serving life prison terms for two unrelated murders.
After a year of hearings, Gary lost the appeal and he was not granted the right to a new Trial. The Judge believed that the evidence presented wasn't credible enough to grant a new trial.
Many other troubling aspects of this case have emerged.
Another strange aspect to the case was in relation to a gold bracelet with Heidi's name on it. Heidi's cousin, Melissa Searles, said that she gave it to Heidi. According to Melissa, she received a brown envelope in her mailbox in 2004 which contained the bracelet. She did not tell the police about it for a number of years.
One of the inmates who testified at Gary's Trial in relation to what he claimed that Gary told him about Heidi, later said that he only heard that information from another inmate.
Gary died in 2018 in prison. He was 64 years old and had spent the last 23 years of his life in prison. Even when he knew he was dying and did not have long left to live, Gary maintained his innocence. But Oswego County District Attorney Gregory Oakes is convinced they got the right man. He said:
“I truly believe that Gary Thibodeau and somebody else went to the D&W and abducted Heidi. And it’s unclear exactly where they took her and how they disposed of her body.”
That said, there was practically no evidence linking Gary to Heidi's disappearance. The strongest and most compelling part of any criminal case should never be the testimony of inmates. While it is not always possible to have forensic or physical evidence, the circumstantial elements of the case should always reach a high bar.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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