The Great Escape Artist

Pity the poor Black Widow spider. Sure, their bite is agonizing and potentially fatal to humans, but the female of the several species of Black Widows has an unfair reputation for eating her mate after copulation. In fact, according to arachnid experts, more times than not the male manages to escape unharmed after a tryst.
 
There are many other species of bugs — more than 80, it appears — that enjoy their mates as a post-coital snack, according to National Geographic magazine, but by nature of her name, the female Black Widow is the best known.
 
Because of the spider’s reputation, many human females who kill a mate are referred to as black widows (Even The Malefactor’s Register is guilty of this). Perhaps this is because dubbing a murderous woman “The Praying Mantis” just doesn’t carry the same punch.
 
Audrey Marie Hilley killed her husband, Frank, in 1975, and attempted to kill her daughter, Carol, three years later, and earned the nickname Black Widow from the press and her prosecutors. She was a cold-blooded killer, but murdering a single husband certainly doesn’t put her in the same league as fellow poisoner Nannie Doss, who truly earned the title Black Widow because she killed four of her five husbands over a 30-year span.
 
Despite her choice of victims, which very likely included her mother and mother-in-law, Hilley’s murderous career is fairly ordinary. What makes her case interesting is how she managed to elude arrest for three years while on the run as a fugitive, and then, while serving a 20-year-to-life sentence, managed to obtain a prison furlough, disappear into the backwoods of Alabama, and reappear only to die on the back porch a a house in her hometown of Anniston.
 
Equally perplexing is the question that will forever remain unanswered — what made Audrey Hilley kill?
 
Her story begins in May 1975 when Frank Hilley visited his doctor complaining of nausea and tenderness in his abdomen. His doctor diagnosed a viral stomach ache. The condition persisted and Frank was admitted to a hospital for tests that indicated liver malfunction. Physicians then diagnosed infectious hepatitis.
 
Frank died early in the morning of May 25, 1975 and because of the suddenness of his death, an autopsy was performed with the acquiescence of Audrey. The post-mortem revealed hepatitis, swelling of the kidneys and lungs, bilateral pneumonia, and inflammation of the stomach. Because the symptoms closely resembled those of hepatitis, no tests for poison were conducted. The cause of death was listed as infectious hepatitis.
 
Frank maintained a moderate life insurance policy that Audrey redeemed for $31,140 (about $110,000 in current dollars). Slightly over three years later, Audrey took out a $25,000 life insurance policy on her daughter, Carol. A $25,000 accidental death rider took effect in August 1978.
 
Within a few months, Carol began to experience trouble with nausea and was admitted to the emergency room several times. A year after insuring her daughter, Audrey gave Carol an injection that she said would alleviate the nausea. However, the symptoms did not disappear but instead got worse. Carol began to experience numbness in her extremities and was admitted to the hospital for tests.
 
Unable to diagnose any disease, her physician brought in a psychiatrist because he feared the symptoms might be psychosomatic. While she was undergoing psychiatric testing, Carol received two more injections from her mother, who warned her that no one was to know about the shots. Audrey explained that the shots were given to her by a friend who was a registered nurse. The nurse could lose her job if anyone learned she was prescribing medications. Much later, the friend denied under oath that she ever gave Audrey any medicine for Carol.
 
A month after Carol was admitted to the hospital, Audrey asked her doctor why her daughter was sick. The doctor said it was his belief that Carol was suffering from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. He added that he suspected heavy metal poisoning was to blame for the symptoms.
 
That afternoon, Audrey had Carol discharged from that hospital. Carol’s doctor later said it was his opinion that Carol was in worse shape than when she was admitted.
 
Carol did not remain outside a hospital for long. The next day she was admitted to the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham. Coincidentally, Audrey was arrested for passing bad checks — they were written to the insurance company that insured Carol’s life, causing that policy to lapse.
 
The University hospital physicians concentrated their investigation on the possibility of heavy metal poisoning, noting that Carol’s hands were numb, her feet were numb, she had nerve palsy causing foot drop, and she had lost most of her deep tendon reflexes. Ultimately he discovered that Aldridge-Mee’s Lines were present in Carol’s toenails and fingernails. These white marks run parallel to the cuticle and are an indicator of arsenic poisoning.
 
He conducted tests on samples of Carol’s hair and discovered that it had about 50 times the normal arsenic level in human hair. He then diagnosed her condition as due to arsenic poisoning. Forensic tests on Carol’s hair conducted October 3, 1979, by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences revealed arsenic levels ranging from over 100 times the normal level close to the scalp to zero times the normal level at the end of the hair shaft. This indicated to the criminalist that Carol had been given increasingly larger doses of arsenic over a period of 4 to 8 months.
 
That same day, Frank Hilley’s body was exhumed for testing. The analysis revealed abnormally high levels of arsenic, ranging from 10 times the normal level in hair samples to 100 times the normal level in toenail samples. As a result of these tests, Dr. Joseph Embry of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded that the cause of Frank’s death was acute arsenic poisoning. He noted that Frank suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning, meaning that he had been given arsenic for months prior to his death.
 
Three days after the exhumation and the tests on Carol, Frank’s sister found a empty medicine vial in a cosmetic case among Audrey’s belongings that were stored at her mother-in-law’s home. The vial was turned over to police and revealed traces of arsenic.
 
Audrey Hilley was still incarcerated on her bad check charges when she was arrested on October 9, 1979, for the attempted murder of her daughter. The Anniston, Alabama, police found another vial in her purse that was in their possession and subsequent testing revealed the presence of arsenic. Two weeks later, Frank’s sister found a jar of Cowley’s New Improved Rat & Mouse Poison, which contains between 1.4 and 1.5 percent arsenic.
 
On November 9, 1979, Audrey was released on bond and registered at a local motel under the name Emily Stephens. Sometime between the 9th and the 18th of November, Audrey disappeared. A note indicating that she “might have been kidnapped” was left behind. A missing persons report was filed, and Audrey was listed as a fugitive.
 
On November 19, there was a break in at the home of Audrey’s aunt. A car, some women’s clothing and an overnight bag were missing from the home. Investigators found a note in the house reading, “Do not call police. We will burn you out if you do. We found what we wanted and will not bother you again.”
 
The scribbled message left behind at the hotel led investigators to believe that Audrey intended to start anew, where she “changes her personality to fit her surroundings.”
 
“She can be kind, laughing, considerate and then brutal and hateful,” said one FBI agent. “We believe she is living in a world with make-believe friends and enemies. … When she reads this, if it’s the real (Audrey) Hilley, she will probably change her personality when she realizes what she is accused of doing.”
 
On January 11, 1980, Audrey was indicted in absentia for Frank’s murder. Subsequently, investigators found that both Audrey’s mother and her mother-in-law had significant, but not fatal traces of arsenic in their systems when they died.
 
Although police and the FBI launched a massive manhunt, Audrey remained on the lam for a little more than three years.
 
She first traveled to Florida, where she met a man named John Homan. Audrey was using the name Robbi Hannon. They lived together around a year before she married Homan in May 1981 and became Robbi Homan. The couple moved to New Hampshire. During her marriage to Homan, Audrey frequently talked about her imaginary twin sister, Teri Hannon, who lived in Texas.
 
Sometime late in the summer of 1982, she left New Hampshire, telling her husband that she needed to attend to family business and to see some doctors about an illness she had. During this time she travelled to Texas and Florida, using the alias Teri Martin.
 
Sometime during the trip, using the alias Teri Martin, she called John Homan and informed him that Robbi Homan had passed away in Texas but there was no need for him to come to Texas because the body had been donated to medical science.
 
On November 12 or 13, after changing her hair color and losing weight, she returned to New Hampshire and met John Homan, posing as Teri Martin, his “deceased” wife’s sister. Thereafter, she began living with him again.
 
An obituary for Robbi Homan appeared in a New Hampshire newspaper, but aroused suspicion when police were unable to verify any of the information it contained. A New Hampshire state police detective surmised that the woman living as Teri Martin was, in fact, Robbi Homan and had staged her death because she was a fugitive.
 
That hunch paid off and shortly after police brought “Teri Martin” in for questioning, she confessed to being Audrey Marie Hilley. She was returned to Alabama to face trial.
 
The revelation came as a shock to John Homan.
 
“If I were taken to court today, I would swear they were two different people, if she hadn’t told me,” Homan told the media. “This has not changed my feeling about her at all. I don’t believe after living with that woman that there is a mean bone in her body.”
 
Based on her strange modus operandi, Audrey underwent psychological testing that revealed long-term, deep-rooted problems.
 
Psychiatrists think the birth may have touched off Mrs. Hilley’s behavior.
 
Audrey was married when she was 18 years old and was having marital troubles when Carol, her second child, was born. Psychiatrists who examined her said she resented her daughter’s birth, and she began acting out long before she moved to poisoning.
 
The doctors provided examples of a pair of arson fires at the Hilley house: one when Frank was still alive, the second when Carol and her grandmother were in the house alone.
 
However, she quickly moved on to poisoning, possibly even attempting to poison the investigators who were probing the mysterious fires.
 
“One time some investigators went to that house and afterwards they became sick,” an FBI agent said. “It’s possible they had been given some type of poison.
 
“There was a family that lived next to her for years,” he added. “The children were sick all the time, but doctors could never find out why.”
 
That family eventually relocated and the children quickly recovered.
 
Audrey’s trial was a popular news item, but the evidence was pretty cut-and-dried. She was quickly convicted and given a life term for Frank’s murder and 20 years for attempting to kill Carol.
 
She began serving her sentence in 1983 and was a quiet, model prisoner. This good behavior earned her several one-day passes from the prison and Audrey always returned on time. She was, however, planning to drop out of sight and was waiting for the proper time.
 
That time arrived in February 1987 when the 53-year-old chameleon was given a three-day pass to visit her husband, John Holman, who had moved to Anniston to be near his wife. They spent a day at an Anniston motel and when Holman left for a few hours, Audrey disappeared. She left behind a note to Homan. The farewell note told him that she hoped he would understand and forgive her for leaving and she did not want to go back to prison.
 
“She wanted to be given a chance to get her life started over,” a prison system spokesman said.
 
People connected to her case were livid that a convicted murderer and accomplished escape artist would be given a prison furlough.
 
“I think this is not just insane, it’s gross negligence,” said Joe Hubbard, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Audrey.
 
Her escape prompted an inquiry into the prison system’s furlough policy.
 
This time, Audrey did not stay missing very long.
 
Four days after she vanished, Anniston police responding to a call about a suspicious person, went to a home and found Audrey. She apparently had been crawling around in a wood, drenched by four days of frequent rain and numb from temperatures dropping to the low 30s.
 
She was taken to a local hospital and underwent emergency threatment for hypothermia. While at the hospital she suffered a heart attack and died.
 
“It seems to be an anticlimactic way for someone who was the great escape artist to die,” said Calhoun County District Attorney Bob Field. “This goes against everything she’s done in the past. The biggest escape artist in this area in 10 years, and what does she do? She ended up crawling around in the woods.”