This report aired Tuesday, May 8 on Dateline NBC.
HANFORD, CALIF. — If there’s a color that makes them think of Debbie Hawk, her friends say, it’s purple.
Taryn: She was very regal and to us. She definitely fits the bill as the princess.
Eliza: She should have been a Kennedy (laughter)
But Debbie became a household name in a different way: from the missing posters hanging in her small town. Since June 13, 2006, the day 46-year-old Debbie Hawk disappeared, purple ribbons have served as reminders of a dear friend, and the hope she’ll be found.
Debbie Hawk was born in Pittsburgh and spent her teenage years in California’s Bay Area. In 1988a job selling mattresses brought her to Hanford, California, outside Fresno. Friends there set her up on a blind date with a man named David Hawk.
Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: What’s your first impression of Debbie?
Dave Hawk, ex-husband: Firecracker. She was short and attractive. And a lot of fun. And pretty good sense of humor. You know, you’d say something and man, she’d pop back with something that you didn’t quite expect.
Dave was drawn to Debbie’s quick wit and vivacious energy. They married a year after their first date and settled in the farmlands of the Central Valley, where Dave comes from a family of almond growers. Debbie’s dream was to be a mom. And she got her wish — three children, a boy and two girls.
There were plenty of happy times, like family Christmas celebrations.
Dave Hawk: Little kids were wrapping and boxes and family all around, those are the images that I remember.
The children had a good life and their futures seemed well-provided for with trust funds set up by Dave’s parents. But after nearly nine years together, like so many marriages, this one fell apart.
Dave Hawk: We might have been a little bit more different than we were willing to admit early on.
The couple separated in 1998 when their son was 7 years old, their daughters 6 and 2. The divorce was finalized in 2000.
Dave Hawk: Since 1998 we’ve gone our own ways. With the exception of what involves our children. And she has her life. And I have my life.
After the divorce, Debbie worked as a pharmaceutical representative; Dave for his family’s almond farm. And the children split their time between their parents.
It wasn’t easy, but they made it work until one evening in June 2006, when the Hawks’ lives changed forever.
The children had been with Dave all weekend, and Debbie was supposed to pick them up Tuesday evening, June 13th. When she didn’t show, Dave dropped the children off at her house and drove away.
When they walked inside the children found a frightening scene—pools of blood and disorder. And Debbie was nowhere to be found.
The girls ran to a neighbor, and Debbie’s son called 911 from her house. At 2 a.m., Dave was called down to the Hanford police station.
Dave Hawk: They said that Debbie did not come home. And they have a missing person. Do I know where she might be? Or do I know of anything that might have happened to her?
Stafford: You hear Debbie is missing. What goes through your mind at that point?
Dave Hawk: Well, that’s unusual. Because she’s never gone missing before. And I’ve never been in a police station answering those kind of questions before. So I’m a little apprehensive.
Debbie’s friend Teresa Voyles feared the worst.
Teresa Voyles, friend: I knew something horrible must have happened because there’s no way she would not pick up her kids.
Two days after her disappearance, police discovered Debbie’s van 40 miles away, in southwest Fresno. There was blood inside, and the license plates had been replaced with stolen ones.
Investigator Darren Mattison: I believe someone went into her house specifically to hurt her.
Hanford police investigator Daren Matteson believes Debbie was surprised by her attacker in the house — incapacitated — and taken away in her van.
Mattison: Her van was transported to a place where it would either not be recognized or possibly be stolen.
Weeks passed and there was still no word from Debbie. Her friends handed out fliers with her picture and purple ribbons. Police and community volunteers combed through miles of fields and rivers for any sign of Debbie.
The case was reclassified from "missing person" to "homicide investigation."
Stafford: Do you believe there’s any chance she’s alive?
What had happened to Debbie Hawk? And who was responsible? Police weren’t sure. But they did have a “person of interest”—Debbie’s ex-husband, Dave Hawk. And some new, disturbing, information was coming out about his relationship with Debbie.
Video: 2: Missing woman’s ex-husband suspicious?
Kim Aguirre, Debbie's attorney: The issues that she was dealing with were custody and support.
Kim Aguirre is Debbie’s attorney, and it turns out, when Debbie disappeared, the exes were battling in the courts. Child support payments were one issue. Dave was supposed to be paying $553 a month for the three children and wanted to pay less, claiming he only made $6,000 a year. That’s well below the poverty level, and Aguirre found it hard to believe.
Aguirre: He lived in what I understood to be a very nice home. He drove a late model Suburban. At least, that’s what I saw when I saw him drive up to court. And it’s just, that’s hard to do on $6,000 a year.
Dave says he accurately reported his income, and supplemented it with savings and gifts from his parents
Debbie was also asking for more time with the children.
Aguirre: His response was to ask for half custody. The percentages were something like 65 with Debbie and 35 with Dave. And he wanted to make it an even 50-50.
And then there were the children’s trust funds. Debbie accused her ex-husband of stealing money from the trust funds over several years.
Stafford: How much money are we talking about?
Darren Mattison, investigator: A significant amount.
Stafford: Ten thousand, 100,000?
Mattison: More than $100,000. It appears that his living expenses were coming out of the children’s trust account.
Could the ongoing custody dispute and accusations of misusing the children’s trust funds make Dave Hawk so angry that he wanted to kill his ex-wife?
Stafford: Debbie’s been accusing you of misusing the funds that are set aside for the children.
Dave Hawk: She claimed that, yes. Well, if you look a little further those trust funds are in my name. And if I want to go in and sell Exxon stock and buy Microsoft stock, I can do that.
Stafford: You can do it. The question is have you been reinvesting the money? Or have you been spending the money on personal things for yourself and not the kids.
Dave Hawk: No, I— can do that. And as far as the way the Hawks live their lives, that’s private.
Stafford: I would assume as the ex-husband you weren’t happy about the fact that Debbie’s accusing you of misusing the trust funds for the kids.
Dave Hawk: Right. Well, she’s—
Stafford: Make you angry, I would assume.
Dave Hawk: Yeah. She’s trying to paint me in a bad light so that she could win more custody of our children.
Stafford: And I would think that that’s an escalating, angering situation between the two of you.
Did it ever get physical? Well, in 1998, Debbie did get a temporary restraining order against Dave.
Stafford: Debbie accused you of grabbing her throat. And starting to choke her.
Dave Hawk: That’s what she claims.
Stafford: Did that happen?
Dave Hawk: No. It didn’t happen.
And yet another strange twist: On May 18, 2006, a day before he was supposed to be in court dealing with the Hawks’ custody issues, Debbie’s attorney was shot in the neck right outside his office.
Aguirre: Opened my car door and heard this tremendous explosion, felt it in the back of the head like I got hit with a baseball bat,
A few days later, Aguirre says he got an interesting call from Debbie Hawk.
Aguirre: She called to express a concern that maybe it was her ex-husband.
Dave says he had nothing to do with the shooting.
Stafford: Where were you when Debbie’s attorney was shot?
Dave Hawk: I was at work.
The shooting remains under investigation by the Fresno police.
In the months following Debbie’s disappearance, police came down hard on Dave Hawk, searching his home at least four times and taking away items like computers and Dave’s shoes. Police even cuffed him outside his house in full view of local television cameras. They also seized evidence, including computers, from the church where Dave sometimes worked. Dave describes it as a witch hunt.
Dave Hawk: They need to find somebody and paint him bad and hammer him.
Stafford: And you’re saying you are that somebody?
Dave Hawk: Well, I’m the ex-husband. I’m the first guy on the list.
He claims law enforcement is so determined to find him responsible, that an FBI agent threatened to make up evidence against him. He wrote down what he says the agent told him.
He wrote that the agent said ‘I dont need a body or evidence. I can manufacture that. All I need is motive. And with an ex-husband that’s easy.”
Police investigator Matteson says Dave Hawk was never threatened as he claims.
Mattison: I’m not gonna get into what Mr. Hawk believes. However, I can tell you that the FBI was professional, and did not say the things that Mr. Hawk believes he said.
Stafford: Did you have anything to do with Debbie’s disappearance?
Dave Hawk: No.
Stafford: Did you kill your ex-wife?
Dave Hawk: No.
Stafford: Are you worried in the back of their minds, your kids say, "Maybe dad did have something to do with this."
Dave Hawk: My kids aren’t going to think that because they don’t think that.
Dave maintains he has an alibi for the time Debbie disappeared.
Dave Hawk: I was either here with my children, or I was at work.
Stafford: You could have hired someone.
Dave Hawk: Could have hired—oh, like a hit man?
Dave Hawk: Yeah. I don’t know any. I don’t even know where to buy marijuana. I’m pretty vanilla when you start looking at me.
Plain as vanilla? Hanford police aren’t buying it.
Stafford: Does Dave Hawk’s alibi check out?
Mattison: I don’t know if you can call it an alibi. He was at home.
Matteson says there’s no way to verify that Dave Hawk didn’t leave the house while his children were sleeping or slip away from work.
In late October, police named Dave Hawk the prime suspect in the disappearance of his ex wife.
Stafford: Almost every road that you’ve explored, you’re saying leads back to Dave Hawk?
Police say there’s a chance more than one person was involved in Debbie’s disappearance. As for what happens next - police say they are still waiting for that computer evidence to be analyzed.
Stafford: Without Debbie’s body, do you have a case?
Mattison: Yes. That’s not an issue, according to the district attorney’s office.
Stafford: You’ll prosecute this case if you find the evidence you think you need.
Debbie and Dave’s son is now in foster care. Their daughters are still living with their dad. As Debbie’s friends wait for answers... it is those children they worry about the most.
Taryn: Those kids need their mom. No 16-year-old, no 14-year-old, no 11-year-old should have to ever deal with or go through something awful like this.
If you have information on Debbie Hawk, contact the Hanford Police Department at (559)585-2540. You can also visit the Web site http://www.debbiehawk.com/or join our Discussion on the Dateline message boards.
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