A pang of conscience drove a Western North Carolina man across the country and into prison for the next decade.
Matthew Gibson, 55, left his home in Vilas, a rural Watauga County settlement near Boone, for Arizona this summer, where he told authorities that he had beaten a woman to death and hidden her body beside the Colorado River.
His story checked out. Police in Bullhead City, a desert oasis in western Arizona about 100 miles south of Las Vegas, examined their unsolved murders and found the case of Barbara Brown Agnew, 38, whose half-clothed body was discovered in thick riverbank scrub in 1997.
Gibson, a former meth and cocaine user, told police that he’d been beset by guilt over the crime for years and finally decided to get it off his chest.
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“I had no intention to take a life,” Gibson said in a statement to police. “But it did happen, and I as a man will accept my punishment.”
Finding the remains
Even before Gibson showed up, the long-simmering mystery of Agnew’s death was full of odd twists.
Agnew’s husband told police that on the night of June 23, 1997, she was kidnapped from Kingman, Ariz., about 35 miles from Bullhead City. An unknown woman forced her into a car and sped off, investigators were told.
A week later, her decomposing body was found on a Colorado River embankment on the edge of Bullhead City. An autopsy showed she died of powerful blows to the head.
Investigators learned that Agnew, who was mentally troubled, claimed people were out to get her. She said she was a full-blooded Seminole Indian from Florida.
Then her case went cold for 17 years.
A disorganized life
Gibson was born Aug. 13, 1959, in Newark, N.Y., a village on the Erie Canal. He told authorities that he suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse as a child.
He started drinking and using marijuana at 18, later adding methamphetamine, LSD and cocaine. He quit all of it a few years ago, he said.
Court records obtained Friday by the Observer show he’s been married twice and has two children, their whereabouts unknown to him. One of his sisters lives in Vilas, and two other siblings live in other states.
When arrested, he told police that he’d had two jobs in the past year. He got fired from the second one, he said, when his employer wanted him to go to a psychiatrist and he refused.
Admitting the crime
On June 5, Mary Garcia, a detective in Bullhead City, got a call from police in Winslow, about 250 miles away. A man was in their department trying to confess to a murder that happened in the ’90s in Bullhead City, she was told. Garcia hit the road.
Gibson told Garcia that he met Agnew one night after midnight and took her back to his trailer on First Street. “It is unclear if they met for a sexual encounter, to use drugs, or both,” Garcia said later in a statement.
Gibson told her that the woman – he didn’t know her name at the time – was “loud and obnoxious” and “he wanted her gone.” She wouldn’t leave.
He picked up a heavy Maglite flashlight and struck her repeatedly, he told Garcia. Then he rolled her body into a sheet and dumped it on the riverbank.
He left Bullhead City a few months later and drifted to Las Vegas and continued using drugs, Garcia said.
Though Gibson seemed polite and talkative, Garcia said, he became evasive when she tried to pin him down on details, saying he couldn’t remember. “Unless Matthew Gibson has killed others, I seriously doubt that he does not remember the details of the bludgeoning death,” she said in a statement.
According to a Scripps Howard analysis of FBI data, three other women besides Agnew were bludgeoned to death in Mohave County, Ariz., in 1997 and 1998. By 2012, none of the cases were solved, Scripps found.
Closing the books
A week ago, Gibson was sentenced to 10 years by Rick Williams, a Mohave County Superior Court judge.
Garcia said Gibson gave details that only the killer would know, like clubbing her with the flashlight.
But were it not for his guilty conscience, the case would probably have never been solved, said Bullhead City police spokeswoman Emily Fromelt.
“Matthew Gibson’s name was never linked to or brought up in this cold-case murder,” she said. “We didn’t even know he existed until he turned up at Winslow P.D. to turn himself in.” Doug Miller and researcher Maria David contrinbuted.