The mystery of what happened to Debbie Hawk, whose ex-husband was convicted of killing her even though her body remained missing, is solved only because a farmworker heeded his intuition.
About three weeks ago, Juan Vargas Castillo found part of a jawbone and another bone while laboring in a barley field near Stratford. Vargas initially thought they were animal bones, but “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he said Wednesday. “It was in the back of my mind.”
On March 18, he told his foreman about what he had seen. They went to the site and found the rest of a jawbone and a leg bone.
Foreman Jesus Tafolla realized the remains weren’t animal bones. “I saw the fillings in the molars – I knew it was human,” he said Wednesday.
I saw the fillings in the molars – I knew it was human.
Jesus Tafolla, ranch foreman
They started digging, but when Tafolla found ribs and a hip bone, they stopped.
Landowner Timothy Sellers was gone for the weekend, so Tafolla told him about their grisly find when he returned Monday. Sellers then called the Kings County Sheriff’s Office.
At a news conference Wednesday, Sheriff Dave Robinson announced that skeletal remains of Debbie Hawk had been found and the mystery of what happened to the body was ended.
Investigators on Monday had figured out right away that the bones belonged to a middle-aged female and were anxious to learn if they might be those of the long-missing woman, Robinson said.
They spent the day recovering remains and examining the scene for potential clues.
By the middle of the day, a dental expert had matched the jawbone to Hawk’s dental X-rays that investigators already had on file.
The records showed a “100 percent match,” Robinson said. Also discovered were acrylic nails, but no clothing or jewelry.
DNA testing will also be done on the remains as a secondary verification, he said.
Hanford police Capt. Karl Anderson said he and several people who have investigated the case for years gathered at a phone Monday, called Hawk’s family and told them the news.
“They were relieved,” he said.
Just that day, Anderson said, the family had been discussing how nice it would be to finally find her.
No change for Dave Hawk
The cause of death may be impossible to determine because the bones are 10 years old, Robinson said. Most of them were recovered.
Still, Anderson said there is no doubt that Dave Hawk killed his ex-wife.
“We are just as convinced today as the day we arrested him, took him to trial and the day he was convicted, that Dave Hawk is guilty of the murder of Debbie Hawk,” Anderson told reporters.
Robinson said it’s clear that Debbie Hawk was killed in her home. And he believes that Dave Hawk, who is serving a sentence of life without parole at Corcoran State Prison, purposely chose the field to bury her body because of its remoteness.
The site is several feet from the levee road by Last Chance Ditch and at least half a mile or more from the nearest paved road.
Dave Hawk was familiar with the area because he had worked in Stratford, and his home was several miles north near Lemoore, officials said.
The land was out of farm production for many years until 2010, when a farmer started leveling it and planting field crops.
Between the land leveling and discing furrows, the bones were exposed, Robinson said.
Investigators believe the body had been buried about 3 feet below the surface, he said.
The discovery of Debbie Hawk’s body only strengthens the conviction of her ex-husband for her murder, Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said Wednesday.
“It undermines the argument made at trial that she could still be alive,” Fagundes told a news conference.
The conference was held a day after news stories broke that Debbie Hawk’s remains had been found.
The sheriff said Debbie Hawk’s family could embrace closure: “It’s nice to know she’s in a place where her family can give her a proper burial.”
The bones will be kept until the investigation ends, when they will be given to the family.
Closure for chief, too
Retired police Chief Carlos Mestas said he’s often thought about the case.
“When you look at the vast amount of farmland, you could put a body anywhere,” he said.
Dave Hawk thought he could outsmart law enforcement and get away with murder, Mestas said: “People think they are smart, but not in this art.”
Mestas said he hopes the discovery “brings some closure” for the family.
Debbie Hawk, a 46-year-old pharmaceutical representative and mother of three, was reported missing June 13, 2006, after her children returned from a custody visit with their father. Her Hanford home was in disarray and her van was gone.
Her vehicle was found two days later in Fresno with the windows rolled down, the key in the ignition and a stolen license plate on the rear bumper. Blood in the van and in the kitchen of her home was found to be hers.
Dave Hawk was named as a suspect four months later, and was arrested in May 2008.
Despite the lack of a body, her former husband was found guilty three years later of first-degree murder.
He was also found guilty of embezzling $300,000 from a trust account for their children.
I think of her every night.
Angie Triantis, Debbie Hawk’s mother
Debbie Hawk’s mother, Angie Triantis of Walnut Creek, said Tuesday that her daughter’s death remains painful to the family.
“I think of her every night,” Triantis said.
She said her husband William “Bud” Triantis is dying and is in hospice care, and although they told him the news, it’s doubtful he understood.
Attempts to reach the family after authorities went public with the news on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Bee photographer Silvia Flores contributed to this story.
Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold