BURLEY — If anyone is justified in feeling hate, it would be the mother of a teen whose murder went unsolved for more than two decades.
But as Rhonda Hunnel prepares for the trial of the man who police now say killed her 14-year-old daughter 24 years ago, she asks that others extend forgiveness and love instead of hate.
“I don’t need people to be angry and say things like ‘I hope he burns in hell,’” Hunnel said. “This needs to be about Gina, and she wouldn’t want that.”
Regina Lee Krieger was two days shy of her 15th birthday when she disappeared from her basement bedroom 24 years ago Wednesday.
Her father, who she was living with in Burley at the time, called 911 and reported her missing. He said there were blood smears that looked like something was dragged up the stairs and out into the backyard.
It was more than six weeks later that her body was found along a bank of the Snake River. Her throat was slit and she was stabbed in the heart.
Gilberto Flores Rodriguez, 56, of Burley was arrested last week and charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Brutal murder stuns a small town
Nikki Broadhead, 38, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., remembers her friend as “a happy, bubbly kid who was fun to be around.”
She knew Regina from school and the Lutheran church, where they were confirmed at the same time. They ate lunch together, passed notes in class and attended camp together.
In the weeks prior to her death, Broadhead said, Regina appeared troubled.
“She was moody and she seemed stressed. I knew she was really stressed out about her parents getting divorced,” Broadhead said. “I thought I knew her, but apparently she had a whole other life.”
Regina asked Broadhead for lunch money every day in the week before she was murdered.
“I got really mad at her,” Broadhead said. “She went missing the next week and I should have just given her the dollar.
Regina’s aunt, Lorene Tolman, of Jerome, remembers the girl as outgoing.
“As a little girl she was very happy and she loved going to church,” she said. “When she died, she was just entering into womanhood and was showing some teenage angst.”
She was struggling to find her niche in life, Tolman said.
Hunnel said her daughter had started hanging out with a new crowd and was using drugs prior to her death. But, she said, Regina had been on the cusp of turning her life around and she planned to move back into her mother’s Twin Falls home at the end of the semester. She promised her mother she would stop using drugs.
When Regina went missing, Broadhead said, she thought Regina had just gone to live with her mother.
“I didn’t think anything had happened to her. It’s Burley, we’re safe here,” she said. “When I found out she’d been murdered it was a complete shock. We were 14.”
Her friend’s brutal death left Broadhead shaken and doubting that parents are able to protect their children.
“I really had the blinders pulled off at a young age and I found out how evil this world can be,” she said.
Now as the mother of two children, ages 7 and 3, the murder haunts her in a new way.
“I can’t imagine what her parents went through,” she said.
Broadhead thinks Hunnel’s tenacious prodding of law enforcement to keep the case fresh and her diligent work keeping the case in the public eye played a role in the arrest more than two decades later.
At Hunnel’s request, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2017 took a fresh look at the case, which was under investigation by the Cassia County Sheriff’s Office.
After the initial shock of Regina going missing, finding her murdered and laying her to rest, Tolman said, the hardest part was watching her sister going through the turmoil caused by the unsolved crime.
“An arrest in the case is all because of her (Hunnel’s) vigilance. I have no words to express how much I admire her strength,” Broadhead said. “What happened was horrible but she didn’t let it break her.”
Two little handprints
When the news of Rodriguez’s arrest spread, emotions from people in the community surfaced on social media, Hunnel said.
“I’ve kind of cut myself off from social media right now because it became overwhelming,” she said.
The case, she said, not only divided families but the community — and now it’s time to heal.
Tolman said the inflammatory comments on social media are a problem and people need to let the attorneys do their jobs.
Hunnel found out about the arrest through a phone call from the sheriff’s office five minutes after it happened.
A few days prior, she said, two handprints, too small to be hers, appeared on a steamy mirror near the shower in her Las Vegas-area home.
“It kind of freaked my husband out, and he tried to scrub them off with Windex five times, but they keep reappearing whenever we turn on the shower,” Hunnel said, who had prayed her daughter’s spirit would send her some kind of sign to help them solve the crime.
“I wanted a sign,” she said. “I guess I got it.”
Overall, she said, she feels excited and happy since the arrest. Some people have even criticized her for appearing too happy, she said.
“People may assume that is not normal for me to be happy, but I’ve been waiting for over two decades for this,” Hunnel said.
Hunnel wants to find a company willing to print T-shirts for people to wear with the slogan “Gina’s Hope.”
She will not profit from the sale, and she wants the slogan to prompt people to unite, for the truth to come to light, and for justice, hope and healing to occur.
“It’s about forgiveness for all — that’s Gina’s Hope,” she said.
For the first five years after her daughter’s death, Hunnel put God on a shelf.
“I had so much anger toward the man who killed her and toward so many other people over the years,” she said. “And that’s not who I am. But I was able to forgive, and if I’m able to forgive, other people should be able to forgive, too.”
Eventually, she had to free herself from the destructive cycle and let it go in order to heal.
“I feel lighter now and not so heavy,” Hunnel said. “My forgiveness had to start with the act itself. Every human being has the option of hurting others. When Regina was at that moment when her life was taken, God was present.”
Her focus is now on helping other grieving parents cope and helping them reclaim their lives. She considers Wednesday to be Regina’s “angelversary” a term coined by the Compassionate Friends grief support group, where she sometimes attends meetings.
“I want all those people who have children that were murdered to not give up hope,” she said. “I want them to stay strong and faithful and live a life that would make their child proud. I want them not to dwell in the agony of that particular event, and that’s not easy to do.”
Having a child murdered changes a parent, she said.
“When a tragedy like this happens, you can either stay in that dark place and die in it or open your mind and spirit,” she said. “And that’s what I did.”
Hunnel wrote a book, “Snake in the Grass, a Memoir,” about her daughter’s disappearance and death and plans a second book, this time a crime novel about the case.
“There are a lot of people like the man who murdered my child in the world,” Hunnel said. “A conviction would give me back to my family because I won’t have to fight this fight anymore.”
After two decades of being consumed with the unsolved case, she will turn her attention to being a better wife and grandmother — and she hopes to finally have a peaceful heart.
“I think I deserve it.”