When she first heard Frank Jarvis Atwood was claiming authorities framed him for the murder of her 8-year-old daughter, Vicki Lynne Hoskinson, Debbie Carlson's reaction was, "Oh, give me a break."
At that point, Atwood had already been on death row for two decades.
Now five years later, Atwood is about to get the court date he has been seeking. A federal judge will hear arguments Monday for and against a hearing on "newly discovered evidence" Atwood's attorney says will prove his claims of evidence tampering.
No matter which way the judge rules, another appeal will be filed. And another one. And another one.
"I'm pretty disgusted by the fact he's still on death row," Carlson said. "It's so sad it takes so long to execute someone when they commit a crime in the blink of an eye."
25 years on death row
Twenty-five years ago last month, Atwood, now 56, was sentenced to die.
So much time has passed since then that Carlson regularly encounters people who assume Atwood was executed years ago.
Of the 126 people currently on death row, only six have been there longer than Atwood. One, Samuel Lopez, arrived on death row six weeks after Atwood and is schedule to die later this month.
"I would have loved to have had 25 more years with Vicki," Carlson said. "In that time, Atwood's gotten a college education, written several books, gotten married and gotten all of the medical and dental care he's needed and we've paid for that."
In a recent 18-minute phone interview, Atwood said he believes the new evidence "undisputedly" proves his innocence. But he's not confident he will be granted the hearing to present it.
The fact the state has executed eight people in the last 19 months and is getting ready to execute another weighs heavily on his mind.
When he arrived on death row back in 1987, dying "seemed like kind of an unreal proposition. So I mean it certainly lends a little bit more reality to the situation and maybe a little bit more urgency to the appeals process and what not," Atwood said.
Little girl missing
On Sept. 17, 1984, Vicki got home from Homer Davis Elementary School and asked her mom if she could ride her bike to the mailbox to send a birthday card.
She never came home.
Her 11-year-old sister Stephanie found Vicki's pink bike abandoned a few blocks away from her Flowing Wells neighborhood and one block west of the elementary school.
A frantic search ensued. Vicki's family took every opportunity to speak to the media to plead for help. Fliers were handed out.
Pretty soon, sheriff's deputies learned several witnesses had seen a man in a dark-colored Datsun 280Z near Vicki's school. One little girl said the man had made an obscene gesture at her as he cruised by her house. Another saw the driver of the car back into a telephone pole and a teacher wrote down the car's license plate. He described getting goose bumps because the driver was making strange gestures, acting upset and having trouble shifting gears.
Other witnesses who observed the car a short time later said they saw a small child in the car.
When deputies traced the plates, they learned the car was registered to Atwood, who was on parole in California for forcing an 8-year-old boy off a bicycle, pulling him onto his motorcycle and forcing him to perform a sex act.
When Atwood's parents were called three days later, they told FBI agents Atwood was getting his transmission fixed in Kerrville, Texas.
Atwood was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping after authorities said paint from Vicki's bike was found on his bumper and damage to his gravel pan was caused by one of Vicki's pedals. In addition, friends of Atwood's told authorities they saw him with bloody hands and cactus needles on his clothes that afternoon. Atwood had told them he'd stabbed a man in a drug dispute at the west end of Ina Road.
In the ensuing months, Vicki's family continued to plead for help finding her. Carlson appeared on Good Morning America and World News Tonight. The family planted an Arbor Tree for Vicki and buried a time capsule at her school and invited the media to both events.
Everyone in Tucson got to know the little girl with the infectious grin. Carlson, now 57, describes Vicki as a female Dennis the Menace because of her ability to get dirty within seconds. She loved Barbies and softball and hanging out with her grandfather at the race track.
"Her eyes were of a deep blue, they were almost a royal color. There was such depth to them you couldn't reach the bottom," Carlson said. "She was an old soul. She had deep wisdom beyond her years."
Murder charges added
On April 12, 1985, seven months after she disappeared, Vicki's skeletal remains were found at the west end of Ina Road. Because of the condition of her body, the medical examiner was unable to determine when or how the little girl died, or if she had been sexually abused.
Atwood was soon facing a first-degree murder charge in addition to kidnapping.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall remembers what those months were like when Vicki was missing.
"There was an extremely heightened fear … it permeated everything," LaWall said. "It was the first time a child had gone missing like that and we knew what had happened - we knew someone had taken her off her bike.
"People didn't allow their children to play outside anymore. Parents' behavior changed. Before then, we were in a state of unawareness about the dangers that are lurking out there."
Stanton Bloom represented Atwood at his trial, which was moved to Phoenix because of pretrial publicity. It was televised live from start to finish.
"There was a lot of animosity in the community," Bloom said. "I got a lot of death threats and bomb calls. People wrote letters and I had hang up calls."
Larry Hammond, Atwood's current attorney, said people hated Atwood so much they set fire to a house where they wrongly believed he had lived.
Besides making parents more cautious, Vicki's disappearance and murder wrought other changes, too.
Carlson spent the next decade as an activist. She helped form a victims' advocacy group called "We the People." She testified about the tragedy before state and federal lawmakers. She got involved with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and was instrumental in getting Arizona's Victims' Bill of Rights passed in 1990.
Three years before the law passed, Carlson and other family members had to sit outside the courtroom while prosecutors presented their case against Atwood. They were excluded from attending the trial because they were witnesses. Thanks to the Bill of Rights, victims are now guaranteed a seat in all proceedings and have the right to speak at bail-setting hearings, change-of-plea hearings and sentencings.
Carlson also helped launch Southern Arizona's Amber Alert system in 2000.
Life can still be somewhat of a roller coaster of emotions for Carlson.
"Some days, some anniversaries, I just skate on through and other days I'm blindsided and there are just so many anniversaries," Carlson said.
There's Vicki's birthday, the day she disappeared, the day she was found, plus all of the significant court events.
Still, Carlson wants people to see their story as one of inspiration.
Her daughter, Stephanie, and son, Brian, and stepdaughter, Carie, have become successful adults.
"I made a vow that Atwood was not going to destroy our lives and we've succeeded," Carlson said. "I'd like people to realize as they read this story … that no matter what happens to them in life, they can survive, there is hope. It's not been easy, but we made it and they can, too."
Carlson said she likely won't attend Atwood's eventual execution because she doesn't want to give him any more power.
"Frank Atwood doesn't hold me in bondage. He will get his and he'll answer for everything he's done."
On Monday, Hammond will appear before U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour to tell him what he thinks he'd be able to prove if given the chance at an evidentiary hearing.
Hammond will show photos he believes prove law enforcement officials removed Atwood's bumper in Texas, brought it to Tucson, applied pink paint from Vicki's bike to it and flew it back to Texas within days of Atwood's arrest.
Hammond has experts who believe original photos of the bumper taken in Texas, along with their negatives, were destroyed and the photos were replaced with new ones taken after the paint was applied. Moreover his experts say photos of the bumper that have surfaced in recent years show Vicki's bike in the reflection - when all official accounts say the bumper and the bike were in separate states.
The defense attorney also says newly discovered photos show damage to Atwood's bumper wasn't there when the car was first photographed.
Kent Cattani, chief counsel for the Arizona Attorney General's Office's capital litigation division, doesn't believe Atwood is entitled to an evidentiary hearing.
In court documents Cattani said numerous law enforcement officers from multiple agencies would have had to collectively decide to risk their careers to manufacture evidence. For all they knew, Vicki could've been alive and able to identify her kidnapper, he said. Or, they could have found her body at any moment and had all the forensic evidence they needed to track her killer.
The photographs don't show a bike in the bumper's reflection, nor do they show the source of the pink reflection described by Hammond, Cattani said.
The fact that some negatives were discovered missing 26 years after Vicki died, Cattani said, "does not establish that law enforcement officers tampered with evidence, planted pink paint on Atwood's bumper, 'swapped' photographs or presented false testimony."
In a recent interview Hammond said the police didn't set out to frame an innocent person; they believed they had the right guy. People have a tendency to think they know what happened and they operate under that assumption, he said.
"Once we've decided something, it's easy to find things that fit and easy to disregard things that don't fit," Hammond said.
Bloom, Atwood's trial attorney, said without the bumper evidence he believes the state would've had a hard time convicting Atwood. They didn't find Vicki's blood, fingerprints or hair inside the car.
In his telephone interview, Atwood says the friends who testified against him had motive to lie and other witnesses weren't credible. And while he did tell people he stabbed a drug dealer the day Vicki disappeared, Atwood said he did that "to try to impress others and pump up my tough guy image."
Since his arrival on death row, Atwood has gotten married, been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Christian church, obtained two associate's degrees, a bachelor's degree in English/pre-law and a master's degree in literature. He has written six books, five of which have been published. He's also working with people on the outside to create a website.
"I had full and complete confidence upon my arrival on death row that once a court, you know, without the public hysteria and the emotional value of a jury trial and everything else, you know, maybe in the cold light of day would be able to review my case and see there just wasn't the evidence that would've had to have been there," Atwood said.
Should he lose his future appeals, Atwood said he is prepared to die.
"I think a part of being completely obedient to God's will is accepting whatever it is he has in store or planned for me," Atwood said. "You know we all have to die sometime and I'm sure a lot of us don't necessarily want to go … but I'm just grateful the Lord's given me the opportunity to have tried to learn a little bit of patience and humility to accept what his will is for me and has provided me that time prior to being executed."
Editor's note: While many members of the community remember "Vicki Lynne," the family's preference is "Vicki."
"I would have loved to have had 25 more years with Vicki. In that time, Atwood's gotten a college education, written several books, gotten married and gotten all of the medical and dental care he's needed and we've paid for that."
- Deborah Carlson, mother of Vicki Lynne Hoskinson
Feb, 3, 1975 - Frank Jarvis Atwood is convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior in Los Angeles Superior Court.
July 20, 1981 - Atwood pleads guilty to kidnapping an 8-year-old boy and is sentenced to five years in prison.
May 16, 1984 - Atwood is paroled.
Sept. 13, 1984 - Atwood leaves California for Tucson.
Sept. 17, 1984 - Vicki Lynne Hoskinson disappears after leaving home on bicycle to mail a birthday card.
Sept. 20, 1984 - Atwood is arrested in Kerrville, Texas.
April 12, 1985 - Vicki's skeletal remains are found.
May 15, 1985 - Atwood indicted on first-degree murder charge.
Feb. 19, 1986 - Atwood charged with trying to stab and bite a jail guard. Case later dismissed.
May 8, 1987 - Atwood sentenced to death.
April 9, 1992 - Arizona Supreme Court upholds Atwood's conviction and sentence.
Jan. 19, 1993 - U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Atwood's appeal.
June 2005/May 2007 - A U.S. District Court judge denies all but one of Atwood's claims seeking a new trial. He tells attorneys to take allegations about alleged evidence tampering to Pima County Superior Court.
Dec. 17, 2007 - Atwood's attorneys file a motion in Pima County Superior Court seeking a hearing on alleged evidence tampering.
Jan. 2, 2009 - Pima County Superior Court Judge Hector Campoy denies motion seeking hearing. Motion to reconsider is denied month later.
April 26, 2010 - Second motion to reconsider filed following a further investigation.
Sept. 22, 2010 - Judge Campoy again denies motion seeking hearing on alleged evidence tampering. The Arizona Supreme Court declines to review the decision.
March 20, 2012 - U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour agrees to hold hearing June 11, 2012, to decide if an evidentiary hearing is warranted.
Contact reporter Kim Smith or firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4241.