Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Family, authorities still look for clues to Starr Hill's fate

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Starr Hill's family believes the Middletown woman, who disappeared two years ago, is dead, and they hope to find her to achieve some level of closure. Photo courtesy of April Robinson.

 

MIDDLETOWN – Starr Hill was looking forward to the future.


In May of 2005, the 46-year-old mother of two, who also was a youthful grandmother, had recently quit smoking to get her scuba diving certification.


She and husband, Curtis, had purchased a cave on the big island of Hawaii and were building a tourism business there.


Starr Hill's younger daughter, April Robinson, said her mother liked to show pictures to friends and family of the work she and Curtis were doing for the business, which included taking people on tours of the Hawaiian cave.


On May 17, 2005, Starr Hill and Robinson spoke on the phone, as they did on an almost daily basis, Robinson said. They had last seen each other the week before.


They were due to speak again May 19, said Robinson, but Hill never called.


No one has reported seeing or speaking with Hill since that week two years ago, and the search for answers about what happened to her has turned up no substantial clues.


At this point, said Robinson, it's a cold case.


Searching for Starr


After three days of hearing nothing from her mother, Robinson called Starr's husband, Curtis. Robinson said Hill told her they had fought on May 18 and Starr had walked away from their home on Western Mine Road.


In an interview with this reporter in May of 2005, Curtis Hill stated he and his wife had argued and she walked away from their 37-acre property during a rainstorm, wearing blue jeans, a green sweater and a black leather jacket. She didn't take her purse or any other personal effects.


Curtis Hill said then that Starr had been known to leave for weeks at a time following heated arguments during their five-year marriage.


He later reported that he came home from his job as a firefighter in Contra Costa County the day after his wife left to find an angry note from her. He said he also found duffel bags, her purse and makeup bag missing.


Robinson said she never saw that note that Curtis Hill said he found from Starr.


Curtis Hill did not return several phone calls from Lake County News to his Middletown home seeking comment for this story.


A friend of the couple later stated they saw Starr Hill on the same day that she disappeared walking in the rain along the highway toward near Twin Pine Casino. Robinson discounted the story, saying her mother would likely have stopped into the casino to call a friend or family member for a ride and so someone would have heard from her.


The Lake County Sheriff's Office searched the Hill property on May 24, 2005, with the help of K-Corps and Search and Rescue teams. No signs of Starr Hill were found.


Her grandson's birthday came and went the week following her disappearance, and still no signs of Starr, who Robinson said didn't miss family events.


In the months that followed, Robinson, her stepfather and his family reported handing out fliers and traveling to areas of Mendocino and Napa counties where Starr had liked to visit. Meanwhile, sheriff's investigators found no signs of activity on Starr Hill's cell phone or credit card accounts.


In August 2005, Sheriff Rod Mitchell held a press conference to help publicize the missing woman's case, and to ask the public for leads.


By the time of Mitchell's press conference, Curtis Hill had stopped cooperating with the Lake County Sheriff's Office, which Mitchell called attention to, saying Hill's behavior was “suspect.”


Hitting a dead end


The only physical evidence of Hill that the investigation turned up was her cell phone, which was found by a vineyard worker alongside Highway 29 in Lower Lake in October 2005.


The last number that showed up on the phone belonged to Starr Hill's mother, Leona Schneider, now 85, who lives in Auburn.


But Mitchell reported that the cell phone find ended up yielding no forensic evidence and few clues, other than it was last used before Starr Hill's disappearance.


In December of 2005, Robinson volunteered to take a voice stress analyzer test, answering questions about her mother's disappearance. She passed. Her stepfather, however, refused to take the same test, according to Mitchell.


Robinson said she regularly speaks with sheriff's investigator Det. Corey Paulich, but that the last time anything of significance in the case occurred was last May, when authorities conducted another search of the Western Mine Road property.


That effort had been postponed for eight months while they waited for Shirley Hammond, a noted cadaver dog handler and author of books on training disaster search dogs, to become available to take part in the search, said Robinson.


Hammond had been key in the search for Tracy Lyons, a man who went missing in the Clearlake Oaks area in 1998. Hammond's dog, Twist, reportedly found traces of Lyons' remains, and Hammond later testified in the trial of Nathan Davison, who was convicted in 2005 of Lyons' murder.


However, Hammond's search of the Hill property yielded no clues, said Robinson.


The Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation last year offered a $5,000 reward for information about Hill, thanks to Robinson's efforts to get attention for her mother's case.


But the rewards are only offered for six months, said Robinson, and the reward money was withdrawn in August 2006 so it could be used for another case.


Robinson said she's still in touch with the foundation, and that they continue to circulate information about Starr Hill's case. She hasn't asked to have the reward reinstated, however.


There are thousands of missing persons around the country, said Robinson, “and families that are going through the same thing we are.”


Hill's DNA was submitted to a national database of missing persons, thanks to Paulich's efforts to get past a Department of Justice backlog, said Robinson. “It took a really long time to get that done,” she said.


The DNA came from a hairbrush Curtis Hill turned over to authorities, along with DNA samples contributed by Starr's brothers and mother.


Tomorrow: The authorities try to piece the case together while the family seeks closure.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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