Theresa Hildebrandt was an energetic and feisty teen who loved music, animals and her family.
She was a good girl who did well in school and caused few issues for her parents. She did run away once – to the Blue Star Motel in Aldergrove to see her boyfriend – after a fight with her dad, but her family tracked her down within a few hours, and all was forgiven.
So when she failed to show up for a family dinner with her three siblings, parents and grandparents on Victoria Day, May 24, 1976, there was immediate concern.
Despite her one runaway episode, the 15-year-old was otherwise responsible and would not miss a family occasion. If something had come up, she would have called.
Worry quickly turned to fear, and the Matsqui Police Department was called.
An officer arrived at the home on Sunvalley Crescent – located between Bradner and Ross roads, north of Simpson Road – to take a report.
Yes, Theresa had run away before, but it wasn’t a serious attempt to leave home, the family told the officer.
They pointed out that on this occasion, she had left behind all her belongings – including her prized transistor radio, which she most certainly would have taken if she were leaving for any length of time.
Theresa’s oldest brother Harold, then 20, indicated that he had last seen his sister earlier that day when he ran into her and her boyfriend in Langley, across from the A&W Restaurant.
The couple had hitchhiked from Abbotsford, and he expected Theresa to show up for dinner that night. He regretted that he hadn’t driven her home.
Sister Debbie, then 18, recalled that Theresa was wearing a blue jacket that day. She also always wore a heavy chain bracelet that Harold had fashioned for her because she admired the one he sported.
The family insisted there was reason to be concerned, but the officer said Theresa most likely had run away. The family felt like he was brushing them off.
There were no newspaper stories or TV news clips alerting the public to Theresa’s disappearance nor any official searches to try to find her.
It would be four years before there were any answers.
* * *
Harold and Debbie flip through an old family photo album and smile as they recall their spirited younger sister.
Theresa stands out as the only blonde child among three brunette siblings, also including John, who was born five years after Theresa.
They grew up on a rural property in the Bradner area before moving to the Sunvalley Crescent home not long before Theresa’s disappearance.
Their dad, Harry, worked in construction, and mom Sandy was a homemaker.
Because they were located so far from town and from many of their friends, the four siblings forged a solid bond. Harold and Debbie recall spending many hours riding their bikes together, and all four had paper routes.
Theresa was a gentle soul, who brought home many stray animals over the years, but who could also be stubborn and spunky.
“I shared a room with her. We had our scraps … She would take no crap from me,” Debbie laughs.
Theresa loved music and enjoyed playing piano, especially the popular hits of the day from groups such as CCR, the Bee Gees and the Beatles. Debbie still has many of her old music books set up on a small keyboard in her Aldergrove home.
Harold, who still lives in Abbotsford, recalls how once a week the siblings would go to the local second-hand store and trade in their comic books, or have their mom drop them off at Aldergrove Lake to spend the day.
* * *
In 1980, four years after Theresa disappeared and just one month before Debbie’s high school graduation, her parents received a call from police, saying a body had been found by some kids in a shallow grave in a gully near Downes and Mt. Lehman roads.
Police wanted to know if Theresa was wearing a blue jacket and a heavy bracelet on her wrist when she disappeared.
It would take several days for dental records to confirm that the remains were indeed Theresa’s. The autopsy revealed she had died from a severe blow to the head, possibly caused by a large rock or a hammer.
The family had long believed that Theresa had met a terrible fate, but they had hoped she was still alive – perhaps sold into prostitution or held captive.
Their dad had continued to look for Theresa over the years, one time driving to Prince George to scour the streets after police received a tip from someone who thought they had seen her there.
Frustrated at the lack of progress in the case, he also hired a private investigator at one point.
To this day, neither Harold nor Debbie know what information the investigation produced. Theresa’s boyfriend was ruled out as a suspect, but what happened after Harold ran across the couple in Langley? How did Theresa end up alone? Was she picked up by someone? Was there a suspect description?
If there were answers, they were carried by their father, who shielded the rest of the family – including his wife – from the details to protect them from the pain.
The burden became too much. Harold said their dad’s hair turned white within three months of Theresa’s body being discovered, and three years later, at the age of 49, he suffered a fatal heart attack while giving a speech at the local university for families of victims of violence.
The family sprinkled his ashes in the Similkameen Valley in Princeton in the same spot where Harry had spread Theresa’s ashes, which he had carried on the back of his motorcycle on a solo trip.
Debbie and Harold still hope for answers in Theresa’s death, but have accepted those might not come. They think of her often and both have drastically different dreams about her.
For Debbie, Theresa will show up at the door and say, “I’m not really dead,” and the two will go shopping.
Harold experiences images of her brutal and violent death.
“I don’t want to dream about it. It just happens,” he says.
Debbie says their mom, who lives in Aldergrove with the youngest of the four siblings, has difficulty talking about Theresa’s death but is becoming more open about it.
They were encouraged by the first-degree murder charges laid last November against Garry Taylor Handlen, 67, for the deaths of Kathryn-Mary Herbert, 11, of Matsqui in 1975 and Monica Jack, 12, of Merritt in 1978.
Kathryn-Mary’s death was similar, in that her skull was fractured and her jaw was broken. Her body was found near Harris Road in an undeveloped area less than about 10 kilometres north from where Theresa’s body was discovered.
Police have said they have not been able to link Handlen to Theresa’s death. Debbie and Harold said the arrest gives them renewed hope that their sister’s murder can also be solved, although they try not to dwell on it.
“You just have to trust in the police and God and say, ‘If he (the killer) is not dealt with in this life, he sure as hell will be dealt with in the afterlife,” Debbie said.
RCMP Sgt. Rob Vermeulen said police have no details to share on Theresa’s death, but anyone with information is asked to contact the tip line for the unsolved homicide unit: 877-543-4822.
(Photo below: Theresa Hildebrandt (far left) is shown in a family photo taken not long before she went missing. Also in the photo are her brother John (left) and Harold, sister Debbie, and parents Harry and Sandy.)