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For Heather Strube, a 25-year-old florist and mom going through a divorce in Snellville, Georgia, it was going to be another typical Sunday.
As was their routine, she and her husband, Steven, with whom she shared custody of their son, Carson, met at a Target parking lot in the evening of April 26, 2009 to hand off their 18-month-old.
The exchange went like clockwork, and Steven drove away, according to witnesses who watched the swap in broad daylight. Carson was tucked safely into his car seat.
Right after that, however, someone came up to Heather and argued with her while blocking access to her car. Then the unthinkable happened: The person shot Heather in the head.
“People were hysterical,” Neil Carter of the Snellville Police Department told “Killer Motive,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen. A rookie at the time, Carter recalled the sight of the young mother dead on the ground as “horrific.”
The shooter, caught on mall surveillance tape, walked away from the scene. Witnesses said the killer could have been wearing a wig and a fake mustache. A canine unit was called in to trail the suspect but lost the scent.
Police believed the shooter got into a vehicle and drove away. They also thought that because the crime was carried out in such fluid, choreographed fashion that it had been planned. It didn’t appear that Heather had been targeted randomly, officials told producers.
They began their investigation by narrowing suspects down to a dozen people who knew that Heather and Steven met regularly in the mall parking lot to exchange Carson.
Although they knew that he’d been seen driving away from the crime scene right before the shooting, investigators started by talking with Steven, who was staying at his parents’ house, according to “Killer Motive.” Steven, who’d been arrested for burglary and was on probation, behaved uneasily around the investigators. He managed to explain that after leaving Heather he’d gone to a car wash and then to see his girlfriend. His alibi checked out, but investigators didn’t rule out the possibility that Steven had arranged a hit-for-hire.
Hoping to get a lead on the shooter’s identity, authorities released a composite sketch. The drawing didn’t generate useful leads, but it did spark comparisons to Sonny Bono, investigators told “Killer Motive” host Troy Roberts.
The break in the case that police were banking on came from a truck driver who’d stayed in a hotel behind the mall. A day before the murder, the trucker’s attention was caught by an individual with a white pickup truck with distinctive detailing who was taking pictures of the shopping center or looking at it through binoculars.
The witness later identified that truck as one belonging to Heather’s mother-in-law, Joanna Hayes, 45. When questioned by police, though, Hayes produced a receipt from a snack bar miles from the mall in another county as an alibi. It appeared to be on the up and up.
But when investigators dug deeper into Hayes’ background, they learned that she was determined to remain a daily part of Carson’s life. Her son’s divorce could jeopardize that arrangement.
At this point, police strategized and decided “to apply pressure” to crack the case open, they told producers. On May 5, 2009, they showed Steven the tape of the suspect seen at the parking lot. Steven was visibly shaken when he recognized the person in the video and identified the individual as his own mother.
Steven willingly agreed to help investigators by calling his mom to see if she would talk about the slaying. In a recording of the call obtained by “Killer Motive” he can be heard saying, “It looks just like you … walks like you.”
His mother asked him if he’d told authorities the same thing. When he said yes, she said she would expect to be questioned by police. Hayes was interrogated on May 6. She stuck to her denials about committing the crime, and then walked out.
“For lack of a better phrase, she said, ‘Bring it,’” said Christa Kirk, former assistant district attorney for Gwinnett County.
Hayes remained implacable when she was interviewed again on October 29, 2009, but nearly eight months after the crime, Hayes was arrested and charged with murder in December 2009.
The trial began on May 4, 2011 and prosecutors had no murder weapon or even the wig Hayes supposedly wore. They knew their case was circumstantial and they were braced for an uphill battle. A major impediment: Several witnesses described seeing a man, not a woman, pull the trigger.
What they did have, however, was taped footage of Steven’s visceral and emotional response when he saw the suspect in the mall video and immediately identified the shooter as his mother.
The snack bar receipt that Hayes produced as an alibi backfired, according to investigators. It actually showed that she would have had enough time to commit the murder and get to the fast-food spot.
Prosecutors also had a compelling motive to account for Hayes' homicidal act, said Kirk. It was Carson. “She wanted the baby on her terms.”
Jurors were convinced. Hayes was found guilty of murder on May 27, 2011. She was sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 30 years. She has appealed the verdict, which has been upheld.
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