NEW HAVEN, NY – It was twenty-two years ago now when 18-year-old Heidi Allen disappeared early Easter Sunday morning in 1994 from the D&W convenience store that she worked for in New Haven.
Despite the years that have passed, this particular case has recently caught national attention when it aired on Friday (May 20) as an episode on Dateline NBC entitled ‘The Informant.’
Dateline NBC spent the past year interviewing all the key players in the case, including Heidi’s sister, Lisa Buske, District Attorney Greg Oakes, Sheriff Reuel Todd, defense attorney Lisa Peebles, the Thibodeau family, and even featured the only man ever convicted for Heidi’s disappearance, Gary Thibodeau as well as others.
The one-hour episode summed up the mystery case of Heidi Allen and provided insight from all sides of the case.
Lisa Buske, sister of Heidi Allen appeared on the show with only one goal.
“My hope and goal in participating with the Dateline interviews was to ensure Heidi had a voice and people would hear who Heidi, the energetic, smart, and determined 18-year-old was as a person, not a statistic. I shared who my sister was and hoped others would understand someone’s daughter, sister, family member, friend, and neighbor is the victim in this case and remains missing to this day,” Buske told Oswego County Today.
For Peebles and the Thibodeau family, the goal was focused on showcasing their fight to free what they believe to be, an innocent man.
“I think the national attention is good to show the injustice in our county, perhaps it will force our county to do their job. I hope it will encourage others with information to come forward,” said Gary Thibodeau’s niece, Amanda Crawford.
From the inside of Clinton Correctional Facility, Thibodeau, now 61, sat down with Dateline NBC to continue to profess his innocence as he has done unfaltering since the very first day he was questioned.
Dateline recapped where it all started, in the early hours of Easter Sunday in 1994 when customers showed up to find an unattended D&W Convenience Store and quickly flagged down law enforcement which then launched a missing person’s case for the store’s young cashier, Heidi Allen.
Buske said that while watching the Dateline episode, as flashes from the original 1994 news coverage hit the screen, she was seeing much of it for the first time ever.
“I didn’t watch much television or news coverage in those days, I was at the Heidi Allen Command Center, waiting and hoping Heidi would be found, not at home watching television. It was overwhelming to see the footage that so many watched decades ago,” said Buske.
Upon seeing the news that day that Allen was missing, Richard Thibodeau, brother of Gary, claims to have called the Oswego County Sheriff’s Department to admit his being in the store the same morning to buy cigarettes and offer any help he could provide.
Instead, this confession with a receipt to prove he had been there showed that Richard Thibodeau was the one of the last people known to have seen Heidi Allen. Later, when someone reported having seen Richard Thibodeau and his brother involved in the disappearance of Allen that morning, so began the arrest and further, two trials for two separate juries to decide the Thibodeau brothers’ fate against the kidnapping in the first degree charge they faced.
A jury found Richard Thibodeau not guilty of the kidnapping of Allen, the man whose receipt proved he was in the store just before the report was made.
However, a separate jury found Gary Thibodeau, who claimed to be at home and in bed at the time, guilty of the kidnapping of Allen for which he has now served 21 years of his 25 years to life sentence.
Both Thibodeau brothers have maintained their innocence except, as prosecutors point out as prevalent evidence, when Gary Thibodeau allegedly told two other jail inmates that he had kidnapped and killed Heidi Allen.
These jail house informants were the center of evidence against Gary Thibodeau and District Attorney Greg Oakes stated to Dateline that they were credible sources.
However, a local reporter covering the case for many years, John O’Brien has since sat down with one jail house informant who released to him on record that he never said Gary Thibodeau had admitted to kidnapping Allen.
The episode continued to focus on Tonya Priest, the woman who reintroduced the case in 2013 when she brought forth knowledge that she had been holding onto for years to the District Attorney’s office.
Priest claims to have had a conversation with a man, James Steen, in 2006 when speaking with friends in which Steen admits to Priest that he and two other men, Roger Breckenridge and Michael Bohrer were responsible for Heidi’s disappearance.
Bohrer was admittedly obsessed with the Heidi Allen case and had a prior conviction for false imprisonment in 1981, both characteristics that fit the mold for the profile of the suspect that FBI profiler, Clint Van Zandt predicted as he outlined to Dateline.
Despite a secretly recorded phone conversation in which Priest reaches out to Jennifer Westcott, former girlfriend of Breckenridge, in which Westcott confesses that the men brought Allen to her house in a van, Oakes told Dateline that he did not believe Priest after waiting so many years to bring forth the information she claimed to have.
At that time, Priest contacted federal defense attorney, Lisa Peebles to hear the case against Gary Thibodeau and Peebles quickly filed a motion to overturn Gary’s conviction based on new suspects and withheld evidence after finding out Allen was a confidential informant for the Sheriff’s Department, a fact that defense attorney’s claimed to have been withheld during the original trial.
A judge ultimately denied this request and both Oakes and Sheriff Todd remain confident that they have convicted and imprisoned the right person, as does Lisa Buske.
“There hasn’t been new evidence to prove his innocence,” said Buske, who values the local law enforcement who have worked on Heidi’s case for more than 20 years now. “My faith in God as the all knowing in this case remains steadfast, as does my faith and belief in our law enforcement and district attorney. They are dedicated and determined to keep the convicted in jail and find all involved in Heidi’s kidnapping. I value their integrity to Heidi’s case as they investigate and do their jobs without playing games in the media. They put the victim, Heidi Allen, and her investigation at the fore front and I appreciate and value this.”
For the Thibodeau family, the vast opposite is believed of the same law enforcement.
“Oakes saying the jail house informants are credible because they have stood by their statements and have not changed anything in their statements in 20 years but then one went on record and did in fact change their statement is huge,” Crawford pointed out in her belief that law enforcement has wrongfully imprisoned her uncle.
Richard Thibodeau admitted to Dateline his skeptical reception to law enforcement since the trial for himself and his brother all those years ago, saying that he now lives in fear and regrets most making that phone call to the Sheriff’s Department that ultimately landed his brother in prison.
Gary Thibodeau continues his sentence, awaiting a response from a higher court after Peebles recently filed to an appeals court, he has found a new sense of hope, a reason to live he told Dateline NBC.
While Heidi Allen has yet to be found, Buske told Dateline NBC she will die fighting for her sister.
And despite both families realizing there is only so much that can be aired in one hour, leaving a lot of other important information out, each family has still taken something valuable away from this local case reaching national attention.
“I personally walk away feeling confident with my family. Sometimes going places we would feel uncomfortable. You are so used to people talking down to you after the years and thinking such negative about you, your family,” Crawford said, adding that the day after the show aired, the entire family was able to go to a local park feeling somewhat renewed. “Normally we would have avoided everyone and my dad probably wouldn’t have even went but we all went and walked with our head a little higher, we had a sense of confidence, it felt good. It was like the truth was shown a little to the world with that episode.”
And for Heidi Allen’s family, resolve can never be brought to this case, but the hope can and does remain that she will be found all these years later.
“Personally, to know people in Canada and on the west coast watched the same episode we did and were sharing it on social media, hope for Heidi and all our missing to be found is increased,” said Buske. “There is no resolution or closure, our family, Heidi’s friends, and this community are forever changed … My goal and hope is the same twenty-two years later, to find Heidi and bring her home!”
To watch the full episode of Dateline NBC ‘The Informant’ click here. (Available until 6/24/16)
To watch Dateline NBC’s special, ‘Remembering Heidi’ click here.