Rhonda Hunnel wants to see justice for her daughter’s killing, but after 24 years, the Henderson mother is even more focused on another goal: bringing people together by sharing the teen’s story.
Hunnel said she wants to spread “Gina’s hope,” her vision of what her daughter, Regina “Gina” Krieger, would have wanted from the world.
“To me, Gina’s hope is all of this, to bring everybody together and stop this division and lack of sympathy,” Hunnel said. “… That’s what I learned from losing my daughter.”
Regina was days away from turning 15 when she disappeared in 1995 from her basement bedroom at her father’s house in Burley, Idaho. Her decomposed body resurfaced weeks later on a river bank.
It would take 24 years for an arrest to be made, when 56-year-old Gilberto Rodriguez, of Burley, was charged with first-degree murder in February.
He has pleaded not guilty, court records show.
On April 17, prosecutors filed a notice to seek the death penalty. An Idaho judge sent the case to district court May 8, another step toward a resolution in Regina’s death.
Hunnel has shared her daughter’s story whenever she can, through talks in prisons and writing books about her life and “Gina’s hope.”
“Regina’s hope is just justice, first of all, that initially justice will come, and justice will prevail, and the truth will reveal itself,” Hunnel said during a February interview in her Henderson home. “Gina’s Hope is definitely love, love and forgiveness.”
Hunnel plans to follow most of Rodriguez’s court proceedings from Henderson, only traveling to Idaho for a trial and, if he’s found guilty, to see him convicted and sentenced, she said.
“We’re definitely going to trial, and I knew that would happen,” Hunnel said after speaking with prosecutors on May 8. “Because of this type of case, and how old it is, you could probably anticipate six to 12 months before there’s actually a trial date.”
Hunnel told the Review-Journal that during an April preliminary hearing, two witnesses testified — a man who said he was with Rodriguez the night Regina was killed, and a man associated with drug cartels who knew Rodriguez.
The Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, reported that Cody Thompson testified he saw Rodriguez go into Regina’s bedroom in 1995 and come out with a body, which Thompson helped Rodriguez dump in the river.
The newspaper also reported that the man involved with the cartels testified that Rodriguez told him about the killing.
Hunnel has said her daughter admitted to using drugs during the last months of her life.
Regina was a happy teenager who loved to doodle and sing in her church’s children’s choir. Above all, Regina loved her friends, Hunnel said.
“Everybody was somebody special in her eyes,” she said.
Regina had promised to stop using drugs, and Hunnel made arrangements for the 14-year-old to live with her again in Twin Falls.
Then her daughter disappeared.
“It was Feb. 27, 1995, that I got a phone call, 7 o’clock in the morning, from my son, who was 13 at the time, saying that Regina was missing — there was blood in the basement, that there were police officers around the house, his dad was freaking out,” Hunnel said.
In mid-April, law enforcement rang: A body was found by the Snake River.
Horseback riders found the body, later identified as Regina, The Associated Press reported. Her throat was slashed, and she had been stabbed in the heart. She was in the river at least 30 days.
In 2001, Hunnel began sending letters to police departments, politicians and true crime TV shows, begging for help to find answers.
In December 2015, an FBI agent named Chris Sheehan offered to help.
“I’m happy that the new investigators with Cassia County that actually oversee my daughter’s case have been very helpful and supportive with Chris and his efforts with this investigation,” Hunnel said.
The Salt Lake City FBI field office, which covers the Idaho county, declined a request for a reporter to speak with Chris until Rodriguez’s court proceedings are finished.
Hunnel didn’t want to talk about the gruesome details of her daughter’s death, and declined to speculate about what evidence led to Rodriguez’s arrest.
‘Healing from grief and anger’
While living in Las Vegas for the first time from 2006 to 2011, Hunnel started writing her first book, “A Snake in the Grass: A Memoir,” about Regina, and Hunnel’s life after her death.
Hunnel said she wrote the book with inmates in mind.
When Regina died, Hunnel was working as a corrections officer in a juvenile facility. She began sharing her story with teenagers at the facility, later speaking at adult prisons. During presentations, she shows inmates a slideshow with pictures of Regina.
“My goal was to write this book with the intention that here’s a guy or gal sitting in a small cell room, lying down on a really thin mattress, reading my book and possibly relating to it from their own childhood,” she said.
Now that she’s back in the valley, Hunnel plans to write a second book about her life.
“It’s just going to describe a little bit more in detail my journey of loss, healing from grief and anger,” she said. “And then it will go into the actual court events, as far as when (Rodriguez was) finally arrested, and then I’m going to go into details regarding my experiences of people I’ve met.”
When Hunnel does attend court proceedings, she plans to print the words “Gina’s hope” on shirts for her and others to wear.
“I believe this is going to be a long trial, and I just want that message to be repeated during this whole process,” she said.