A young woman whose life was full of promise saw her future tragically — and violently — cut short after she found herself at the wrong place at the wrong time on a cold winter day in 1992.
On December 17, 1992, 22-year-old Kristin Huggins was preparing to travel from her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Trenton, New Jersey for her first real job. A recent graduate of Temple University’s art school, Kristin had been hired to paint a mural at a health club in Trenton. She left for her 9:30 a.m. appointment that morning, but she failed to return home that night.
When her parents, James and Karen Huggins, noticed Kristin’s car was still not in the driveway the following morning, they began to worry. They reached out to their son, who was the one who recommended Kristin for the job opportunity, to see if he’d heard from her, at which point they learned that he’d gotten a call the previous day from the health club manager, informing him that Kristin had never shown up for her appointment that morning.
“For her to miss it, it was not her character,” Suzette Parmley, a correspondent with the NJ Law Journal, told San Eli’s “Buried in the Backyard” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
After the concerned parents reached out to Kristin’s best friend Adina Glorioso and found she also hadn’t heard from Kristin, they reported their daughter missing. Police met with the family and began to investigate. Because Kristin was excited about beginning her art career, they quickly ruled out the possibility that she’d disappeared of her own accord.
“The parents were devastated. They knew there was trouble here,” Joe Constance, a retired Deputy Chief with the Trenton Police Department, told producers.
A lead in the case came the following day when police received troubling news: Kristin’s car had been found, but she wasn’t in it.
A patrolman in Trenton who’d heard about the case remembered seeing a car that fit the description of Kristin’s vehicle in a local tow lot. It turned out the car was hers — but the vehicle was in bad shape. It was dirty, the license plates had been removed, and all four tires were flat.
“Mud was packed in the inside and outside of the car, which tells us that someone is trying to cover up possible evidence, like fingerprints, from a crime,” Constance said.
Kristin’s personal belongings, like her art supplies and purse, were also missing from the vehicle, but authorities were able to retrieve evidence in the form of hair and other fibers from the car.
Detectives interviewed those in Kristin’s circle and learned from her best friend that a classmate named Daniel had been relentlessly pursuing Kristin and that his interest had turned into harassment. Kristin had told her friends that he wouldn’t take no for an answer and his behavior had begun to scare her.
Police brought Daniel in for questioning and were disturbed by his behavior: While speaking to authorities, he had a nonchalant demeanor and the smile never fell from his face, authorities recalled. He also refused to take a polygraph test, further sparking suspicion. However, after police found that his alibi — he was working and hanging out with friends when Kristin went missing — checked out, they had no choice but to rule him out as a suspect.
Meanwhile, Kristin’s loved ones were wracked with anxiety.
“We didn’t know where she was. We all knew something was wrong,” Adina Glorioso told producers.
As the investigation wore on, police tried a new tactic and traced Kristin’s journey to New Jersey on the day that she disappeared. Spotting a convenience store along her presumed route, they decided to try their luck with the store manager, who told them that he didn’t remember seeing Kristin but gave them hours of security footage to review.
The tapes provided a huge break in the case: Kristin was caught on camera buying coffee and cigarettes on the morning that she disappeared. She didn’t seem distressed and didn’t talk to anyone; her car was also still clean at that point, which led authorities to conclude that whatever had happened to her happened after she left the store and was headed to her appointment.
Police spoke to the health club manager Kristin was supposed to meet with, who recalled seeing a man on the property the morning that Kristin was supposed to arrive. He asked the man why he was there, and the stranger claimed that he’d come to retrieve his bike.
It was a promising lead. Police feared Kristin could have come into contact with this mysterious stranger in the parking lot of the health club, so they quickly did a canvassing of the area in an attempt to find him. However, that proved fruitless, as did the family’s local search for Kristin.
“Honestly, we felt in despair. You’re searching and you’re searching and you can’t find this person, and the longer it went on, the more painful it became,” Glorioso said.
As the weeks dragged on, Kristin’s parents made the decision to appear on television for information regarding their daughter’s disappearance. Mere days later, police received a valuable tip: A few teens told authorities that they’d seen Kristin’s parents’ plea and felt guilty. They admitted that they’d ridden in Kristin’s car with their uncle, who told them that he’d carjacked the vehicle from a girl and killed her. They were afraid to come forward because they feared their uncle would hurt them, too, if they did.
“We couldn’t believe what we heard from these 14-year-old kids,” Constance told producers.
The teens said that their uncle had even shown them Kristin’s ID and other cards in her wallet, and that he had tried, unsuccessfully, to use her debit card to withdraw money from an ATM.
Finally, police had a real lead: Ambrose Harris, a man who’d been convicted for assaulting five other women, both before and after he was believed to have attacked and killed Kristin.
“He was a serial rapist and a serial kidnapper,” Carmen Salvatore, a retired detective with the Trenton Police Department, told producers.
In a strange turn of events, Harris had already been arrested for kidnapping another woman after his encounter with Kristin, so he was already in jail. However, when they tried to question him about what had happened to Kristin, he refused to talk. Still, they were able to test his hair and found that it matched the hair found in Kristin’s car, and fibers from his clothing were found to match remnants recovered from her car. Surveillance cameras had also captured him driving Kristin’s car to an ATM, where he tried to use her debit card to withdraw money from her account.
Unfortunately, police still did not know where they could find Kristin’s body, but another break in the case came after Kristin’s parents offered a $25,000 reward for information on their daughter.
A woman named Gloria Dunn who claimed to be a psychic came forward in February 1993 and told police that she’d had a premonition of where Kristin’s body could be found. She led authorities to a deserted part of Trenton, deep in the woods, where they first found a shoe sticking out of a shallow grave before finally locating the hastily-buried body of a deceased woman: Kristin.
As police waited for the autopsy report to come in, they proceeded to question the alleged psychic about how she came to know where Kristin’s body could be found. When police pressed her for answers, she suddenly blurted out that she did not shoot Kristin — a strange admission for someone who had no way of knowing that Kristin had been shot, as the autopsy results had not yet come back.
Police concluded then that Gloria must have been present during Kristin’s murder, and she eventually admitted as much and was arrested for murder. Meanwhile, Kristin’s loved ones were devastated that her case had come to such a tragic conclusion.
The autopsy report revealed that Kristin had been shot twice in the head, and there was dirt found in her lungs, suggesting that she’d been buried alive.
“It’s soul-crushing. We knew something was wrong, but you never think your friend is dead. You/ hope they’re not,” Glorioso said. “My best friend was there one minute and she was gone [..] She didn’t deserve it.
Kristin’s loved ones were finally able to lay her to rest and three years later, Harris stood trial for her murder. Dunn testified against him in exchange for a reduced sentence of 30 years, and laid out the series of events for the court.
According to Dunn, Harris had come up with a plan for the two of them to rob a sandwich shop, but they needed a car to do so. When they saw Kristin pull into the parking lot of the health club on that fateful morning, they struck: Harris forced Kristin into the trunk of the car. Harris decided that they needed to kill her because she was making too much noise, and so they drove to a secluded area in the woods, where Harris raped Kristin and then shot her twice in the head.
He then dug a shallow grave and threw her inside of it and, because she was still alive, he shot her again in the head.
Harris was convicted and sentenced to death. However, his sentence was changed in 2007 to life without the possibility of parole when New Jersey abolished the death penalty.