Hit-and-run cold case nets suspect
Woman accused of running down Matt Messina appears in court
The woman accused of causing the accident that killed a would-be Chico State University student last June entered a not-guilty plea in court Tuesday, where she was arraigned on a single felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident.
The accused, Heather Marie Bush, 31, showed little emotion as she was led, shackled and dressed in blue pants and an orange, jail-issued shirt, to face Judge Mike Kelly. She spoke quietly for a moment with her court-appointed attorney, then was guided out without comment.
Messina’s hit-and-run death, which occurred June 17, 2003, as he pedaled his bike home from a friend’s house, was a mystery for almost a year before an unidentified person offered up information implicating Bush. Police aren’t releasing the informant’s name but have hinted that whoever it is may be connected somehow with the crime. Acting on the tip, California Highway Patrol investigator Keith Staton, assisted by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, questioned Bush earlier this month.
According to Staton, Bush told investigators she had been drinking on the night of the accident and was returning home from a nearby liquor store when she struck Messina at the corner of Pomona and Miller avenues, where they meet River Road. Bush, who has a DUI on her record as well as infractions for speeding and driving with a suspended license, reportedly told investigators that when she hit Messina, she panicked and drove home. Her boyfriend and his half-brother, who reside with Bush, helped her cover up the accident by repairing the damage to her van, Staton said.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say they had expertise, but they knew how to do repairs,” he said, adding that the vehicle, a gray 1991 Plymouth Voyager, was fixed the next day “under a tree” on the property where they live. The two men, Don Knight, 36, and Robert Owen, 29, are currently out on bail after being charged as accomplices. Owen and Bush are apparently also involved in a custody dispute over a child, court records show.
Staton had previously inspected Bush’s van within a few weeks of the crime, but while he noticed some small dents, there was nothing to indicate that it was the vehicle involved in Messina’s death. Staton had been looking at several vehicles in the area and was acting on a neighbor’s tip that a van matching the description of Bush’s Voyager was often seen speeding near where Messina was hit.
Messina’s father, Sam Messina, has been very active in the investigation of his son’s death. He flew out several times from New York to talk with residents of the area where the accident happened and worked with the media to try to bring more attention to the case.
In a phone interview Monday, Messina said that while the damage this has done to his family is both “immeasurable” and irreparable, he takes comfort in knowing that the perpetrator may have been caught.
“It’s good to know what happened,” he said. “When you doubt and you don’t know what happened, lots of things go through your head. The person that hit Matthew might have helped him, and instead they left him on the street.”
Messina said the ordeal has given him a perspective on both the worst and best parts of human nature. Although he said he can’t understand how a person could live with the secret of having killed somebody, he also is grateful for the support and consolation the family has received, often from complete strangers. Messina and his family plan to be back in Chico on June 19, where they will hold a vigil at the corner where Matthew died. Also in attendance will be two people whose lives were saved by the donation of Matthew’s organs.