PHOENIX - Family members of a murdered pregnant woman are hoping a recent tip may help detectives solve the four-year-old homicide case of Brittanee Howard.
The invitations for Brittanee Howard's baby shower had already been printed and mailed to the guests by May 1, 2008. The 21-year-old mother-to-be was a month from her due date and overjoyed at the news she would be having a little girl. Her baby shower was just two days away.
"Everybody was excited about this baby," Arlene Banks, Brittanee's mom, told ABC15.
She looked forward to the birth of Jayme Breanne, her first grandchild.
"We were going to have a big baby shower," she said. "We were going to have a big party for everybody, and that's what we were looking forward to – and we had the place all rented. We were preparing."
But Banks never had the chance to meet Jayme Breanne.
She never had the chance to throw a shower for her own biological child, Brittanee.
"We had to switch modes," said Banks. "Go from baby shower mode to funeral mode."
On May 1, 2008, a masked intruder shot Brittanee in the head, while she was still in bed at her boyfriend's parents' house in Laveen.
The shooting killed her unborn baby too.
"We found ourselves sitting in the mortuary on the day we were supposed to be having her baby shower," said Banks.
According to initial reports from police, two intruders broke into the home near 67th and Southern avenues, and entered the bedroom where Brittanee and her fiancé, James Gibson, had been sleeping.
According to Gibson, he tried to wrestle the gun away from one of the suspects and someone pulled the trigger during the struggle.
The bullet struck Brittanee in the head.
"I think she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Capt. Stephen Whitney, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Major Crimes Division Commander. He told the ABC15 Investigators he did not think the homicide was completely random.
"I think (the suspects) were in that house for a reason, but I would only speculate what that motive was," Whitney said.
THE 911 CALL
"Somebody broke in my house and shot my girlfriend," Gibson cried to a dispatcher when he called 911.
"He had a mask on his face," Gibson reported, as his girlfriend lay next to him on the bed.
"She's barely taking air," Gibson said. "Brittanee stay with me, Brittanee," he sobbed to his girlfriend.
He told the dispatcher he thought she was already dead.
For years, Brittanee's family has been struggling to understand why and how their daughter and her unborn baby had been shot to death.
"Brittanee was just a bright child," Banks said. "She was a person you want in your company. Any time she'd come into the room, she'd just light up the room. She was just a happy child. She was happy. She was fun. You couldn't meet a better person."
In the past four years, the sheriff's office has only handed over nine pages of the investigative homicide report.
"It's disappointing. It's frustrating," said David Banks, Brittanee's stepfather. "I try not to let it be consuming because if it is, then we wouldn't be able to continue on."
Banks said despite reports that the gun went off accidentally during a struggle, he believes someone may have pointed the gun directly at Brittanee on purpose.
The autopsy report in Brittanee's death confirms she was shot in the tip of the left index finger in addition to the head.
Banks said that makes him believe Brittanee put her hands up in front of her face in a defiant motion to avoid the gunfire. "I do believe that…there is more to this than we have been told. I will always believe that and nobody can tell me anything different."
AN UNUSUAL TIP
In the spring of 2012, Brittanee's family heard of a development in the murder case.
Brittanee's photograph was on display at the office of a family member who does work with the community. Someone who came in contact with that family member commented that Brittanee's homicide was connected to a Phoenix homicide case. The person gave additional details too.
Eventually, Arlene Banks delivered the details to the detectives handling her daughter's case.
"We kept in contact over the course of a couple of days, and that's when he told me that he had been in contact with someone at the Phoenix Police Department," she said of the detective who has been investigating Brittanee's murder.
Whitney confirmed to ABC15 that his detectives are looking at the possibility that there may be a link between the two homicides.
"We need someone to say they have information that can help us connect some of the dots," Whitney said.
Meanwhile, Brittanee's family said they know someone out there has information, and it is just a matter of time before that person comes forward and helps them solve the case.
"I cannot give up hope. There is a ray of hope that we will get some closure that we will find out why our daughter was taken from us, but it's not a lot of hope," he said.