This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
Joe Hill always taught his kids that they were strong.
Leisa, Joe’s daughter, shared one of her favorite memories of her father.
“I remember one time when I fell off my bike and scraped my knee,” she said. “My dad brought me into the house and poked at each of my muscles. He said ‘Feel how strong you are’. I was still crying, he laid back and had my head in his arms. He was flexing his muscles, and my head was bouncing up and down. He said ‘you feel how strong that is? You’re my daughter, you’re this strong.’
His grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren know his signature pose of flexing his arms to show off his strength.
In 1981, Joe Hill had three young children who adored him. At the end of August 1981, Joe took his kids to Florida. They went to Disney World and another amusement park. After their trip to Disney, Joe dropped Leisa off at her mother’s house in Alabama before returning to Michigan with his other children.
“I remember for some reason I could not let him go that day,” Leisa said. “I made him turn around five times. I remember him saying, ‘Daddy will be back. You must stop crying, Leisa, you’re strong.” But Leisa never got to see her father again, he went missing once he returned to Michigan.
Joe never got to see his own children grow up.
“He carried this whole family,” said Leisa. “He carried everyone. And when he left it, it changed everything.”
Joe Hill was 29 when he went missing on September 1st, 1981, in Detroit, Michigan. For 36 years, his family did not know what happened.
“He walked away, and he never returned,” said Robert Hill, Joe’s brother. “He left the house and was never seen by the family again.”
Four days after Joe disappeared, a torso was found in a garbage dump on Detroit’s east side. No connection was made between Hill’s disappearance and the torso at that time
Joe’s car, a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, was found three days after that. It had been left at a carwash near the Clinton Township police station.
Robert received a call, while out of town and found out about his brother’s disappearance a week later. He immediately felt something was wrong and wanted the police to do more.
“When someone goes missing, the first person you look at is the (victim’s) significant other,”
Joe’s partners at the time, have never been questioned regarding his case.
The Hill family has not spoken to or seen Joe’s partner since 1981.
He also shared the reason why the torso was ruled out as a possible connection to his brother’s disappearance. When the police first talked to the Hill family, they claimed that the torso found a few days after Joe disappeared belonged to a white man. Which ruled out as a possible connection to Joe’s case.
“How do you confuse a black man’s torso for a white mans?” Robert asked.
A description of the partial remains found in 1981 was released to the public several decades later, and Robert Hill shared that this was how the family was able to connect the two cases.
“When I read the height and weight, I knew it was him. I just knew,” Robert said.
And it was. Robert explained that the Hill family had the partial remains exhumed in August of 2017 and in March of 2018, they were identified as Joe.
“It just reopened the wounds all over again,” Robert said. “We were pleased to find the torso and have some part of him. But it was just hard.”
Joe Hill’s memory lives on with his family.
He was a man of many talents. Joe had a curious mind, he always wanted to know how things worked. This led to him always having an advanced knowledge on multiple subjects, and a love for inventing new things.
Joe was also incredibly athletic. Everyone who met him knew he was strong, from the way he carried himself to the way he looked, Joe was always extremely fit. He even earned a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a sport he did with his brother Robert.
Above all else, Joe was kind. He wanted to be there for everyone, and always stressed the importance of believing in yourself.
“I think that’s how he would want to be remembered. Joe would want people to know how he was,” said Robert. “He always wanted to help people; that’s just the kind of man he was.”
Joe would always stress the importance of his family’s strength, flexing his muscles to show how strong they all are.
“At the end of the day,” said Leisa. “He made me feel like I was strong, and I carried that through my life.”
Anyone with information on the unsolved murder of Joe Burnic Hill is asked to contact the Detroit Police at 313-596-1800.
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