NEW INFO: The Leah Hickman Case, Five Years Later

By: WSAZ News Staff Email
By: WSAZ News Staff Email

UPDATE 12/14/11 @ 6 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Four years ago on Wednesday, Dec. 14, Marshall University journalism student Leah Hickman went missing.

A week later, police found her body and began a murder investigation.

One thousand four hundred and sixty days later, there are still no arrests. digs deeper into this murder investigation -- only to find that one investigator is taking this case personally.

It’s the passion in a policeman's head and heart.

We've learned that just about every homicide detective has one case that takes hold of them -- an investigation that leads to bonds formed with family members.

For Huntington Police Lt. John Williams, bringing Leah Hickman’s murderer to justice is about much more than the job.

“First and foremost, this is not a cold case that's up on a shelf that no one's doing anything about,” Williams said.

While it's not actually on a shelf, Hickman’s name is prominent on the unsolved homicide board that Williams sees above his desk every day.

After the 21-year-old Hickman's body was discovered strangled, wrapped in plastic and tucked in a crawl space beneath her apartment, Williams developed and still has persons of interest.

And Williams says the tiny amount of DNA gathered has been tested. With current technology, though, it did not yield the evidence needed to advance the case.

“Who's to say that six months from now the technology might be available to test this evidence," Williams said. "It might be the key to solving this case.”

Since Hickman’s murder, no one has lived in Apt. 1, the apartment where she lived. In fact, no one has lived in the entire building, and some say no one may ever live there again.

Williams says during the past four years, he's formed more than a working friendship with Hickman's father, Ron Hickman. And it's Ron and Leah’s family and friends who drive this detective to solve this case.

”Yes, everybody's painfully aware that someone did this to someone's daughter, that this family needs resolution," Williams said. "Every day, we think of it.”

We talked to Ron Hickman on this painful anniversary. He says he prayed hard Wednesday morning and spent time with his family.

And Ron says no parent is ever going to be satisfied with an unsolved murder case, saying there are things in the investigation he wishes could be done.

Williams says if you know someone holding back that one piece of information that might help make a murder arrest, call the Huntington Police.

UPDATE 12/14/10 @ 11 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- It has been three years since Marshall Student Leah Hickman was murdered. The person who killed her is still on the loose, according to police.

Aside from tips, detectives rely on DNA evidence to bring her killer to justice.

Forensics labs across the country, like the one at Marshall University, use DNA to help detectives fight crime -- connecting evidence to suspects. DNA analysts can use even the tiniest piece of evidence to make matches.

"You can take the minimal amount of DNA and make numerous amounts of exact copies in a test tube," Dr. Terry Fenger said.

Fenger runs the Forensic Center at Marshall. He said even though exact copies can be made, analysts must still be selective.

"Over time you're going to eventually going to run out of DNA if you don't preserve it for the most exact area of DNA testing," Fenger said. Although analysts agree under the correct conditions, DNA can be used for up to 40 years, nothing lasts forever.

Three years ago, when Leah Hickman's body was found wrapped in plastic and shoved in a crawl space in her apartment, DNA was collected. Some of that mitochondrial DNA was shipped out west to a lab in New Mexico. Tests were inconclusive.

Detective John Williams with the Huntington Police Department has been on the Hickman case since the beginning. Evidence, he said, is truly lacking. He said he believes HPD has already made contact with the killer.

"We have our suspicions, but until we get evidence, we can't make a concrete case against someone," Williams said.

The clock is ticking on Leah Hickman's case. Every time a test is done, small pieces of DNA evidence is forever gone. It may be that DNA technology that gives Leah's father, Ron Hickman, closure.

"Hopefully, there are going to be some leaps and bounds in technology," Hickman said, "And hopefully that's on the horizon and not long off."

Dr. Fenger said it's true: technology changes every day, but seeing that change can take years.

"It's slow to change because you're always dealing with the legal system," Fenger said, "And the legal system does not change rapidly."

If you have any information that may lead to closure for Leah Hickman's Family, you are asked to call the Huntington Police Detective Unit.

UPDATE 12/14/10 @ 7:10 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Three years ago on Tuesday, a family received troubling news -- their Marshall University student was missing.

A week later, Leah Hickman was found murdered.

It's a case that still haunts family and police as much now, if not more, than it did then.

"There are happy moments and then, when I get away from everyone, there's a big crash and I remember my baby," Ron Hickman said.

That's been the heart-wrenching routine for Ron Hickman nearly everyday for the last three years since his daughter, Leah, was found murdered.

"It's still very tough. She was special," Hickman said.

In December 2007, Leah was just 21 and a broadcast major at Marshall University. She disappeared one day and -- a week later -- was found dead -- wrapped in plastic and stuffed in a crawl space in her Huntington apartment building.

Her killer is still on the loose as of December 2010.

"There's a fine line between disappointment and anger," Ron Hickman said.

For him, the wait is maddening. But, for Huntington police, wait is all they can do.

"What we collected from the crime scene we hope technology will evolve where we can use that to determine a suspect," Huntington Police Lt. John Williams said.

Williams has been on this case since day one. He says no one is more frustrated than he is. But, the minuscule amount of DNA collected at the crime scene severely limits their options now.

“The evidence we got opened a few more questions, and it's not enough to pursue a strong case,” Lt. Williams said.

For Ron, everyday is a struggle -- a struggle to relive the memories while comprehending the reality.

One thing he knows: "I’m going to continue to fight for justice for my baby until my last breath,” he said.

Police and family are still asking for anyone who may know anything to call police.

UPDATE 1/26/08
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) -- The director of the State Police Crime Lab says DNA tests are ongoing on evidence in the death of Marshall University journalism student Leah Hickman.

Soraya McLung says the lab has finished testing the first set of evidence sent by Huntington police investigators. But she says tests on a second set of evidence are not finished.

McLung and Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook declined to say what is being tested.

But Holbrook says detectives hope the tests lead them to a suspect.

Hickman was last seen alive Dec. 14. Her body was found in a basement crawl space in the Huntington apartment building where she lived Dec. 21.

While tests are continuing, Holbrook says detectives continue to question people and have eliminated some suspects.

UPDATE 12/28/07
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- “At this time, we don't have a definite suspect. The best way to answer is no one has been excluded,” Huntington Police Sergeant Rocky Johnson said.

That's frustrating for Sgt. Johnson who's been working the Leah Hickman case around the clock since the day she was reported missing two weeks ago.

“We've gone back and interviewed previous tenants from way back, the landlord, maintenance people, the mailman, anyone who's been in that building,” Sgt. Johnson said.

There’s still been nothing, though. Sgt. Johnson says it was because of good police work that they found her body by checking and re-checking their footsteps.

“Started at basement and worked our way up,” Sgt. Johnson said, “There were no tips. It came to our forensic guys and different types of search lead to the body.”

While police don't mind talking about how they found her body, the condition it was in, how it got there and what lead to her death in the first place are all still very much hush-hush.

“You don't want to taint witnesses, potential jurors, don't want false confessions,” Sgt. Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Dress Barn continues its strong support. They're giving the $10,000 they originally put up as a reward for information to find Leah to the family now to pay funeral expenses. Saturday employees from other stores will come in to work that one in Barboursville, so Leah’s co-workers can attend the funeral.

The big question is why all of this for a young woman who worked here for less than six months? The store's response was after day one at the Dress Barn, you're family and they treat all of their employees as such.

Sgt. Johnson says as mysterious as this case has turned, there's no reason for any paranoia or even fear.

“It's hard to say if she was targeted,” Sgt. Johnson said.

Huntington police continue to ask for you to call in with any leads no matter how minor or insignificant you may think they are.

Leah's funeral is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Army National Guard Armory in Pt. Pleasant.

It's been a week since police found Leah's body in a crawl under her building and still no developments in her murder case, but police say their lack of leads isn't for lack of trying.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Huntington Police have positively identified the body of a woman found Friday in the crawlspace of a Huntington apartment building as that of Leah Hickman. Hickman's body was found late Friday afternoon.

Police made the announcement at a scheduled news conference Monday afternoon. Police say they have recovered evidence from Hickman's apartment building but are releasing little additional information.

Police say they have no suspects at this time and continue to conduct interviews. Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook would not comment if investigators were looking out of state.

Stay tuned to for the latest information on the case.

Saturday Afternoon
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Investigators removed a woman's body from Hickman's apartment building around 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

Huntington police will not hold a press conference Saturday, but they are expected to release the woman's identity once they get a positive ID.

The next media briefing on the investigation is scheduled for 2pm Monday.

Saturday Morning
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- This morning a new shift of police and detectives has arrived at an apartment where a body, believed to be Leah Hickman, has been found.

Huntington police, a forensics team and the FBI spent the night and early morning searching for clues where she lived on 8th Avenue.

The body remains in the house.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Huntington Police found what they believe to be the body of missing Marshall University student Leah Hickman. Huntington Police made the announcement at a news conference Friday night.

Police found the body of a young adult female matching the description of Leah Hickman in the crawlspace of her apartment building. Police forensic teams are currently examining the body and the crime scene for evidence. Hickman's apartment was on the second floor. Police say the crawlspace was accessible from several areas.

Forensic investigators began concentrating on the basement laundry area of Hickman's apartment building Friday afternoon.

"It's a tragic situation." said Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

Police say they have no suspects. Hickman was last seen last Friday. Her family reported her missing on Sunday after she failed to show up for work.

Investigators found the body around 5pm.

State Police and investigators rushed to Hickman’s apartment in Huntington late Friday afternoon. Police have taped off a large area around Hickman's apartment and blocked off surrounding streets.

We have a crew on the scene and will update this story as new information becomes available.

Stay tuned to WSAZ NewsChannel 3 and for the latest on this developing situation.

Click on the links below to open the files:

Thursday Night
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Police confirmed Thursday that one of the doors on Leah Hickman’s car was slightly open when they began the investigation. Police are not’t sure yet where that fits into the time line of events, but they did release a time line of events for the day Leah went missing:

4:00pm - Leah was finishing the dishes, according to her sister who last saw her.

5:40pm - A receipt found in a trashcan shows that Leah ate at McDonald's.

5:00pm - Leah was scheduled to work at the dress Barn, but didn't show up.

Now, friends, family, and co-workers are passing out fliers with Leah’s photo and description.

Police are still checking every lead. Signs of detective work, the fingerprinting dust, is still visible on Leah’s car. Hickman's sister says Leah had six coats and one is missing.

“It was tannish-brown with a fur collar,” her sister said.

“We'll be working on it from now as long as we have to take it,” Sergeant Williams with the Huntington Police Department said.

Jessica said she remembers the last time she spoke to her sister.

“I was here at the door. I said 'see ya sister' just like I’d done a hundred times,” she said.

The FBI has now joined in on the investigation -- and we're told police have interviewed a dozen people about the case.

In just the past few days there has been a lot of national coverage on this case. Leah’s sister was interviewed Thursday night on CNN.

Thursday Morning
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Students and friends set up a candelight vigil for Thursday night at the Memorial Student Center for Leah Hickman. It starts at 6pm and everyone is invited.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- On Wednesday, WV State Police and Huntington Police spent about an hour searching buildings and homes in and around the 400 block of 8th avenue where Leah Hickman lived.

Hickman is 21 and was last seen at 4 p.m. on Friday in her Huntington apartment. She lives at 403 8th Ave. with her sister, Jessica Vickers. According to the police report Hickman’s purse and keys were inside her apartment and her car was still parked.

Police say there hasn’t been any cell phone calls from her phone since Friday. Police have contacted friends and family, but no one has seen or heard from Hickman.

A number of the homes in the area have been abandoned and officers are paying particular attention to these structures. Two supervisors with the detective bureau are spearheading this investigation. They canvassed the neighborhood looking for any clues that could lead them to Leah Wednesday. They searched alleys, yards and abandoned homes for any clues and police say time is of the essence with a missing persons case.

Hickman has shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes. She's 5'2" and 130 pounds.

Katie Hay is on a mission to find her friend.

“We have people in Charleston looking, MySpace, Facebook. We're checking allies and knocking on doors.” Katie said.

Hickman's college friends say they're determined to find Leah. They're hitting local businesses. They're also using the web to drum up support for national media coverage.

All these efforts aren't going unnoticed by Leah’s father.

“I want to thank Leah’s friends for all their hard work they've done and for praying for us for strength,” Leah’s father Ron Hickman said, “More exposure we get, better chance to find my daughter.”

Leah's sister, Jessica talked live via telephone on MSNBC Wednesday morning. Leah's friends are going at this full force. They've covered a lot of territory and they say they won't stop until they find their friend.

Leah's step-father says the family is holding on to hope.

“All I got is hope and prayers. What else can you do?” Leah’s step father Brian Russell said.

There is a $10,000 reward from Leah’s employer, The Dress Barn. The money will be given to anybody who has information that can help police find Leah.

A candlelight vigil is set for 6 p.m. Thursday night at the student center fountain on Marshall’s campus.

Anybody with information that can help police find Leah Hickman should call the Huntington Police Detective Bureau at (304) 696-4420.

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