Sunday, July 20, 2008
What was once thought to be a desert murder turns out to be an elaborate suicide based on an episode of 'CSI'
By Candace Carlisle
FORT WORTH — The white balloons attracted two passing motorists' attention March 15 in the arid landscape of eastern New Mexico.
Looking closer, they saw what appeared to be a body on the ground.
When New Mexico State Police arrived, they found that the body was that of a man who had been shot in the back of the head, his mouth sealed with duct tape. A murder, they decided.
But what about the balloons? Six or seven of them were entangled in a cholla cactus, attached by white ribbons to a revolver. The balloons and the gun were about 30 feet from the body, soon identified as that of Thomas A. Hickman, 55, of Richland Hills near Fort Worth.
Journal GraphicNew Mexico State Police
A gun attached to helium balloons was caught on a cactus after Thomas Hickman of Richland Hills, Texas, tried to make his suicide look like a homicide. Investigators believe he was trying to secure a higher life insurance payout for his wife.New Mexico State Police
The serial number had been filed off the gun that investigators believe Thomas Hickman used to kill himself. A research scientist at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology helped match metal shavings found in Hickman's garage to the gun.
Ultimately, those clues — the balloons and the gun — led police to a different conclusion: that Hickman had created a complicated ruse to make his suicide look like a murder.
"When you find someone to the side of the road with a shot to the back of the head and duct tape, you assume homicide," said Eric Schum, an agent with the state police in Santa Fe.
But, after two months of investigation, police had the evidence they needed to explain what had happened, he said.
As they came to learn, the plot of a episode on the TV show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in October 2003 included similar circumstances.
Hickman was last seen alive at a business meeting in Abilene about 11 a.m. March 13, two days before his body was found. His family reported him missing after he didn't show up at a Lubbock hotel that night.
Hickman had been in Abilene as part of his job as West Texas director of operations for Red Lobster restaurants. He'd been with the company for 33 years, winning many awards and working in restaurants in Lubbock, Abilene, Fort Worth and Burleson, his wife, Lisa Hickman, said in March.
He and Lisa, who were married 29 years, moved to North Texas four years ago, she said.
Lisa Hickman and her son could not be reached to comment for this article.
Thomas Hickman cared for his wife, who is unable to drive. In March, Lisa Hickman told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that her husband left work early once a week to drive her to the Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco in rush-hour traffic so she could lead a ministry there.
Serial number gone
Thomas Hickman's Jeep was found beside the road about 100 yards from his body, along U.S. 84 southeast of Santa Rosa, N.M.
More significantly, the Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver's serial number had been ground off, the plastic grips removed and the trigger guard sawed off, Schum said. Only the single spent casing remained in the chamber.
Police restored the serial numbers and were surprised by what they found: The gun's owner was none other than Hickman.
Their investigation showed that Hickman bought the revolver at a sporting goods store outside Fort Worth in January, Schum said.
Relatives told investigators that they had no idea he had purchased a gun.
Police searched the Hickman residence in Richland Hills and found a small pile of metal shavings next to a workbench in the garage, indicating that he had ground off the serial number and sawed off the trigger guard there.
A lab at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology confirmed that suspicion.
Homicide now seemed "beyond the realm of probability," Schum said.
Investigators took a closer look at Hickman's life.
He made good money at Red Lobster but had "a substantial amount of credit card debt," Schum said.
And police learned that Hickman and his wife had "a pretty nasty argument" the day he left for Abilene, Schum said.
Investigators analyzed Hickman's computer and found that he had gone to a balloon store in Dallas at the end of February. The store owner and a clerk confirmed that a man named Tom who fit Hickman's description bought a bag of white balloons the same size as the ones found entwined in the cholla cactus.
Police don't know where he filled the balloons with helium.
But they believe he tied them to the gun, duct-taped his own mouth and then shot himself in the back of the head, letting the gun be carried away by the balloons.
"All the evidence falls into line with Hickman shooting himself with a handgun and attempting to have it look like he was murdered," Schum said.
Hickman's plan did not succeed, Schum said, because the wind carried the balloons into the cactus. Also, he said, the revolver was too heavy for the balloons to carry far.
Schum said he doesn't watch CSI, but other investigators recalled an episode during the fourth season of the show. So Schum watched the Oct. 9, 2003, episode and took notes for the official file.
In that episode, the gun floated away and was found across town; police solved that case, too.
Police officials aren't speculating on Hickman's motives. But a large insurance payout was on the line.
According to police reports, Hickman had a life insurance policy with Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Red Lobster, that would pay $388,000 to Lisa Hickman in the event of his death, an amount that would double if the death was accidental.
Police said they have answered Darden officials' questions about Hickman's death. Darden Restaurants did not respond to Star-Telegram requests for information about the policy.