Reopening investigation into Tia Hicks’ death: piecing together her final months

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Tia Hicks (Photo courtesy of Washington's Most Wanted)
Tia Hicks (Photo courtesy of Washington’s Most Wanted)

Part 2 of 2

As the only cold-case homicide on the books of the Mountlake Terrace Police Department, the Tia Hicks case is still talked about at police headquarters. On April 22, 1991, the body of 20-year-old Hicks was found wrapped in a blue tarp inside a boat parked next to 220th Street Southwest. No one was ever arrested or charged in connection with the incident, and little progress has been made on the investigation over the past 23 years.

Mountlake Terrace Police Detective Sgt. Mike Haynes wants to change all that. Shortly after his promotion to sergeant, Haynes reopened the Hicks’ case, considering possible oversights made by previous investigations and resubmitting evidence for laboratory work.

But for Haynes to learn what happened to Hicks, it would require more than just re-examining old procedures and seeking new test results, or even determining what happened to Hicks on the day her body was found. It would mean piecing together the final five months of her life.

Tia Hicks mapThe Unknown Gap
It wasn’t unusual for the young, troubled Hicks to wonder away from her southeast Seattle home for days at a time. But after not hearing from her for more than four weeks, Hicks’ father Leonard Hicks reported her missing to the Seattle Police Department in December 1990. Her body was found the following April.

“There was about a five-month period there where her activities and whereabouts were unknown,” Haynes explained.

The Mountlake Terrace police sergeant said he decided “to take a step back and try to re-evaluate things with an open mind.” The medical examiner estimated Hicks’ death occurred weeks before her body was found, so Haynes felt it was absolutely necessary to know what the 20-year-old was doing, where she was living and who she was with during the winter and early spring of 1991.

Over the past year, Haynes and other Mountlake Terrace Police Department detectives have conducted interviews of Hicks’ family members, friends and others who knew her. Eventually, information gathered in those interviews led to an Edmonds motel.

Hicks Comes to Snohomish County
Hicks, who reportedly supported her drug habit through prostitution, was never known to leave the Seattle area during her times away from home, at least not until that late 1990-early 1991 time frame.

The former Travelers Lodge, now known as Travelers Inn, on Highway 99 in Edmonds.
The former Travelers Lodge, now known as Travelers Inn, on Highway 99 in Edmonds.

“Ultimately what I was able to do was track her up to a motel here on Highway 99 in Edmonds, Travelers Lodge, which just happens to be a couple blocks from where she was ultimately found,” Haynes said.

Discovering the Edmonds Highway 99 connection during those “lost” five months of Hicks’ life was significant for Haynes, Now he needed to find people who not only remembered Hicks, but also the names and faces of those who befriended her.

“I was able to track down the motel manager from back then, who is a very sharp gal. She’s got a memory like a steel trap, and, thankfully, very, very helpful for me,” Haynes said. “I showed her some pictures of Tia and she did remember her. She provided me with a couple names of people that she knew Tia was associating with that were also staying at the motel at the time.”

Persons of Interest: The Renter, the Woman, the Man
The motel manager said the two people who had spent time with Hicks — a man and a woman — left the Travelers Lodge in late March 1991 and moved into a shed behind a rental house in the 7200 block of 224th Street Southwest, just a few blocks south of the motel. Haynes was able to talk to the man who had rented the house, and had assisted the couple with their move, after tracking him down at an Oregon prison.

When interviewed in prison a few weeks ago, the man wasn’t entirely helpful, Haynes said, but hinted that Hicks may have been on the property at times. “He told me that he believes he remembers seeing Tia associating with these two people and staying with them,” Haynes said.

A photo of 224th Street Southwest where it intersects with today's Interurban Trail.
A photo of 224th Street Southwest where it intersects with today’s Interurban Trail.

The renter also provided Haynes with some details of the rental property, including that it sat next to a beaten footpath through woods that is now a part of the Interurban Trail, and that materials covered by blue tarps were scattered in the back yard.

The parking lot where Hicks’ body was found lies directly next to that footpath, just four blocks north of the rental property.

Haynes admits that information from the renter may only be circumstantial, and doesn’t prove that the couple had ties to Hicks’ death, “but it’s just one more little piece of the puzzle,” he said.

Finding the couple who befriended Hicks’ was crucial for Haynes in the investigation. “One thing that experience has taught me is that tenacity has a tendency to open doors for you. As long as you’re willing to spend the time and be persistent, often times you’ll get what you’re looking for,” he said.

Haynes also found both the woman and the man in question — in locations almost 1,000 miles from each other.

The woman is currently homeless and living on the streets of Seattle; a drug user with little memory of events from 23 years ago, “she really was no help,” Haynes admitted,.

The man is currently housed in a California state penitentiary north of Bakersfield. “I have not talked to him,” said Haynes, who awaiting further test results from the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division concerning DNA found at the site. “In the off chance that it turns out to be this guy’s, that would be very useful information before I confront him without any sort of allegations or questions,” Haynes explained.

The parking lot on 220th Street Southwest where Tia Hicks' body was found.
The parking lot where Tia Hicks’ body was found.

Was Hicks’ Death Even a Murder?
From the moment the body was found in April 1991, the assumption was that Hicks had been murdered. But was that assumption hasty?

“Because of the circumstances in which she was found and the medical examiner ultimately classifying her death as undetermined, we have to consider that there are other possibilities here other than homicide,” Haynes said..

“One possible scenario is that she overdosed on narcotics in the presence of other people,” the detective speculated. “Tia’s toxicology did show levels of narcotics in her system that were potentially lethal. That’s not to say that they were lethal, it’s just that they potentially were lethal.”

It’s possible that individuals who may have seen a drug overdose death didn’t want any scrutiny from local law enforcement, Haynes said,. instead choosing to dispose of the overdose victim.

Seeking a Conclusion
For Haynes, re-opening the Tia Hicks case is more than just trying to satisfy a personal curiosity; he is seeking justice and closure. If Hicks were murdered, police would like to identify a suspect and have that person prosecuted. ““The other best-case scenario, if Tia did not die of homicidal violence … would be able to get some answers, some very definitive answers from people that know exactly what happened and offer some closure to her family,” Haynes said.

“Tia has a couple children, and she still has a mother (Hicks’ father died in 2000) and some other people that care a lot about her and would like to know what happened in the last few moments of Tia’s life,” he said. “For us as an agency to provide her family and friends with those answers would be very rewarding for me as an investigator and for the agency as a whole.”

“It’s not always about taking people to jail,” Haynes added.

With the statute of limitations on any crimes associated with Hicks’ drug use and prostitution activities expired, Haynes is hoping there may be individuals still out there with knowledge that may be useful for his investigation.

“Because of her lifestyle she knew a lot of people,” he said. “I know there are likely people out there that knew Tia and perhaps maybe, whether they know it or not, may have some information that could be valuable. My hope would be that if there is anybody out there that knew Tia in any shape or form, just give me a call. They can be anonymous, it doesn’t really matter. I would just encourage them to call me.”

Mountlake Terrace Police Department Detective Sergeant Mike Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@ci.mlt.wa.us or at 425-670-8260, Ext. 491.

You can read Part 1 of this story here.

— By Doug Petrowski

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