Part 1 of 2
On April 22, 1991, the body of a 20-year-old woman was found in a boat parked outside a bingo hall on 220th Street Southwest in Mountlake Terrace. Although the Snohomish County Medical Examiner ruled the woman’s cause of death “undetermined,” Mountlake Terrace police always considered the case a homicide. But evidence was scant and no prosecutable case could be built, frustrating law enforcement and the courts.
Now, almost 23 years later, the case is being reopened in hopes that new information and technology can crack open the only unknown death cold case currently on the books in Mountlake Terrace.
How did Tia Hicks, the mysterious 20-year-old, die? Was the only serious suspect ever considered by Mountlake Terrace police really the killer? Was it even a homicide, or was it instead a tragic accident — or something else?
Born and raised in the Rainier Valley, in southeast Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, Tia Hicks had no connections to Mountlake Terrace beyond the location where her body was found. Mountlake Terrace Police Department Detective Sgt. Mike Haynes, who is leading the cold-case investigation, said Hicks was known to spend time on Aurora Avenue North. “I contacted some people who stayed in motels along Aurora and knew Tia and knew she, on occasion, would venture up that far,” he said.
For the 20-year-old Hicks, the trips to Aurora Avenue were to feed a growing drug habit, paid for through prostitution. Hicks’ father, Leonard Hicks, told a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter in 2003 that his daughter had a drug problem and would simply leave home for days at a time.
During one absence, the father signed a Seattle Police Department missing person report after his daughter had been out of contact for a month. That was on Dec. 13, 1990; Tia’s body turned up four months later, more than 20 miles from home.
The Case Reopened
Although not a member of the Mountlake Terrace Police force in 1991, Haynes was familiar with the cold case. “The case itself was a topic of conversation amongst officers and administration within the department,” Hayes explained. “It was always something that I was curious about.”
Members of law enforcement, especially detectives, don’t like to see crime go unresolved, Haynes noted. “There are reasons why we unfortunately can’t solve every crime,” he continued. “But something of this magnitude, which is potentially a homicide, is obviously going to stick in the back of any law enforcement officer’s mind and kind of eat away at them a little bit.”
Haynes decided to pursue the Tia Hicks case again after media outlets in Portland, Ore., contacted him about a convicted two-time murderer who was being released from an Oregon prison, a man considered at the time the likely killer of Tia Hicks.
In September 1993, Scott William Cox pleaded no contest in a Portland courtroom to two counts of intentional murder; he was sentenced to a 25-year term in an Oregon state penitentiary. Cox, who some had labeled a serial killer, had stabbed a Portland prostitute, strangled another and was suspected of more than 20 other murders throughout the western United States and Canada. For Mountlake Terrace homicide investigators in 1991, Cox was the main suspect in the Tia Hicks case.
It’s understandable how Cox would be singled out as the culprit in the Hicks death, Haynes said. “He was a long-haul truck driver whose route took him all over the country, but one of his routes actually took him up here to this area,” he explained.
It just so happened that Cox’s route took him along 220th Street Southwest – the same street where Tia was ultimately found, “around the same time frame that she was reported missing.” Haynes said.
Although Mountlake Terrace detectives collected plenty of evidence in the case, including DNA samples from the boat where Hicks’ body had been found, authorities at the time weren’t able to build a prosecutable case against Cox. “The guys back then, they did a good job. They did everything that they could,” Haynes added.
But as he studied the files of the 1991 investigation, Haynes saw problems with the assumption that Cox was involved in Hicks’ death.
Debunking a Hunch
As a 20-year-old working the streets for cash and drugs, Hicks was exactly the type of young woman that Cox targeted for brutality. But Haynes isn’t so sure Cox killed Hicks. “There were no witnesses, no nothing, other than just basically a hunch that he was the likely suspect by those detectives,” he said.
Cox was prone to violence; “He would beat up his victims pretty significantly and stab them,” Haynes explained. But according to the autopsy report done at the time, “Tia had no obvious trauma like that,” he said. “She didn’t have any stab wounds, no gunshot wounds, no broken bones, nothing that stood out as being obvious that she had suffered any trauma.”
Since criminals generally don’t deviate from their standard pattern, Haynes speculated that “it’s highly likely that maybe we were focusing on the wrong guy. I’m not ruling him (Cox) out by any stretch, but I thought that maybe it would be better to take a step back and reevaluate things with an open mind and see maybe there’s another option here that wasn’t pursued back then.”
Suspecting a homicide, Mountlake Terrace police in April 1991 pored over the boat where Hicks’ body was found, collecting every bit of evidence they could find. Sample swabs were also taken from Hicks’ by the medical examiner. But lab work then didn’t result in any useful conclusions for investigators.
“At the time that the evidence was processed there wasn’t a sample sufficient enough to properly identify a DNA strand,” Haynes said. “(But) DNA is an evolving science, and as time goes on there’s breakthroughs and they’re able to do more with less..”
Haynes had the DNA samples collected in 1991 re-examined at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division, the lab that provides forensic services for all law enforcement statewide. Results this time showed male DNA was found on vaginal and anal swabs taken of Hicks. The WSP lab is now trying to identify a DNA strand from those swabs, and may be able to trace the DNA to a specific individual.
Since Hicks did solicit men for prostitution, Haynes admits the initial lab report “doesn’t really mean a whole lot, but it’s definitely progress and gives us potentially another lead,” he said.
The Search for Answers
Hunches and lab work would not be enough to determine what happened to Hicks 23 years ago. The investigation would require some old-fashioned, street-wise police work. Haynes and a team of detectives would need to knocked on doors and pursue other leads in an attempt to find some answers. The path would take them to Seattle, Oregon, and now, possibly, California to find people who knew Hicks and what happened to her during her final five months of life.
Tomorrow: Part 2 — The latest in the investigation.
— Story by Doug Petrowski