Father still fights for justice in murder of Leah Hickman 12 years after her body was found in crawl space under West Virginia home

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By Andrea Cavallier

Leah Hickman had a promising future. The 21-year-old was a journalism student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and her dream was to tell people’s stories as a TV news reporter. That dream never came true.

Leah was last seen on December 14, 2007, by her half-sister, Jessica Vickers, at the apartment the two shared on 8th Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia, Huntington Police Captain Ray Cornwell confirmed to Dateline. That evening, Leah signed into her MySpace page, then called a friend to say she was going to McDonald’s. The receipt from her meal was later found in the apartment, family members told Dateline.

The next day, Jessica returned to the apartment and told police she noticed her sister’s purse, keys and car were there, but said she could not find Leah. When Leah didn’t show up for her shift at Dress Barn that day, her family began to worry.

“It’s just not like her. I knew something had to be wrong,” Leah’s father, Ron Hickman, told Dateline. “I could feel it immediately.”

Ron, who lives an hour away in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, said he went to the girls’ apartment that day with his sister and a preacher.

“She wasn’t the type to just up and leave,” Ron said. “She would have called me. She wouldn’t have let me worry like that. Just felt something bad-- something wrong that very night.”

Leah was Ron’s only child and he told Dateline they were always very close.

“She was my little girl,” Ron said. “Still is. Always will be.”

A missing person’s report was filed with the Huntington Police Department on Monday, December 16, 2007. Police and search parties canvassed the area for a week. Even though Leah had only worked at the local Dress Barn for five months, the company put up a $10,000 reward for information on her whereabouts.

On December 21, 2007, a week after Leah was last seen, officers found her body in a crawl space underneath her apartment building. She had been strangled, police said.

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Ron told Dateline the crawl space was connected to a common laundry room and could be accessed several different ways. There were four units in the apartment building and all had access to the crawl space. Leah and Jessica shared one unit. Police said two of the units were unoccupied at the time, and one was leased to a man who they confirmed was out of town at the time of Leah’s disappearance.

Tips flooded the Huntington Police Department as family and friends posted flyers around the city looking for information in Leah’s murder.

Dress Barn temporarily closed their doors on the weekend before Christmas and hung a sign that stated they were closed out of respect for Leah. Dress Barn also covered the costs for Leah’s funeral, Ron told Dateline.

“They were wonderful,” Ron said. “Just amazing.”

Ron, who serves as the Mason County Assessor in Point Pleasant, told Dateline that to this day, women come up to him and tell him how helpful Leah was putting outfits together for them during her time at Dress Barn.

“She left such an impression on people in such a short amount of time,” Ron said. “Imagine if she would have gotten to live her whole life.”

Ron said that for years, he visited the Huntington Police Department at least once a month to talk to Lt. John Williams about Leah’s case, until Williams retired. He said Williams continues to stay in touch with him about the case.

“I just don’t want her case to be forgotten,” Ron said. “But Lt. Williams has always kept me updated. They’re doing what they can.”

Leah’s murder received attention again in 2014 when someone spray painted “Who Killed Leah Hickman?” on the outside wall of Leah’s apartment building. Police said they never found out who did it or why.

Captain Cornwell told Dateline that investigators regularly look at Leah’s case.

“The case is not closed,” Capt. Cornwell said. “For 12 years, we’ve followed every tip and piece of information we got regarding her case.”

Captain Cornwell told Dateline that investigators collected trace evidence at the scene that was sent to Phoenix, Arizona for DNA testing, but yielded no answers. He added they are hopeful that as technology advances, the limited amount of trace evidence they have left will one day help solve the case. But for now, a suspect has not been named in Leah’s murder.

“We’re constantly re-evaluating. We’re always hopeful,” Capt. Cornwell said. “It’s our deepest desire to find justice for Leah and closure to the Hickman family. Someone out there knows something. We can only hope that someone will have a change of heart and develop the courage to come forward.”

In the days after Leah vanished, Ron Hickman used to pray his daughter would be found safe. But now, he says, he prays for justice.

“I just hope and pray that this is going to be solved,” Ron said. “I’ll keep working and fighting for justice for Leah. I’ll never stop.”

Anyone with information about Leah’s murder is encouraged to call the Huntington Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, at (304) 696-4420 or the tip line at (304) 696-4444.