Tossed cigarette butt leads to arrest in decades-old murder case

Marilyn Hickey was found dead in her Bremerton apartment in September 1992.

On Sept. 10, 1992, Bremerton police, performing a welfare check on a 57-year-old woman, found a gruesome scene.

Marilyn Hickey, a woman known to first responders because of frequent health emergencies, was found deceased inside her studio apartment, where she lived alone at 404 Chester Ave. in Bremerton. The telephone line had been ripped from the wall, and blood was spotted on her purse and on the phone. Hickey had evidently been strangled, stabbed – possibly post-mortem – and raped, according to Bremerton Police Department officers.

At the scene, police collected the DNA material of a male suspect. They also interviewed people who last saw Hickey as she left the Drift Inn in Bremerton two nights prior, with a male in his twenties. But technology at the time was insufficient to develop a full DNA profile of the suspect, and other clues failed to lead to an arrest. Eventually, the case went cold.

Fourteen years later, DNA collected at the crime scene was sent to a Washington State Patrol lab, according to a court filing. A full DNA profile was generated, but the profile did not match anyone contained in the FBI’s DNA database. It did, however, match to an unnamed suspect from a murder in Boise, Idaho, on April 29, 1994.

Police said the two murders were similar in nature.

In late 2017, BPD detective Martin Garland was assigned the case.

“Sergeant Elton wanted to see if we could address some of the cold cases,” Garland said. “He put me on cold case files as a priority.”

The day Garland opened the Hickey file, he said, he got a call from a Boise Police detective named Monte Iverson.

“He was doing the same exact thing on his side,” Garland said.

The two began to compare notes to try to see if any names associated with the two crimes could be matched.

“Do you have David Smith? No. Do you have Bob Jones? No,” Garland said. “It was like Detective Go-Fish.”

Eventually, they focused on one name that repeated itself in both case files – Lee Robert Miller.

Miller was named during the Bremerton investigation by an anonymous tipster — “Mike” — in a Sept. 28, 1992 phone call to police, the court filing states. “Mike” told BPD officer Andy Oakley that he knew Miller – who “used to go home with Hickey on occasion” – and that he should be looked at as a suspect.

There was no indication that the tip was followed up on at the time, Garland said. But once he and Iverson had a name, police were able to narrow their focus.

Early last year, Boise police began to surveil Miller. For several days they observed him, Garland said, while trying to surreptitiously collect his DNA, a Dec. 7 BPD statement reads.

On Feb. 1, Miller tossed a cigarette butt outside his home in Boise, police said. A detective scooped it up and sent it to the Idaho state crime lab.

To confirm Miller’s identity, Garland said, police concocted a ruse by saying they were investigating a nearby crime. They interviewed Miller and obtained his ID.

On March 27, Boise Police received the results of the cigarette butt test: the DNA matched the DNA collected at the 1994 homicide and the DNA found at Hickey’s murder.

Additional DNA evidence left on a hairbrush at the Bremerton scene was sent to the WSP’s crime lab, police said. It was found to be a match to the DNA material collected earlier at the scene, according to the filing.

Bremerton sergeants Garland and Keith Sargent traveled to Boise this week to arrest Miller. They also spoke with Hickey’s daughter-in-law at her home, who said she was “thrilled” that an arrest had been made in her family’s case, Garland said.

Kitsap County prosecutors charged Miller on Wednesday with second-degree murder, a felony punishable by up to life in prison. His extradition to Washington state is pending, police said.

Garland, speaking over the phone from Boise Jan. 3, said he was relieved. He said investigating cold cases can be “an exercise in frustration.”

“Witnesses’ memories fade over time, or they die off,” he said. “Evidence is sometimes no longer available or has degraded to the point where it’s no longer usable.”

“I feel very fortunate in this case that the detectives originally on the case did an excellent job documenting and preserving evidence, so when the technology caught up, the evidence was there,” he added.

“It’s incredibly satisfying today to be able to visit Ms. Hickey’s family and provide them this news that after 27 years, we were able to close her case with an arrest.”

Gabe Stutman is a reporter with the Kitsap News Group. Follow him on Twitter @kitsapgabe.

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