Detectives, chasing down what looked like a murder along a lonely stretch of New Mexico highway, shifted gears when evidence pointed them in an unexpected direction and revealed the death wasn’t at all what it seemed.
On the morning of March 15, 2008, a couple driving along U.S. 84 spied a body on the side of the road and called 911. New Mexico State Police arrived at the scene, where they found a lifeless middle-aged man lying on the ground.
The man’s mouth was duct-taped shut, suggesting he’d been abducted.
He’d been shot once in the back of the head. Initially, “it was looking like an execution,” investigators told “Accident, Suicide or Murder,”
A handgun tethered to several helium balloons, some of which were still inflated, found tangled up in a cactus about 10 yards from the body added to the mystery.
License plates from a car at the scene were used to identify the victim as 55-year-old Thomas Hickman, a Red Lobster director of operations from Richland Hills, Texas.
He’d last been seen at a business meeting in Abilene, Texas, and was reported missing when he never showed for a later gathering.
After ruling out the 911 callers as murder suspects, investigators worked the case.
They learned that Hickman, a “gentle giant” who stood six-and-a-half-feet tall, had a wife of nearly 30 years, Lisa, and an adult son, Matthew. Hickman was much admired at the restaurant chain and in his community. He had seemingly no enemies.
The medical examiner’s report confirmed that the cause of death had been the single gunshot. Evidence showed that it had been fired at close range.
Hickman’s wallet and credit cards were found in his car, which told police that this hadn’t been a robbery. The only fingerprints found in the vehicle belonged to Hickman.
Investigators created a timeline. A ranch manager who worked near the crime scene told investigators that he’d seen no car in the area the night before Hickman’s body was discovered.
Other witnesses said that they’d seen a car there at 4:30 A.M. on March 15.
They dug into Hickman’s banking and credit card activity to trace his movements. A purchase at a Sweetwater, Texas gas station in the hours before he went missing led detectives to check security camera footage.
The video showed Hickman in the store, as well as another couple who detectives tried to identify in order to question them.
As they worked that possible lead, authorities were struck by Hickman’s financial records, which revealed that he was in debt by around $60,000, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder.”
Detectives also learned that Hickman had scheduled a meeting with a Red Lobster manager he intended to terminate.
Authorities considered that as a possible motive for violence, but confirmed that the person of interest was nowhere near New Mexico at the time of the murder.
The fact that Hickman had been shot execution-style and his mouth was sealed with tape pointed to homicide, but investigators questioned that theory in light of the Smith & Wesson revolver tethered to the balloons at the scene.
The gun’s grip and trigger guard had been removed. Its serial number had been filed off.
A search of Hickman’s laptop revealed that he visited a store that sold helium balloons a month before his death.
Five days after Hickman’s body was found in a field along the road, officials interviewed Lisa and Matthew Hickman.
Detectives learned that Lisa had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. The chronic disease had taken a toll physically, emotionally, and financially on the family.
During a search of the Hickman home, detectives found letters from the victim to his wife and son.
Each came with instructions of what to do if he were to die, including how to handle debt and use money from his life-insurance policy.
Hickman’s letter to his son reassured him that he’d be watching over him, no matter what.
Investigators considered the possibility that Hickman may have been contemplating suicide and preparing his family for the aftermath of his death.
A further search of the Hickman garage turned up metal filings on a workbench.
The filings were found to be a near-perfect match to shavings from the lightweight gun found at the crime scene.
Detectives were able to determine that Hickman had bought that gun in January 2008. Hickman was known by everyone as someone who avoided confrontations.
Why would he need a gun? It jarred with his personality.
Hickman’s death was looking more like a suicide, and evidence from Hickman’s laptop showing that he’d been researching lift capacity with balloons supported that theory.
It turned out that the TV series “CSI” had run an episode in October 2003 featuring a case about a despondent man who tried to pass off shooting himself to death as a homicide.
He’d pull the trigger and the gun, tied to helium balloons, would float away. But the balloons got ensnared after the suicide.
It seemed that life could be imitating art. Captain Shayne Arthur, retired Crime Scene Investigator for the New Mexico State Police, experimented with helium balloons and a featherweight firearm and attempted to recreate what had been found at the crime scene.
“Eventually,” he said, “my balloons hit a bush in my backyard.”
He suspected that’s what happened in the field where Hickman was found.
Hickman may not have noticed the cactus near where he shot himself, investigators reasoned. Had it not been there, Hickman’s death would have ended up an unsolved homicide, they told “Accident, Suicide Or Murder.”
Two months after Hickman’s body was discovered, the New Mexico Medical Examiner’s Office classified his death as a suicide.
Investigators don’t know if Hickman had watched the “CSI” episode or if he came up with the idea independently to try to help his family.
Because his death was ruled a suicide, the life insurance policy did not pay out its full amount.