MASON COUNTY — Whenever Ron Hickman is in Huntington, he drives to the apartment building where his daughter was found murdered, he sits outside in his car with the license plate “LEAHSDAD,” and he prays for justice.
“I have people praying for me, praying for the case..that’s (prayer) the only way I know to get through this,” Ron said. “People can feel sorry for you, and have empathy, but until it happens to you…it’s a feeling I can’t describe. I have to rely on God.”
The feeling Ron couldn’t find words to describe is the loss of his daughter Leah at the age of 21. Originally from Mason County and a student at Marshall University, Leah was last seen alive on Dec. 14, 2007. After an agonizing week of searching for the young woman, her body was eventually found in a crawl space in her apartment building on 8th Ave. in Huntington. She was strangled to death.
The anniversary of Leah’s death never gets any easier for Ron, though this year, media outlets in the Huntington area have reported the Huntington Police Department are not treating this as a cold case. The Huntington Herald Dispatch recently reported Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli as saying it is an ongoing investigation which recently splintered off into smaller investigations.
Ron said Chief Ciccarelli, who was working for the FBI at the time of Leah’s murder, has a “real desire” to see the case solved as do many in the Huntington community.
“They have assured me it (the case) is still active,” Ron told the Point Pleasant Register this week, reiterating he’s been told in the past this may be a situation where DNA and forensic technology will eventually catch up with the needs of the case. This, combined with the police work, will hopefully bring answers and justice for Leah one day, Ron explained.
In addition to DNA advancements and police work, Ron says he looks to a higher power for help as well, saying, “I pray God will bother the conscience of those involved and they’ll come forth with a confession or evidence.”
Ron, who is the assessor for Mason County, has been a public figure through his job for several years though he never expected to be thrust into a situation where he was publicly known for such a tragedy.
“It never gets any easier,” Ron said, having become a member of a club no one wants to join.
Since Leah’s death, Ron has met other parents who have lost children and attends a yearly memorial ceremony in Huntington for those who lost loved ones to violent crime. He said he’s become friends with the father of one of the four teens murdered on prom night in Huntington in 2005.
“He’s got the same burden,” Ron said, saying he has much empathy for all those grieving families wanting answers in seemingly cold cases.
Despite the burden of the loss, Ron knows the good memories of Leah also never go away and she was more than the circumstances of her untimely death.
“She was a loving individual, she cared about people, she liked to help people,” Ron said about his daughter. “She had a giving heart, was full of life, working towards her goal of being a television news reporter.”
Ron talked about his daughter making an impact on people in her short time on earth, with strangers approaching him after her death from the Marshall Community and Huntington, including her former customers at the Dress Barn where Leah worked in the Merritt’s Creek Plaza. In fact, since Leah’s death, Ron says he’s often approached by people he doesn’t know who just want to tell him what his daughter, and the case, mean to them, even these eight years later.
“I’ve been touched by the concern from others about this case,” Ron said. “People come up and say they’re praying for me.”
And, to Ron, prayer does matter and he cites his family and church family with being a big part of how he copes with the loss and the search for answers.
Ron still wears the blue wristband Leah’s friends printed in her memory from WMUL and the journalism school at Marshall.
“I never take it off,” Ron said, adding during a recent surgery he made the medical staff tape it on to his wrist rather than take it off. Each day he goes to his office on the first floor of the Mason County Courthouse, where framed photos of Leah stare back at him as reminders and motivators. In one of those frames is an etching of Leah done by her friend Emalea Neal of Apple Grove. When Neal was younger, she entered it into the county fair and won a blue ribbon, giving the ribbon and photo to Ron in honor of Leah. This is just one of many stories of kindness and remembrance people have shown Ron, he said. He’s tried to give back, and if someone is suffering with that burden of losing a child, if he can help comfort that person, he tries. This level of compassion for others that he never anticipated developing to this extent, is also coupled with the determination he has to find justice for his daughter.
“I want justice in Leah’s case,” he said. “I’ll continue searching as long as I live. Any parent would want justice for their child. I want to keep it in the public eye and am thankful for the media taking the time to remind people.”
Still, he prepares himself for the fact he may never know what happened to his daughter and just who was responsible.
“I realize I might not get an answer,” Ron said. “When we get to Heaven it’s not going to matter anyway. Justice is going to be with God’s will, on God’s time.”
Anyone with information about Leah’s case can contact the Huntington Police Department’s tip line at 304-696-4444 or its Detective Bureau at 304-696-4420. All information can be provided anonymously.
Reach Beth Sergent at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.