The investigation into the killing of a 10-year-old girl in Crothersville, Indiana appears to be drawing eerie parallels to a 1987 case in England that was the first to use DNA to solve a crime.
Nearly five months after Katie Collman’s body was pulled from a snowy stream, investigators are still piecing together the final moments of the 10-year-old’s life.
One man was charged with Collman’s murder, but the charge was later dropped; another man has since been charged. But authorities continue to search for suspects, raising questions about whether police are on the right track.
Jackson County prosecutor Stephen Pierson said swabs had been taken from nearly 70 people to ensure a thorough investigation.
The case parallels the 1987 case in England, when Scotland Yard police tested the DNA of 4,000 men to arrest a 25-year-old baker in the murders and sexual assaults of two 15-year-old girls in Narborough, Leicestershire.
In the Indiana case, even the prosecutor says he can understand why there are doubts about whether police are going after the right suspect.
Police arrested four people in the weeks after Katie’s body was found on January 30 in a stream 15 miles from her home in the rural town of Crothersville. They filed a murder charge against Charles ‘Chuckie’ Hickman, a 21-year-old high school dropout who confessed to being involved in the killing because Katie had stumbled across a methamphetamine lab.
Then last month, prosecutors abruptly dismissed the confession and shifted the murder charge to another man – a father-of-three previously charged with molesting Katie at about the time of her death. They also threw out the meth theory, saying they no longer believed it was valid.
John Plummer, who represented Hickman, believes the pressure to solve the case might have played a role in his client’s confession, which initially came during an untaped interrogation.
Plummer wasn’t present at the time.
“The dynamics in that town were such when they arrested my client that there was a lot of pressure to get a child killer off the streets,” Plummer said.
James Kilburn, who represents the new suspect, Anthony Stockelman, 38, agreed.
“Let’s just say they needed to charge somebody, and my client is the unfortunate person who has been charged,” Kilburn said in his first public comments about the case since Stockelman was charged with murder on May 20.
“We believe he’s a victim of happenstance and happened to be in the wrong town on the wrong day.”
Investigators say the murder charge against Stockelman was based in part on DNA evidence taken from a cigarette stub found at the crime scene. Yet they are still gathering DNA samples from people connected to the case.
In both this case and the one in 1987 in England, police scoured nearby rural towns for suspects and got one to confess despite DNA evidence implicating another. Just as prosecutors described Hickman as mentally slow, the man who confessed in England was a “pliable” suspect, said Joseph Wambaugh, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who recounted the investigation in his book The Blooding.
“There are just a lot of people out there who when they are leaned on heavily, confess,” Wambaugh said.
“It happens all the time, particularly if they are young and they’ve got an emotional problem.”
Pierson acknowledged that Hickman’s arrest and confession, which was later taped and consisted of yes or no answers, present a challenge for the case against Stockelman.
“I’m going to have to try two cases,” the prosecutor said. “The first case will be the case against Stockelman. The second case will be proving Chuckie Hickman didn’t do it.”
Pierson said investigators did not believe Stockelman had an accomplice. He said the additional samples had not yielded DNA evidence to implicate anyone else in the murder.