Some well-preserved evidence, persistent police work and a little luck paid off this week when Salt Lake County sheriff's detectives arrested a man in Tacoma, Wash., in connection with a 33-year-old homicide in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Gerald Walter Hicker, 56, was charged in 3rd District Court Wednesday with criminal homicide, a first-degree felony. He is accused of killing 21-year-old Brigham Young University student Barbara Jean Rocky on March 11, 1974.
Sheriff Jim Winder said Thursday that justice finally had been served for Rocky.
"For 33 years, Mr. Hicker has lived with this sin hanging over his head," Winder said. "The clock was ticking on him."
Rocky was last seen alive shortly before 1 p.m. March 11, 1974, pawning an item of jewelry at a downtown Salt Lake City business. Both she and Hicker were BYU students and acquaintances.
Three hours after her stop at the pawn shop, Hicker filed a missing person's report with BYU security, saying that he had found a note in Rocky's car addressed to him that said she was "leaving school to be with some new found friends," according to court documents. The sheriff's office Thursday said it was unsure who really wrote the note.
The next day, Rocky's body was found in Big Cottonwood Canyon near the Ledgemere Campground by a utility company employee.
Hicker later told a witness that Rocky was shot five times "in the vital organs," according to court documents. He said he got that information from FBI files. In reality, Winder said that information was not available when he made the statement.
It was later that the Utah state medical examiner determined Rocky did die from multiple gunshot wounds. Five slugs were found at the crime scene, according to court documents. Those bullets were determined to be from an Astra brand revolver.
Hicker previously had helped Rocky buy an Astra .357 caliber six-shot revolver and took her shooting several times, according to court documents. He also instructed her to always keep only five bullets in the chamber, court documents said.
The gun and Rocky's purse never have been recovered. An Astra .357 keeps the shell casings in the gun after the bullet is fired, so no fingerprints could be taken from them.
In 1974, forensic science was primitive by today's standards. Although Hicker was always considered a person of interest in the slaying, investigators were never able to bring charges.
"There were several missing elements," Winder said. "Insufficient evidence existed."
At that time, crime-scene investigators collected "anything and everything" they could think of, including soil samples from the ground underneath where Rocky was found, said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Kris Ownby, head of the violent crimes unit. Those samples were preserved in evidence at the sheriff's office for three decades.
About seven years ago, Salt Lake County sheriff's detective Todd Park, the department's cold-case specialist, reopened the case. He went through every piece of evidence again, and this time happened to find a small tissue sample, either a piece of skin or fingernail, in the preserved soil, Winder said. That tissue sample was taken to Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City last month. The DNA matched Hicker's, Winder said.
Hicker already had his DNA on a national database file, Ownby said. His DNA was collected in Washington for another crime. The sheriff's office was unsure Thursday afternoon what that crime was.
Hicker has lived in Washington for several years, reportedly working as a firearms instructor, Ownby said. Once the case was reopened, Hicker was on the sheriff's radar again. Park went to Hicker's house in Tacoma a year ago to interview him, but Hicker declined to answer questions, Winder said.
On Wednesday, Park went back to Tacoma and arrested Hicker at his house without incident. He was being held in the jail in Pierce County, Wash. It was unknown Thursday afternoon whether he would fight extradition to Utah.
Ownby said Hicker declined any comments to investigators.
Park had spoken with Rocky's family and said they were very happy with the arrest.