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St. Helens man sentenced in cold case murder

Hicks, 52, sentenced to life in prison for 1982 death of Aloha teen

Kenneth Hicks.

Advances in DNA testing led to a lifelong prison sentence Monday, July 13, for a St. Helens man who was convicted earlier this month of killing a 17-year-old girl in 1982.

Kenneth Hicks, 52, was indicted by a Washington County grand jury in 2013, after DNA evidence linked him to the sexual assault and death of Lori Billingsley in Aloha, a news release from the Washington County District Attorney’s Office states.

The case is believed to be the oldest ever prosecuted in Washington County.

Hicks was 19 at the time of Billingsley’s death. He was named a primary suspect in the case, but prosecutors at the time didn’t have enough evidence to link Hicks to the crime, the District Attorney’s Office stated.

Nearly 30 years after the teen girl’s body was found in a drainage ditch on Southwest Miller Hill Road, then-Washington County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Mike O’Connell reopened the case and requested a DNA sample from Hicks. O’Connell said he was “a two-year rookie” when the Billingsley murder happened.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Boy I’d like to work a case like that someday,’” he recalled.

O’Connell had taken reports on it and conducted follow-up interviews throughout the years, but had no major involvement until around 2009, when he asked Ray Marcom, a Washington County Sheriff’s Office detective at the time, to reexamine the case’s evidence. At least two prior attempts had been made to find leads and test evidence, including a swab collected from the scene at the time.

Forensic analysts determined there was no male DNA on the evidence taken from Billingsley at the crime scene, until O’Connell and Marcom caught a break in 2010.

“For 28 years, we were told there was no semen on the swabs from the rape kit that was performed at the autopsy,” O’Connell said. “Then all of the sudden, they came back and said, these swabs are full of semen.”

A DNA profile was then created. No match came up in the database, so O’Connell turned to Hicks for a sample. By this time, he had retired from the force and came back on a part-time basis to work cold cases.

O’Connell said Hicks was initially uncooperative.

“I went out to his home in St. Helens,” he said. “He wasn’t home. His wife said she would have him call us. He never called. We went back out around five in the afternoon. He was very unfriendly. ... One of the first things he said was, ‘You guys already have my statement from back then, it was recorded.’”

O’Connell obtained DNA from Hicks using a search warrant.

“It really hit home and struck like a bolt of lightning when the match came back,” O’Connell said.

Hicks had rocky past

Family members and friends who spoke to investigators described Hicks as a troubled young man who was shuffled from family, to foster homes, to at one point living in his car, said Bracken McKey, the senior deputy district attorney for Washington County.

Hicks met Billingsley and her family while living in the same apartment complex, police said. Hicks’ family members told investigators he was attracted to Billingsley and wanted to be with her, but she was seeing other people and had no interest in Hicks, O’Connell said.

Billingsley’s mother invited Hicks to stay with them briefly after he was kicked out of his home, McKey said. At the time of the crime, 19-year-old Hicks was staying with his sergeant in the Army National Guard, according to McKey.

Hicks was the last person seen with Billingsley, according to the District Attorney’s Office. The night of Billingsley’s disappearance on Oct. 10, 1982, Hicks had gotten drunk at a poker party and was dropped off at her home, witnesses said. Billingsley and Hicks were seen walking to a nearby Safeway store together.

Hicks gave different stories to investigators, saying Billingsley left with another guy, then later saying the two never had sex, then at trial, saying Billingsley came on to him and the two had consensual sex.

Two weeks after Billingsley’s death, Hicks moved in with a 16-year-old girl he was dating, O’Connell said. He got her pregnant but convinced her to have an abortion. Hicks went on to father other children with other women, but was not involved in their lives, O’Connell said.

Hicks was charged with assault for a domestic incident about six years after the murder, in which he was accused of strangling and dragging his girlfriend at the time through a parking lot.

McKey said that, around the time of the murder, Hicks also killed his uncle’s dog with a small knife that he also used to kill other small animals, such as rabbits.

Evidence was key in bringing justice

Despite the number of years that passed since Billingsley’s violent death, investigators didn’t give up.

“This was a challenging case because a number of important witnesses have since died and memories have faded after more than 30 years,” McKey said. “One of the original investigators is alive and testified at trial. He is now 89 years old. Many others are in their late 70s.”

McKey said there was “never any doubt” that Hicks murdered Billingsley.

The Billingsley case was one of the most high-profile cases in Aloha at the time. Detectives on scene that day collected evidence that would be invaluable decades later, O’Connell said.

“Three decades is a long time,” O’Connell said. “In the intervening years, testing had improved, microscopes had gotten better. We don’t know how they missed it originally.”

He refers to cold case investigations as “an exercise in historical research.”

He said the details laid the framework for solving the cold case.

The Billingsley case is a milestone for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and O’Connell, who is determined to leave no stone unturned.

“There’s at least one other case that I’d like to tackle that I think is solvable,” he said. “It’s even older; it’s from 1974.”