The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A cigarette butt and an old scrap of paper led to an arrest in a 26-year-old unsolved killing

Lee Robert Miller in 1995, left, and after his arrest Wednesday, now age 54. (Bremerton Police Department/Ada County Sheriff's Office)

The bartender didn’t know the man’s name, but he remembered his hair: a bushy red mullet.

He was young, perhaps in his mid-20s, but was having drinks with a woman much older. This one the bartender knew: Marilyn Hickey, a 57-year-old divorcée who lived by herself in a studio apartment in Bremerton, Wash. On the night of Sept. 8, 1992, she went to the Drift Inn Tavern, where she liked to shoot pool, and closed it down with the red-haired man, leaving with him in a cab at about 2 a.m. the following morning. The bartender had seen the two of them there together before, but that night would be the last.

Days later, after neighbors feared she had suffered a seizure alone in her apartment, paramedics breached a window with a pocket knife to get inside. They found her half-naked and strangled on her living room floor.

Police feverishly sought the identity of the man at the bar, to no avail. But what they didn’t know, at least not for 25 years, was that they already had his name: It was buried in the fine print in their case file, a little footnote jotted down like an afterthought.

Some murder investigations last decades before any real progress is made. How do police discover new evidence when all leads have been exhausted? (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The name was Lee Robert Miller. To investigators, his name seemed only tangential at the time. They found a phone number on a scrap of paper in Hickey’s purse belonging to one of Miller’s friends, who told police Miller had introduced him to Hickey. But in 2017, Miller’s connection would seem more important. Miles away, in Boise, Idaho, Miller’s name popped up again. This time, the Boise Police Department found it buried in a second homicide cold-case file, this one the 1994 fatal stabbing of a 49-year-old woman named Cheryle Barratt.

Investigators did not think it was a coincidence: DNA evidence collected then and tested years later indicated the same man was probably responsible for both slayings.

On Wednesday, Miller was arrested and charged in Hickey’s death after DNA found on a cigarette butt he tossed outside his home was found to match semen at the Hickey crime scene and other DNA evidence found at the scene of Barratt’s killing. Miller has not been charged in Barratt’s death, but is still under investigation as a suspect, Boise and Bremerton police said in a joint statement. He is expected to be arraigned Monday morning in Kitsap County, Wash. An attorney for Miller could not be immediately located.

“He deserves everything he gets,” Robert Hickey, the victim’s son, told local news station KTVB. “And that’s what I want to see: I want justice, 26 years' worth. You only have one mother. He took it. He can never replace that."

Bremerton Police Det. Martin Garland told The Washington Post that although detectives in 1992 had Miller’s name on file, it doesn’t appear they ever called him.

The friend whose phone number was discovered on the piece of paper in Hickey’s purse — a McDonald’s worker named Mike — told investigators Miller introduced him to Hickey so she could help him hunt for apartments. Weeks later, an anonymous tipster said Mike revealed he knew that Miller sometimes went home with Hickey. But according to a police affidavit, it doesn’t appear the original investigators ever connected these pieces of information.

Garland finally did in 2017, when he started working alongside cold-case detectives in Boise. The departments connected after realizing DNA left behind at each scene matched the same person thanks to modern testing unavailable in the early 1990s. The problem was they didn’t know whose it was. Trying to figure out whom it could be, Garland said, was like “playing police Go-Fish.”

“I would say, I have a ‘Joe Smith’ in my case. Do you have a ‘Joe Smith’ in yours?” Garland said. “We only had one person that we had mentioned in both of our cases, and that was Lee Robert Miller. We decided that since he was the only one who appeared in both cases, we would focus on him as a person of interest."

In Barratt’s case, Miller’s name was less tangential. It came up after a confidential informant told police Miller admitted to killing to Barratt, according to the probable cause statement. But police at the time must not have taken the tip as seriously: They charged another man, Floyd E. Parker Jr., with Barratt’s murder — only to drop the charges and release Parker two months later after prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Garland started tracing Miller’s movements in the Bremerton area through the early 1990s, finding he had lived around there and he had been arrested in Bremerton in 1995. He pulled the booking photo — and found a man with a red, collar-length mullet clashing with his orange jumpsuit. (Garland declined to disclose the alleged offense.)

Garland and Boise detectives decided to set up surveillance on Miller, who was still living in the Boise area. They hoped to capture a speck of his DNA. They got their chance on Feb. 1, 2018, when they saw him walking outside his house smoking a cigarette. Once he tossed it, investigators snatched the butt.

“I was able to meet her surviving children after the fact [to tell them the news], and that to me is the most satisfying part of all of this,” Garland said. “Even after 27 years, we were able to find the person we believe is responsible for killing Marilyn Hickey.”

Robert Hickey told KTVB that he didn’t know whether the day would ever come. He said after his mother’s death he called investigators every week asking for progress, before eventually it became every month, and then every year, and then after 26 years solving the case felt almost out of reach.

He kept all the news clippings from 1992 in a binder on his shelf, telling KTVB, “This is all I have left of her.”