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Remorseless Killer’s Lifeless Hands end a Manhunt

By: Carl Langley
web posted January 15, 2008
GUEST COLUMN – In the end it was a pair of hands floating in a jar of formaldehyde that brought to a conclusion all the speculation about what had happened to a remorseless killer.
For months law enforcement officers from Aiken to Columbia had wondered where Monroe Hickson went after he escaped from the state prison in Columbia in 1966.
Hickson, who killed three Aiken merchants and a housewife in less than nine months in 1946, was serving a life sentence plus 20 years at the time he took flight and made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
The FBI  followed cold and hot trails across several states before the hunt ended at the University of North Carolina Medical School, where Hickson had been taken for treatment as an indigent in December 1968.
“All they had left was his arms and hands,” the late Aiken Sheriff Paul Grant said at the time. “The rest of him was cremated. The hospital said he had been brought there with some kind of disease.”
Grant, who arrested Hickson while serving as an Aiken detective in 1957, said fingerprints lifted from the hands identified their owner. Hickson had been living in New Bern, N.C. under another name after fleeing the state.
Hickson was a criminal from his teen-aged years to his death and spent most of his life sitting in jails or roaming about the countryside. In 1931, at the age of 22, he was sentenced to five years in prison for assault and robbery, got out of jail two years later, and in 1942 was sent back for 18 months after a theft conviction.
Before he was convicted and sentenced a fourth time, for a robbery at New Holland in northeastern Aiken County in 1947, he killed four people, nearly killed a fifth and almost cost an innocent man  death in the state’s electric chair.
Hickson’s downfall came in August of 1957 when he was arrested for the savage beating of Lucy Parker, who ran a dry goods store in Graniteville. He was out on parole for the New Holland crime when he returned to the county and resumed his life of crime.
Soon after the attack on Ms. Parker officers caught up with Hickson, whom they referred to as “Blue.” During questioning by investigators he suddenly began to talk, and he spun a sordid tale of killings and beatings during robberies that netted nothing but small change.
Grant, who later was elected sheriff and served in that capacity for 16 years, said Hickson took  officers down a long path of crime that reached its zenith in 1946 with the murder spree. The violence sent emotional shockwaves through the community and put fear in the hearts of many.
Hickson’s first victim was David Garrett, an Aiken storekeeper who was beaten to death with an axe and robbed of a pistol and $22 in cash on April 17. On April 28 he shot and killed Mr. and Mrs. Edward Bennett in their small store at Six Points and made off with $8 and a second pistol.
Ironically, Hickson was picked up by one of several posses assembled to search the county after the Bennett killings, but officers were not able to connect him to the murders and had to let him go. He didn’t go far. In September he broke into the house of Annie Wiseberg and stole $5 after beating her to death with a piece of firewood.
Christine Cholakis, an employee of an Aiken liquor store, was lucky. She was the only survivor of his Aiken crime spree. He hit her in the head with a brick in December while robbing the liquor store but she managed to overcome her awful head wound.
Hickson again took a walk, but the following year he was convicted of the New Holland robbery and got a 20-year sentence. He spent 10 years in jail, was released on parole and came back to Aiken in 1957. An investigator said that if Ms. Parker had died Hickson may have continued with his random robberies and killings.
Ms. Parker was able to pick Hickson out of a lineup, and the subsequent interrogations of the suspect took officers back over the years and resolved a lot of unanswered questions for detectives who were still seeking clues in four killings.
Hickson’s crimes created not only a lot of fear and outrage among Aiken residents but almost sent an innocent man to the electric chair. L.D. Harris, a befuddled and hapless drifter, was caught in a dragnet looking for the Garrett and Bennett killer.
Harris, whom some say was totally bewildered by what was happening to him, was indicted for murder, convicted and sentenced to die by a jury picked from a community seething over the Bennett killings.
The anger was fed by the fact that  the couple’s deaths orphaned four small children. The Bennetts were described as a quiet, well-respected couple devoted to their children, and pictures of the slain couple and their children were published in the local paper and fueled the rage.
Aiken attorneys Leonard Williamson, Julian Salley and Dorcey Lybrand, an all-star lineup of local defense counsel, represented Harris and became so convinced the meek, illiterate man wasn’t a killer they took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lybrand, heavily involved in politics at the time, dropped out after finding that public sentiment was turning against the lawyers and could cost him politically. But Williamson and Salley soldiered on to win a 5-4 decision that overturned the death penalty.
“If one Supreme Court justice had gone the other way, the state would have executed an innocent man,” Williamson said in recalling the appeal that was filed. Williamson later served as a state prosecutor for many years.
In interviews granted me when I worked as a reporter for the Augusta Herald years ago Williamson and Salley said they not only believed Harris was innocent but suspected the real killer was right under the noses of law enforcement most of the time.
Williamson said he lost a lot of friends because of his role in the case but he was driven by his oath which obligates lawyers to defend even the most vile of criminals. Hickson’s confessions helped turn the tide of public opinion back in favor of the defense team.
Unfortunately for Harris, he  was not freed by the court ruling that blocked the death sentence. He was brought back to the state criminal court system and returned to prison. He was sitting on a life sentence when Hickson began confessing to the killings.
Grant and Police Chief E.M. Hanna said Hickson furnished officers with details about the killings that could only have been known by the man who committed the crimes.
J.M. Sprawls, who left law enforcement to build an insurance business,  was police chief at the time the Bennetts and Garrett were killed, and he told a crowd gathered to start a reward fund that the crimes were related and likely were done by one person.
Sprawls’ observation, which later proved to be on the mark, was called into question by several law enforcement investigators who viewed the killings differently, but Hickson’s confession upheld the former chief‘s analysis.
Williamson said he kept up with Harris for several years but lost track of him after the man left the county and moved to Washington, D.C. He said he later learned that Harris was killed after falling out of a window in a high rise apartment complex.
“He never had much going for him, but at least he wasn’t executed for something he didn’t do,” Williamson said in the last interview he granted on what once was a spectacular case.

Editor’s note: This story by Carl Langley, first appeared in the Augusta Herald, where the writer served as news editor.

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