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After 1972 disappearance, misidentification of body, son's ashes returned to mother

Monday, August 1, 2011 | 8:02 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Erma Sickman was 39 when her son disappeared.

Thirty-nine years later, she found out he was slain by a serial killer in Texas.

On Saturday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Springfield, Sickman was finally able to hold a memorial service to honor him.

"He needs a memorial service," Sickman said. "He was a very good son."

But before she was able to honor her only boy's memory, his body was misidentified years ago and given to another family who cremated the remains believing it was their son.

Since March of this year, Sickman, 78, has been waiting to receive her son's ashes. They will be buried with her when she dies, she said.

Her daughter, Sandy Henrichs, who still lives in Texas, brought her brother home on Friday.

"Learning about all this has been traumatic for me," Henrichs said. "I have been in a time warp. I've been pushed back to being a 14-year-old girl looking for my brother. I found him, but not the way I wanted to find him. I always thought I'd find a couple nieces and nephews and bring Mama home some more grandbabies."

Steven "Steve" K. Sickman was born Aug. 2, 1954, with a black curl on his head and big eyes so dark they were almost black.

The day he disappeared, he and Sandy had a big fight because she always had a crush on one of his friends and would follow them around like a "puppy dog."

Before he went out, Steve came into her room to apologize, which was very uncharacteristic, she said.

He was wearing a blue, pocket T-shirt, a new pair of Levi jeans, Dingo boots with rings on the ankles and a red belt.

Steve Sickman was walking home from a party when he disappeared on July 17, 1972, in Houston.

He was 17.

For weeks, Erma got up every night and would "drive for miles and miles looking for him, searching parks."

Sandy, who was 14, initially thought he took off.

Henrichs never gave up hope that her brother was coming home, but Erma said she knew something had happened to him because he'd never leave.

On Aug. 8, 1973, a story broke about a serial killer in Houston.

According to an earlier Associated Press story, police had uncovered 27 bodies (to date, they know of 29), all boys between the ages of 13 and 21. They were all victims of Dean Corll and his two teenage accomplices, Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. and David Owen Brooks.

Corll paid Brooks and Henley to kidnap and deliver boys to him.

When Erma heard the news, she thought her son was among the dead. She went directly to the morgue.

But this was before DNA, and Steve's body was not identified.

Sharon Derrick, forensic anthropologist with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston (formerly Harris County Medical Examiner's Office), who was not working there at the time of the crimes, said the best identification at that time was through dental records, radiographs to compare broken bones, clothes and family help.

For years, there was no answer for Erma Sickman.

Once DNA was discovered, she submitted it, but it was later lost.

In 2009, Derrick asked Sickman to resubmit DNA, and on March 5 of this year, she called and told Sickman her son had been identified.

The problem was his body had been thought to be that of Mark Scott, another boy who disappeared. The body had been given to the Scott family.

Erma had to fill out a slew of paperwork to get the cremated remains back.

For everyone involved, including the Scott family, it was "a hard scenario to endure," said Henrichs.

"It's reopened a wound because they thought they had closure. They are like 'OK, where is their son now?' Now they have the wandering eye like we've had for 39 years. 'Where is Steve; where is he?' Now they are going, 'Where is Mark; where is he?'"

When Derrick came to work for the Institute of Forensic Sciences in 2006, there were still three unidentified bodies.

The department developed an anthropology division to provide support for coroners and look at old unsolved cases.

It became Derrick's mission to identify the bodies of the remaining boys.

Barbara Gibson, an investigative reporter with Texas Crime News, dove into the case herself. She read old police reports and went over crime scene photographs.

One set of victims was brothers — Michael Baulch and Billy Gene Baulch Jr. — and once their bodies were identified, they were buried together.

But in her research, Gibson found that numerous details in Michael Baulch's death did not match up with Henley's confession.

She thought the body might have been misidentified and went to Derrick.

Derrick tested the bones of the unidentified boys and found one of them was Mike Baulch, so one of the bodies that was buried had been misidentified.

After that, Gibson went back to Henley and tried to figure out whose body might have been misidentified. In that conversation, Henley said the report on Mark Scott did not match up either.

So Gibson again approached Derrick, who was already trying to identify Steve Sickman.

"We knew the family reported him (Steve) missing, but we didn't have any good narrative. I felt he just fit the profile to be one of the victims," Derrick said.

In looking at the case files, Scott and Sickman seemed the most similar in terms of height, age and dental records. So Derrick tested a remaining bone that was supposed to be Scott, and it turned out to be Sickman.

Now the Sickman family has closure, but there are still unidentified boys and more questions.

At the memorial Saturday, Steve's ashes were held in a gold box and placed on the church altar.

The Rev. Tom Reidy blessed the gold box with holy water.

More than 100 people came to remember the gregarious teen and celebrate his life.

Seated in the first row of the church, Sickman and Henrichs wiped away tears and were often embraced by others in the family. The pews behind them were packed with family members who had traveled from far and wide to be there.

Reidy said it was time to let go.

"Now Steven is at home with Jesus, and that is where he's been all these years you've been looking for him ... he's been watching over you," Reidy said.


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