By Michael Harrington
PORT CLINTON — The search for Harley Dilly, 14, ended tragically, but questions remain on how Port Clinton police and its chief, Rob Hickman, conducted the investigation.
Dilly’s disappearance ignited a nationwide search, but at a Tuesday press conference, Hickman announced he’d been found dead in the chimney of a vacant house just across the street from his home.
Police believe Dilly became stuck in the chimney while trying to get into the house. No foul play is suspected.
Dilly was last seen on Friday, Dec. 20, while he was walking to Port Clinton High School. His family reported him missing at 11:50 p.m. the following day, according to Hickman.
Throughout the investigation, the chief gave indications that he believed Harley was a runaway and alive. In a Saturday social media post directed at Harley, Hickman offered to pick him up no matter where he was.
Police and other agencies conducted a 150-acre search of the area southeast of Dilly’s home. Hickman said the exterior of the house where Dilly’s body was found was checked numerous times. A canine even checked the perimeter for Dilly’s scent, but no one entered the interior.
“The house was secured,” Hickman said at the news conference on Tuesday. “There was no sign of forced entry. It was actually double locked, so nothing led us to believe that anybody was inside the house.”
For some reason, however, police decided on Monday to return to the home and this time they went inside. But Hickman provided very few answers on what made this time different.
“We were re-canvassing the areas we’ve already searched,” Hickman said when asked about it.
He never elaborated on why the house’s interior was searched on Monday when every other time it was deemed unnecessary. The final time a reporter asked what spurred them to get the keys from the owners of the house, Hickman threatened to end the news conference.
“I’ve already answered that,” Hickman said. “Folks, I’m done right now.”
He did answer two more questions before leaving the podium. The final one was about the state of mind of Dilly’s family.
“I’m going to try to answer that as best I can,” Hickman said. “What would your state of mind be if you lost your 14-year-old? I can’t put words into that, can you?”
Hickman used the department’s Facebook page throughout the investigation. At one point, he switched to daily news conferences after getting some blowback on social media. But he switched back to a keyboard just days later to provide updates after a short news conference Dec. 30, in which he didn’t answer questions.
And, whether it was at social media or at news conferences, the chief offered little information about any details concerning the search for Harley, oftentimes simply announcing there was nothing to update or posting updates that were simply copied from prior posts.
His use of social media helped garner national attention with thousands of people engaging in dialogue about the search, but it also had a downside. Countless people made unverified claims on social media about the case, and negative comments about the Dilly family.
One of Hickman’s posts warned that comments that were “confrontational, insensitive, obscene, off-topic, or any personal attacks” would be removed, and it reserved the right to ban individuals from the page, which the chief uses as the department’s main source of disseminating information.
Hickman may now find himself on the receiving end of social media speculation with may people not believing the information he gave at Tuesday’s press conference.
One social media user took Hickman to task after Tuesday’s press conference.
“Hickman resign,” Carrie Nelson posted. “If you stand by your report and story, then it’s on you. Your ineptitude cost this boy his life. Police 101: you get the call then you set up a perimeter from the home and exhaust it before moving outward. Knowing the house was vacant, the lockbox in front of your face should have said ‘I wonder, being neighbors if Harley knows the code.’ Whatever. You start from the place last seen and move out meticulously. That boy was 170 feet from his own front porch. Everyone in this community has said ‘Let the police do their job.’ Well, it was your job and you failed.”