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Cold Case Unit leader Mike Mathis, left, and District Attorney General Neal Pinkston talk next to a folder of evidence during a news conference on Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in the Hamilton County District Attorney's law library in Chattanooga.
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Harry Brooks Daniels

It started with a moldy satchel.

The faded leather pouch had been buried in Chattanooga Police Department files for decades. Inside were photos of an old fedora hat, of a crime scene off South Holly Street, and of the body of Leon Hicks.

Inside, too, were mugshots of the man investigators now say shot Hicks in 1972.

On Wednesday, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston announced his cold case unit had cleared the 43-year-old case. Much of the evidence needed to wrap it up was found in the satchel, which was only discovered when Pinkston requested boxes of two other cases' files in March.

"[The satchel] just appeared in this box, and we don't know what it was doing there," Pinkston said.

Though Pinkston says they have their man, the case won't end in a conviction. It seems that Harry Brooks Daniels, the suspect, died while serving a prison sentence for an unrelated robbery charge decades ago. Investigators consider his death the end of Hicks' case.

Hicks, 59, owned the Hicks Brothers Restaurant on East 23rd Street. On the evening of March 10, 1972, he finished his shift, took his teenage dishwasher home, dropped his girlfriend off at her house and returned to his trailer home on South Holly Street.

The next morning at about 2 a.m., his neighbor heard three gunshots and found Hicks dead at the foot of his trailer.

Police found .38-caliber projectiles and a fedora at the scene. They later identified Daniels, who lived in Atlanta, as a suspect. Witnesses said Daniels had bragged about the killing and showed off a wound he said he got in the struggle.

A search of his apartment revealed a pair of bloodstained shorts, five fedoras like the one found at the scene of Hicks' murder and medical supplies that would have been necessary to clean his wounds.

But after Brooks was indicted on a charge that he robbed the Black Angus restaurant, which used to be on Cherokee Boulevard, Hicks' murder case was inexplicably dropped. Despite what looked like a mountain of evidence, the case was allowed to languish for decades.

"There's no information in there as to why it stopped," cold case leader and retired Chattanooga police officer Mike Mathis said.

Pinkston said closing the case was just a matter of re-examining the evidence, interviewing a few key witnesses and determining whether early investigative conclusions seemed sound. Investigators reviewed the crime scene photos, images of Daniels and witness testimony. They even found a ring of keys Pinkston said Daniels used to rob area businesses in the months before Hicks' slaying.

Investigators were also aided by historical information provided by Chattanooga attorney Jerry Summers, and an anonymous witness who Pinkston said corroborated much of what was in the file.

There is no record of Daniels' death. He was 61 at the time of Hicks' killing, Pinkston said, and given his age and his sentence, the prosecutor assumes he died in prison.

Prosecutors initially had difficulty tracking down Hicks' family, but his son and 91-year-old brother came forward Wednesday after hearing news reports about the case. Through Pinkston's office, both declined interviews.

When Pinkston launched the multi-departmental cold case unit last year, he said they were working with a backlog of 113 unsolved killings. But Hicks' case is one of a handful that have come to light since that announcement. Others, including some missing persons investigations, have been brought in by family members who have heard about the unit's work.

Mathis said new cases like this mean that, for a while, the cases may build up much faster than they can be solved.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

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