Release granted to Robert Lamar Hicks, convicted in 1986 murder of Lutheran Hospital nurse Julie Bissell

Allen County Courthouse ( file photo)

A man who escaped the death penalty and received an 85-year prison sentence in the 1986 stabbing death of a Lutheran Hospital nurse is a free man of sorts now.

Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull on Friday approved the sentence modification and ordered the release of Robert Lamar Hicks. Indiana offenders can receive time off their sentences for good behavior. Hicks, a 21-year-old high school dropout at the time of the crime, had been held in the South Bend Community Re-Entry Center, according to electronic records.

A misdemeanor that’s part of Hicks’ sentence couldn’t be served in the Department of Correction, explained Robyn Niedzwiecki, a spokeswoman for the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office. “The DOC previously had him in work release. His sentence was modified so that he can be supervised by (Allen County Community Corrections’) Re-Entry Court program.”

He was to be taken to Community Corrections for processing before being released. He will be in the Re-Entry Court program until his sentence is completed Sept. 26. The program helps offenders transition into the community with help with jobs searches and behavioral modification.

According to News-Sentinel archives, Hicks was sentenced for the Jan. 3, 1986, murder of Lutheran Hospital nurse Julie Bissell, 31. An Allen Superior Court witness testified Hicks broke into Bissell’s Harbor Walk Drive home, forced her to write a check for $175, then slammed her in the head with a shotgun butt and stabbed her in the abdomen. Bissell was bound, placed in plastic bags and taken to a gravel road in southern Allen County, where Hicks rolled her body down the embankment of the St. Marys River.

Hicks also was convicted of robbery, burglary, resisting law enforcement and possessing a sawed-off shotgun. Before Bissell’s body was found, Hicks was one of three people taken into custody after an Allen County Sheriff’s Department spotted Bissell’s 1983 black Camaro and knew the woman was missing. Co-workers became concerned when the usually prompt Bissell failed to show up for work. A hospital employee found her car gone and a garage window broken. A Sheriff’s Department officers spotted her body a day after Hicks’ arrest.

Hicks’ attorneys appealed his sentence, arguing the prosecution’s key witness was not credible and there was not enough evidence to support his conviction. His accomplice, Darrell Wilson, was given a 60-year sentence and avoided a possible death penalty in exchange for testimony against Hicks at trial. That testimony was crucial, because no physical evidence tied Hicks to Bissell’s home, which she had bought about a year previously from Wilson’s brother. Jurors decided against the death penalty for Hicks, later saying they were not certain Hicks did the actual killing.

The Indiana Supreme Court upheld Hicks’ sentence in 1989 after he appealed it.

“I wasn’t there. I didn’t do it,” he told a judge before his sentencing.