One of Yosemite’s most disturbing cold cases just got a little closer to resolution – but it remains a mystery if Patricia Hicks met her end at the hands of a serial killer, a fugitive cult leader or something else.

In 1983, a family visiting Summit Meadow made a horrific discovery. While the children were enjoying the clearing, one of them came across a human hand and forearm. When investigators arrived, they guessed the arm had frozen over the winter and had recently thawed. Despite extensive searches, no other body parts were found until 1988, when a jawless skull was discovered nearby. Investigators combed through missing person reports and waited for someone to tell the story of a long-lost relative, but no one did. Over the decades, forensic anthropologists have attempted several recreations of the woman’s face based on genetic markers and the shape of the skull. But still, Summit Meadow Jane Doe was an enigma.

It took the work of two generations of Yosemite investigators to finally match a name to the remains, the ABC News docuseries »wild crime” revealed at the end of last month. For the first time, Yosemite park officials have publicly announced that Jane Doe is Patricia Hicks, a woman linked to a Merced cult leader who disappeared in the 1980s.

Hicks was born in the early 1950s in Washington. According to a 1971 Spokane Daily Chronicle article reviewed by SFGATE, his father was a cabinetmaker and his mother a manager at Valu-Mart. When Hicks was a junior in high school, his brother, Edwin Hicks Jr., 23, committed suicide while working aboard a Coast Guard vessel. Friends interviewed for ‘Wild Crime’ say the event was deeply traumatic for Patricia, who adored her older brother.

After graduating, Hicks married a classmate, but the marriage did not last. In the 1980s, Hicks moved alone to Merced to join Donald Eugene Gibson.

A digital rendering of the Jane Doe whose remains were found at Summit Meadow in Yosemite National Park.

NPS Investigative Research/Open Maps via NPS

Gibson is one of the strangest figures in Merced County’s criminal history. He seems to have come out of nowhere, suddenly gathering a small coterie of followers in the late 1970s. He worked as an accountant and sometimes as a yoga instructor for Merced’s parks and recreation department, and he tackled the vulnerable people. “When I was with him, I was in Donald’s reality,” a former follower would later testify against him.

In 1981, Gibson was tried for sexually assaulting several teenagers. Prosecutors alleged that he administered LSD to his victims before the assaults. Prosecutors told the Merced Sun-Star that the sexual acts “between the minors and the defendant meant that they would become part of the godhead and that would relieve their sins.”

Gibson was found guilty of four counts of sexual assault of minors but, inexplicably, was granted bail pending sentencing. He failed to show up for his next three court appearances, and his attorney admitted to the judge that he had been unable to contact Gibson. An assistant district attorney told local media they had received reports that Gibson had fled to Mexico. To this day, it appears Gibson never resurfaced; requests for comment from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office were not returned.

National Park Service investigators believe Hicks was a sidekick to Gibson and, after his conviction and disappearance, decided to pack their bags and head to Yosemite. According to a friend interviewed by “Wild Crime”, Hicks jumped on the bus from Merced to Yosemite around 1982 and was never seen again. She was only 27 years old.

Due to the state of the remains, it is unknown when Hicks died, although detectives believe it was likely between the fall of 1981 and the spring of 1983. Incredibly, it is possible that she encountered the one of the most infamous serial killers of the 20th century during this time.

Texas Death Row inmate Henry Lee Lucas who confessed to 600 murders sits in his cell April 20, 1997 at Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas.  (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Liaison)

Texas Death Row inmate Henry Lee Lucas who confessed to 600 murders sits in his cell April 20, 1997 at Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Liaison)

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

NPS investigators have long believed that Henry Lee Lucas killed the Summit Meadow victim. Beginning in 1983, Lucas created his own fantasy world of rape and murder, confessing to hundreds of murders across the country. Many now believe that Lucas quickly realized he was getting star treatment when he confessed to crimes. He would get cigarettes and good food, and he would be taken on a trip outside the prison to his alleged crime scenes. Although the police often said that Lucas knew details that only the killer could know, they made stupid mistakes, like showing him crime scene photos or asking leading questions until Lucas came across the right answer. In the end, only three of the hundreds of murders Lucas confessed to were definitely linked to him.

While Lucas was in the midst of his confession spree, Yosemite investigators questioned him multiple times. Although he couldn’t remember the name of Yosemite National Park, he told them he picked up a young hitchhiker somewhere between Fresno and the park. He claimed they drank beer, ate fried chicken that he wrapped in foil, and then had consensual sex. He said he killed her afterwards.

A view of Summit Meadow in Yosemite National Park.

A view of Summit Meadow in Yosemite National Park.

Walter Somers/Getty/500px

When investigators returned to the Summit Meadow area, they were able to locate a possible campsite that matched Lucas’ description, right down to the chicken bones and crushed beer cans. In 2020, the NPS Investigative Services Branch said this evidence pointed to Lucas, who had “information about this murder that had not been made public and could only be known to the person who committed the murder. crime”.

This information, however, is not proof of murder. At best, it’s circumstantial evidence that Lucas camped in the park in the 1980s. Nothing directly connects Lucas and Hicks. Lucas couldn’t remember the name of the woman he picked up, and he only described her as having straight blond or light brown hair and “silver rings on both hands”.

Given how few remains of Hicks have been found — and how often hikers can get into trouble in wilderness like a national park — it’s unclear why investigators are sure she was murdered. The repeated requests made to the NPS Investigative Services Branch were acknowledged, but no comment was provided to SFGATE on this and other matters.

His identification, like many others in recent years, was a breakthrough in forensic genealogy. Using a DNA profile developed from the remains, genetic genealogists were able to create his family tree, finding DNA matches that brought them closer and closer to a living relative. After the pool of potential matches was narrowed, a DNA test with a relative in 2021 confirmed the remains belonged to Hicks. Given Hicks’ involvement in a cult and her move from Washington to California, she may never have been officially reported missing; her mother’s 1983 obituary lists Hicks as a surviving daughter.

While his identification is a major step forward, his relatives are no closer to understanding how Hicks’ body ended up at Summit Meadow. Lucas died in prison in 2001, and Gibson, if alive, would be in his early 70s.

Anyone with information about Hicks’ disappearance or death is asked to contact the NPS Investigative Services Branch at 202-379-4761 or email [email protected]