CROTHERSVILLE, Ind. – The investigation into the slaying of a 10-year-old girl took a strange turn Friday when prosecutors dropped murder charges against the man who had confessed to the crime that stunned this quiet Indiana town.
Authorities shifted blame to 38-year-old Anthony Stockelman (search), who was already in jail on charges that he molested the little girl around the time she drowned in a creek in January.
Prosecutors are baffled about why Charles Hickman (search), 21, confessed to the crime earlier this year, telling authorities that fourth-grader Katie Collman (search) was kidnapped and killed after she stumbled across a methamphetamine operation.
"It now appears that the alleged sighting of a meth lab by Katie was more false information," prosecutor Stephen Pierson said. When asked why Hickman confessed to the crime, Pierson replied "got me."
Authorities said DNA tests (search) of semen found on the girl's body led prosecutors to file new charges of murder and criminal confinement against Stockelman. Investigators were led to Stockelman by a cigarette butt found at the creek, and he was arrested on the molestation charge on April 6.
A witness also told police about seeing Collman inside a pickup truck that authorities say fits the description of a white Ford F-150 owned by Stockelman.
Stockelman's wife, Tabitha, said she was shocked at the new charges, professing her husband's innocence and saying he is a good man who wants nothing more than to raise a family.
"These people have no idea who he is," she said after her husband's arraignment.
The shift in the case surprised and frustrated Crothersville residents, who have raised money to build a playground in Katie's name and were waiting for closure. The town of about 1,500 residents some 40 miles north of Louisville, Ky., had not experienced a homicide in 25 years.
Collman was last seen alive Jan. 25 during a trip from her home to a nearby store to buy toilet paper. Her body was found five days later in a creek about 15 miles away. Hickman was charged a few days after that.
"None of it feels good. It's just a little satisfaction knowing they have some evidence," said John Neace, Katie's father. "Me and my family has to live with this for the rest of our lives."
Stockelman's defense attorney, James Kilburn, has said Stockelman, who lives about 10 miles from Crothersville, was in town the day Katie disappeared to help his mother move. The attorney disputed the prosecutor's claim to have a strong case against Stockelman.
"I would assume he thought he had a very strong case against Chuckie Hickman, too," Kilburn said. "And we believe that he's wrong about Anthony Stockelman."
A judge entered a not guilty plea for Stockelman during a court hearing, at which he was ordered jailed without bond. Stockelman only answered yes or no to questions from the judge on whether he understood the legal proceedings.
Prosecutors plan to pursue the death penalty.
Hickman's attorney, John Plummer III, said he could not explain the confession but said his client now denies any involvement in the abduction and death.
"I don't think the science in the case lies," said Hickman's attorney, John Plummer III. "I think the police have to follow what the facts are and not speculate as to why people say what they say sometimes."
Hickman continues to face an unrelated child molestation charge involving a girl who was 12 at the time of the alleged crimes. The prosecutor also said he was considering whether to charge him with false informing.
The new charges have reopened wounds for many residents of Crothersville.
"I don't see kids running around from one end of town to the other like they used to," said Teddi Ashcraft, who works at the local library and remembers helping Katie find picture books in the library. "I just wish it would be all wrapped up, and everything needed to be known would be known."