Former Port Clinton police chief opens up about Harley Dilly case in exclusive interview

“This is my first media interview since he was found,” said retired Police Chief Rob Hickman, who continues to receive threats over the 14-year-old’s death.
Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 2:06 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It was a chaotic Christmastime nightmare with searches lasting into the new year before police discovered the unthinkable.

Now, the man in charge of the search and investigation into a missing Northeast Ohio teenager says the case continues to impact him years later.

It’s been nearly three years since the disappearance of Harley Dilly made national headlines at the end of 2019.

The 14-year-old boy was ultimately found dead in his neighbor’s chimney on January 13, 2020.

Harley’s case is now at the center of our newest Dark Side of the Land podcast.

Port Clinton’s former Police Chief, Rob Hickman, sat down exclusively with 19 News Investigator Hannah Catlett for the episode.

“This is my first media interview since he was found and it will probably be my only media interview,” said Hickman, who continues to get threats over this case to this day.

He describes them in detail in the podcast episode, “Secretly Stuck: The Tragic Story of the Trapped Teen.”

In this episode, Hickman takes listeners back through what happened, beginning with the first organized search.

“The community outpouring the community turn out, you know, the pink ribbons were all over,” he said.

Harley vanished in mid December. No one had seen him since he left for school the Friday before Christmas break.

His parents didn’t report him missing until almost two days later.

We asked Hickman if that was suspicious to investigators.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It was but it wasn’t, because they raised Harley.”

Harley’s parents told police he had a history of running away. He would often go stay at a friend’s house and come back a day later.

The teenager had a history of anger issues, along with Asperger’s and ADHD.

People from all over the country traveled to Ohio after learning about Harley’s disappearance.

The theories and online hate quickly lead his family to shut the media out and Hickman to stopped speaking publicly too.

Hickman said, “I assured the media that once we had anything concrete that I would hold a press conference.”

Finally, 23 days after Harley was last seen, investigators had found something.

Police got the keys to the house across the street from Harley’s and discovered the teen’s sad fate.

“We walked upstairs, and just as you get to the top the stairs, there we saw the maroon puffer coat,” Hickman said.

Harley’s mother, Heather, confirmed it was his coat and she would soon learn police believed her son pushed it out of a flue hole while trying to make it into the house through the chimney.

The chimney, however, wasn’t functional and had been blocked off at the second floor years prior.

After shimmying down nearly six feet into the chimney, investigators say that’s where Harley got stuck in a standing position and died.

Hickman had to tell Harley’s mom.

“It’s what any reaction when you tell a mother that their child is no longer coming home,” he said. “They have closure, but it was bad.”

The house where Harley was found still stands now, but its chimney is now gone. It was taken down for the safety of everyone else still living in the neighborhood.

There are still protesters and people who don’t believe Harley’s death was an accident, even after an extensive report released by state investigators and the attorney general ruled it was a tragic accident.

“No amount of blaming anybody is going to bring Harley back,” Hickman said.

Hickman said there was no doubt in his mind that no one else played a role in Harley’s death.

Hickman’s theory about what happened?

“I truly believe that he didn’t want to go to school that day his mom told him to go to school,” Hickman said. “And, I truly in my mind think [he thought] ‘well, I’ll go down the chimney hiding the house, wait for mom to leave and then go back home and play games.’ But, how was Harley to know that it there was no chimney, there was no fireplace.”

Hickman is now retired, which he said was a decision he made back in 2012 and had nothing to do with Harley’s case.

The Dillys still live in the same home, just across the street from where Harley died.

The family said they had to put up a large fence around the back yard because so many people were driving by and repeating nasty accusations.

“Secretly Stuck: The Tragic Story of the Trapped Teen” is available now on all major podcast platforms, including SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you listen to podcasts.