It was a death shrouded in mystery, prompting the lead detective to rent an old episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" featuring an odd but similar clue -- a revolver found near the body, tied to balloons in an apparent effort to make the weapon float away.
State police said Wednesday they solved the case in eastern New Mexico that featured similarities to an October 2003 episode of the popular show.
At first, investigators suspected homicide when Thomas Hickman, 55, of North Richland Hills, Texas, was found dead March 15 along U.S. 84 southeast of Santa Rosa, his mouth covered by duct tape.
Evidence soon directed them elsewhere. The clue that linked the case to the TV series: six or seven white balloons were found entangled in a cholla cactus, some 30 feet from the body.
"We're not saying it's a copycat of the TV show," New Mexico state police Lt. Rick Anglada said. "We have no way to know he actually saw the episode. However, the lead agent kept hearing from people that there was a similar case from 'CSI."'
So the detective rented the show and took notes.
"There were similarities in the episode, where a character did tie helium balloons to a gun and hoped it would float away," Anglada said.
Medical investigators ruled the death a suicide, Anglada said, and additional evidence led detectives to conclude the scene was a ruse intended to look like a homicide.
The handgun's grips had been removed and the trigger guard was sawed off, an apparent attempt to lighten the weapon. Anglada said investigators searched the garage of Hickman's home in Texas and found matching metal shavings.
Only a single spent shell casing remained in the chamber, Anglada said, and there was no evidence the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Hickman, a regional manager for Red Lobster restaurants, had resisted his death.
"There were no signs of a struggle, and he was a large man, not bound in any way," Anglada said.
Investigators believe Hickman filled the balloons with helium, tied the balloon bouquet to the weapon, then duct-taped his own mouth and shot himself in the back of the head.
They also found he held a life insurance policy that would pay his wife $388,000 or double that amount if his death was accidental.
Hickman was last seen at a business meeting in Abilene, Texas, on March 13. He was supposed to have checked into a Lubbock hotel for a meeting the following day but never showed up.
"Everything just pointed back to Thomas Hickman killing himself," Anglada said.