Family torn apart by murder charge for death 40 years earlier

03/02/2014 12:00 AM

03/01/2014 4:40 PM

On the night she was arrested for murder, Patricia Lee Thomas lay in her lower bunk at Placer County Main Jail, listening to clanging doors and the barking voices of sheriff’s deputies conducting bed checks.

It was January 2012, and Thomas, 66 at the time, was three or four decades older than most of the other women in custody. She was a grandmother who had survived a lung transplant, heart problems and the long-ago death of a young child.

But 42 years after her daughter Cindy drowned in a bathtub at their Auburn home, Thomas was an inmate, charged with killing the girl.

“I just couldn’t believe what was happening to me,” Thomas recalled during an interview last month. “To this day, it’s still hard to believe.”

Two years after her arrest, Thomas is free, having pleaded no contest to a single count of child endangerment for leaving Cindy in a tub of water on that evening in May 1970. But she remains haunted, she said, by the circumstances that led to the murder charge, and the shadows of doubt that linger over her family.

Thomas’ arrest was based primarily on the claims of another daughter, Wendy, who went to police after more than four decades to say she harbored a painful memory of her mother having drowned Cindy that May evening. In the small foothills community where Thomas had lived most of her life, police pegged her as a woman who got away with murder. Although many longtime friends and neighbors have offered support, she said, she may never be able to shed that label.

On a recent winter day, Thomas sat in the living room of her Grass Valley home, and spoke for the first time publicly about the arrest and the months she spent as an accused murderer. Slightly built, with short brown curly hair, she perched on a chair, wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and moccasins. The walls and tables around her were decorated with family pictures that include faded photos of Wendy and Cindy playing together as toddlers. She was alternately tearful and bitter as she tried to make sense of the trail of events that wrenched her life and family.

“I’ll never understand it,” said Thomas, shaking her head. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.”

In December 2011, Wendy, whose married name is Peck, approached Auburn police with a dramatic story that she said she had kept under wraps for decades. After consulting with a therapist, she told detectives, she had finally decided to reveal the truth about her sister’s death.

Peck said she was 5 when she watched her mother dangle 4-year-old Cindy by her legs in the bathtub and drown her. She was coming forward at age 47, she said, to help resolve emotional problems that stemmed in part from her long silence about the death.

Thomas tells a different story about what happened that day.

She said she left the sisters for a few minutes at bathtime to tend to her third child, baby Jimmy. When she returned, she said, she found Cindy lifeless in the tub, and frantically called for an ambulance. Paramedics were unable to revive the girl, and the death was deemed an accident.

More than 40 years later, in January 2012, Thomas was remarried and living in Grass Valley near her surviving daughter.

At the time, Thomas said, they had a strained relationship. Peck had asked if they could meet to talk over some issues, including Cindy’s death, that had surfaced during her therapy sessions.

“I wanted a relationship with my daughter,” Thomas said. “So I went to the house.”

Unknown to Thomas, Peck’s home had been wired by police. As she and her daughter spoke, detectives were in an adjoining room, gathering audio and video evidence.

“She gave me a hug when I got there, and she hugged me when I left,” Thomas said.

It was the last time she spoke to her daughter.

‘The resort and spa’

A few days later, three detectives appeared on Thomas’ doorstep with a search warrant. They said they were gathering evidence for a potential murder charge.

An investigative report supporting the search warrant said that Thomas “broke down” during the recorded conversation with her daughter, telling Peck she had bumped Cindy’s head on the faucet and left her to drown.

Thomas maintains she admitted to nothing other than the possibility that Cindy had somehow bumped her head and drowned.

With her third husband, Harry, standing by in horror, the detectives took Thomas’ computer and family photos, and asked questions about Cindy’s death. They left, but told Thomas they “probably” would be back to arrest her, she recalled.

She was taken into custody later that week.

Throughout the ensuing legal proceedings, Thomas maintained her innocence, and other members of the family rose to defend her. A contingent of friends and relatives regularly attended her court appearances in a show of support. Peck and her immediate family mostly stayed away.

Thomas’ defense lawyer, Thomas Leupp, argued in court papers that first Peck and later police had pressured Thomas to confess to a crime she had never committed, saying her daughter needed the affirmation of her mother’s confession to move beyond her emotional problems. Prosecutors would argue that Thomas nodded, indicating guilt. But Thomas and her lawyer insist she never made any confession.

As the two sides prepared their cases, Thomas remained in jail on a no-bail hold. Lying in her bunk in the jail she bitterly referred to as “the resort and spa,” Thomas recalled, “I kept thinking, there’s no way this can go forward. I didn’t drown my daughter.”

She remembers being frightened at first, but said that over time she learned to lean on younger, savvier inmates who began calling her “Mom.”

Thomas suffers from a degenerative eye disease that makes reading difficult, so “the girls” would recite verses from the Bible and read her mail to her, she said. She shared orange slices with a pregnant inmate she called “Little Mama,” and occasionally traded her biscuits and gravy, which “the kids” preferred, for the dry cereal she liked.

Each day, after a predawn wake-up call and breakfast, Thomas said, she typically passed the time walking around the common area, flipping playing cards on a cafeteria table to mark how far she traveled. “Fifty-two flips was a mile,” she said. One of her closest friends, she said, was a woman the FBI had dubbed “The Bad Hair Bandit” for the unusual wigs she wore during bank robberies.

“Her name was Cindy,” Thomas said, “and she is about the same age as my daughter Wendy.”

After dinner each day, Thomas and the other inmates had to return to their cells for “bed check.” Thomas usually hit her bunk around 9, and most nights “I bawled myself to sleep,” she said.

She spent 41 days in jail before Leupp persuaded the court to let Thomas serve time in “home confinement.” She was fitted with an ankle bracelet that would track her whereabouts 24 hours a day. That first night home, she and her husband shared a can of soup for dinner, she said, dazed at the turn their lives had taken.

‘The true victims’

Each morning for the next 19 months, Thomas rose at the crack of dawn to charge her ankle monitor. She left her property only to attend church and medical appointments.

In late September 2013, Thomas was in court for what was supposed to be the start of her preliminary hearing. Leupp had filed a motion challenging the admissibility of the prosecution’s key evidence: the recorded statements Thomas had made to her daughter and police. He argued the statements were coerced and the recordings difficult to decipher and “suspect” at best.

That morning, after conferring with the court about his motion, Leupp told Thomas the prosecution was offering a plea deal: If she would plead no contest to one count of felony child endangerment and decline a trial by jury, she could avoid prison.

She took the plea deal reluctantly, she said.

“Sometimes I regret the plea, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Thomas said. “But I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I couldn’t stand what it was doing to my family.”

Prosecutors remain unapologetic about pursuing a murder case against Thomas.

Jeffrey Wood, supervising deputy district attorney for Placer County, said prosecutors knew that proving a murder charge would be difficult because of the “lapse of time,” and the deaths of several critical witnesses, including a relative who claimed to have seen Thomas abuse Cindy.

In addition, Wood said, prosecutors were concerned about Leupp’s challenge to the recorded conversations between Thomas and her daughter. He said they began to question “whether we could sustain a conviction at trial.”

But he stands by the contention that Wendy Peck and her sister Cindy remain “the true victims” in the case. Peck “had to live with her mother’s actions for over 40 years,” he said.

Under the plea agreement, Thomas received a sentence of time served and home confinement. She must report to a probation officer for the next five years and cannot leave the state without permission.

“Pat was torn,” Leupp said of the plea. “But she also was physically and emotionally spent. Her health was not good. She was worried about the impact of a trial on her family and herself.”

A family ‘destroyed’

With her husband Harry beside her, Thomas is now working to rebuild her home, her reputation and her finances.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” she said. “But this? This was the worst.”

Born in the Sierra foothills, Thomas married at 18. She worked a variety of jobs over the years to help support her four children, including 13 years at a “bug farm,” packing ladybugs for shipment across the country. She outlived her first two husbands, including Cindy’s father. She developed acute pulmonary disease and underwent a lung transplant in 1997, before marrying Harry Thomas nearly 15 years ago.

She said she has been uplifted by expressions of love and support from longtime neighbors, her pastor and most members of her family. But she is self-conscious, as well, worried that people in town will recognize her as the woman accused of drowning her daughter.

She said she has not spoken to Peck since the day of the “heart to heart” that detectives used as evidence against her. Time and again, she said, she has asked herself why her daughter “betrayed” her.

Thomas’ brother, Terry Denton, said the murder case was the culmination of a family rift that spiraled out of control and a justice system that went awry.

“It destroyed my sister financially and emotionally,” he said. “It destroyed the family.”

“If Wendy did see her drown Cindy,” mused Lacy Denton, an adult niece who lives in Arizona, “why didn’t she mention it at age 10? Or 19? Or 30? Why would you wait 42 years before opening your mouth? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Peck has held her ground.

She did not respond to an interview request for this story. But in court documents and media interviews, she has described feeling tortured by the knowledge of “the family secret” before she finally told a therapist.

At her mother’s sentencing hearing last October, Peck issued a written statement, which Wood read to the court. She called her mother a “monster” who abused Cindy and was responsible for her death. “Every word I say is true and accurate,” the statement read.

Thomas wept throughout the lengthy statement, then went home to resume her life.

“I will always love Wendy. She is a part of me,” said Thomas, tears welling in her eyes. “God says we have to forgive, so I have forgiven her. But I’m not sure I ever want to see her again.”

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