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THOMPSON GUILTY OF MURDER

by Eric Laughlin Mountain Democrat staff writer © April 09, 2008 14:06

< PHILLIP ARTHUR THOMPSON reacts to hearing a jury declare that he is guilty of the 1972 slaying of Betty Marie Cloer, whose body was found shot and beaten in Cameron Park.

After hearing more than six weeks of testimony, it only took an El Dorado County jury seven hours to conclude that Phillip Arthur Thompson was the man who brutally murdered a young woman nearly four decades ago in Cameron Park.

The panel of four men and eight women found that the 62-year-old acted with premeditation and malice when he, at the age of 25, shot Elizabeth Marie 'Betty' Cloer three times, before bludgeoning her face beyond recognition.

The lengthy trial included evidence that Thompson followed the 22-year-old Cloer home from a Sacramento gas station, where he talked her into to going with him to Lake Tahoe. While en route to the South Shore, he pulled off Cambridge Road and reportedly raped her, killed her and left her body in what was then a very remote area. The mostly nude body was found the next afternoon, June 19, 1971, by horseback riders.

While speaking to jurors after the reading of the verdict, lead detective Rick Fitzgerald said he believes Thompson's killing spree did not end after the Cloer homicide.

'There are at least eight to 10 others that we know of,' the cold case detective said. He did not elaborate on the other alleged murders, but there was an Oregon woman present throughout the trial who said she has reason to believe Thompson murdered her daughter in 1980. Dee Dee Kouns said evidence has been found linking Thompson and two other men to the murder of her daughter Valerie McDonald, an aspiring filmmaker who went missing in San Francisco.

Kouns' son Kevin accompanied the 80-year-old to the verdict reading and called Thompson a 'bastard' as he exited the courtroom.

The elder Kouns, who has attended six or seven of Thompson's trials over the years, said she was ecstatic when the verdict was read. The verdict was also heard via speaker phone by Cloer's son Robert, who was just a toddler at the time of his mother's murder.

After court was adjourned, most of the discharged jurors spoke to the Mountain Democrat on the condition that they remain anonymous. Although some said there were key pieces of evidence that clenched their decision, most said it was a combination of all the evidence that led them to convict.

'It was just really the whole ball of wax that fit together well,' one woman said.

'But the DNA was a big part of it,' another said.

A third said it was Thompson's testimony that convinced her that he committed the gruesome murder.

'His story just didn't fit,' the female juror said. 'And I had a feeling ahead of time that he was going to do that - come up with some tale about him having consensual sex with her to explain the DNA.'

Thompson had initially been charged with Cloer's murder after the Department of Justice matched his DNA (by way of semen) to Cloer's underwear found at the scene. During the trial he testified that he had sex with Cloer at a party around the time of her murder.

But his story was later chopped up by prosecutor Trish Kelliher, who called to the witness stand the man Thompson said he was with the night he claimed to have been with Cloer at a party. The man, James 'Kimo' Hempstead, provided an account of summer 1971 events that conflicted with Thompson's story.

'The Kimo testimony was key,' one of the jurors said. 'It basically knocked down his whole story.'

Thompson had testified that he went to the party with Kimo a couple weeks before the Fourth of July and that Kemo was in a car accident that night. Kimo, however, said he was never at the party. Evidence was also later presented that the car accident didn't take place until three months after the murder.

Prosecutor Kelliher said Fitzgerald and co-detective Rich Strasser were able to track 'Kimo' down within days through Thompson's ex-wife.

'We definitely had to work quick to find him on such short notice,' Fitzgerald added. Kelliher said she had no idea as to what Thompson's story would entail prior to him testifying, which translated into no effort being made to find Hempstead in the years she spent preparing for the trial.

'The first time we heard about him was when you heard about him,' she told the jurors.

Kelliher and Fitzgerald then continued their candid conversation with the 12 deeply engaged jurors.

'At one point this murder was thought to be linked to the Zodiac Killer,' Fitzgerald said.

When asked about what happened to the rock Thompson used to smash in Cloer's face, Fitzgerald said he thinks Thompson kept it as a token or souvenir to the slaying.

Fitzgerald said Thompson's high intelligence probably helped him to get away with Cloer's death and other violent crimes over the years.

'I think he got smarter and better at what he was doing as he got older,' the detective said.

Kelliher likened Thompson to Washington serial killer Ted Bundy.

'He had that same appeal, intelligent and charming,' she said.

When asked for feedback on various witnesses called in the trial, one juror said the panel had mixed feelings about the testimony of federal prisoner Stanley Ellis, who the defense had argued was lying to get time knocked off his 15-year prison sentence.

Ellis had testified that he lived in Cloer's apartment complex and was at her apartment when the aspiring hairdresser left with a man he identified as Thompson. There were, however, problems with his account, such as the testimony of Cloer's roommate who said she was the only one in the apartment when Cloer stopped by for that last time to grab a jacket.

Several said they believed the testimony of former Thompson business associate Mark Masterson, who testified that the two were wrongly acquitted for the 1970 rape of a teen-aged Sacramento girl. Masterson had testified that he and Thompson did in fact rape 16-year-old Sharon Strain, and that Thompson said he wanted to kill her afterward.

'I really felt sorry for him,' one juror said of Masterson. 'I think he was really trying hard to tell the truth to set things straight, but he was still petrified of Thompson.'

Judge James R. Wagoner had ruled to allow the Strain case to be introduced prior to the trial's start. Kelliher used it to illustrate to jurors what she called Thompson's MO.

Strain herself did not testify because she is now deceased, but her transcript was read during the trial.

'What happened to Sharon?' one juror asked Kelliher and Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald used a gesture to imply that the woman drank herself to death after being asked to testify in the trial.

'When we approached her in 2003 to testify, she was all gung-ho and was ready to come up,' Kelliher said.

'But I think that call brought it all back to the surface and she couldn't handle it and relapsed,' Fitzgerald added.

Jurors praised the work of Fitzgerald and Strasser, but said they were frustrated with the efforts of detectives who handled the case in 1971. During the trial, two retired El Dorado County sheriff's detectives testified that they ran a DMV check on a license plate number recorded at the gas station where Thompson first saw Cloer. The license plate number, DUK323, was tracked down to Thompson's California Highway Patrol sergeant step-father, but no effort was made to contact him or find the vehicle so they could try the keys found near Cloer's body. In the trial, Thompson admitted to driving an Oldsmobile with that license plate number.

'That was just huge,' one juror said of the 1971 investigators. 'They were just so close, but just didn't take that final step.'

During the conversation, Fitzgerald also elaborated on speculation regarding Thompson's possible connection to the federal government. Before the trial's start, there were reports that Thompson had worked as a covert CIA or FBI operative in the 1970s and '80s.

'There is, in fact, some information that suggests he was an operative who was given a lot of leeway,' Fitzgerald said.

The Mountain Democrat had previously reported that Thompson had ties with anti-Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, believed to have been responsible for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger jet that killed 73 people.

No mention of any of this was made in the trial, but Thompson did testify as to having worked as a driver for state Sen. Randolph Collier and also for Alan May, who led the California Committee to Reelect Richard Nixon.

Sentencing for Thompson is scheduled for April 25. Because 1971 sentencing guidelines must be applied, the most he can get is seven years to life. But prosecutor Trish Kelliher seemed confident he will never be paroled.

Thompson has been in the El Dorado County Jail since being charged with Cloer's murder in 2003. At that time, he was in prison and nearly up for parole for a 1980s kidnapping and robbery conviction. Victims in that offense were two UPS drivers.

There was a sudden lull in the conversation with jurors when Thompson exited the courtroom and was led to an elevator by four sheriff's officials. His face was red and looked wet with perspiration.

At the beginning of the trial he seemed confident, regularly expressing pleasant gestures to jurors and other in the courtroom. But in the final days of the trial, especially after holes were poked in his story, he appeared as if he knew his fate.

E-mail Eric Laughlin at or call 344-5064.