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The Betty Cloer murder trial
Thompson trial set to begin next month
by Eric Laughlin Mountain Democrat staff writer, January 21, 2008   

Five years after a random DNA hit allegedly linked Philip Arthur Thompson to the 1971 rape and murder of Sacramento hair dresser Betty Cloer, a jury will finally soon hear evidence in the 37-year-old case that has taken attorneys years for which to prepare.

Thompson, 64, has been housed in the El Dorado County Jail without bail since being transported to Placerville from a Vacaville state prison following the alleged match in January 2003. He is accused of raping and shooting the beautician in a former remote area south of Highway 50 at Cambridge Road.

According to 1971 statements provided by those who last saw Cloer, she had agreed to go to South Lake Tahoe with a man she did not know, one who reportedly had followed her home from a Sacramento gas station.

But one obstacle for the prosecution has been the fact that none of the three woman who saw Cloer and the man she left with on that 1971 summer night have been able to identify Thompson.

Cloer's former neighbor at the time, Stanley Gene Ellis, shortly after the murder had provided detectives with a description that didn't match Thompson's. But in 2004, with Ellis facing a potential life sentence in federal prison for multiple felony convictions (the latest a home burglary in Oregon), he gave a more accurate description of Thompson and identified him in a photograph as being the man with whom Cloer left. By that time Thompson's photograph had widely been circulated on the Internet, since the case was believed to be the oldest to crack using the random DNA bank.

Ellis' federal case settled with him taking a plea deal for 210 months in prison, but since the case has been sealed there are no reports available documenting any kind of leniency given to him in exchange for his cooperation with the Thompson case.

Thompson's attorney Dain Weiner has suggested that Ellis himself had motive to kill Cloer, since he had reportedly been romantically involved with her.

Weiner, appointed by the county to represent Thompson, has argued that deceased witnesses and missing evidence will dampen his client's right to a fair trial. In an earlier proceeding Weiner said one deceased witness had provided evidence that Thompson was in Florida at the time of the murder. Weiner also said some of the physical evidence in the case, including a piece of Cloer's clothing, have gone missing.

Bay Area Internet journalist Kate Dixon has suggested the prosecution, primarily deputy district attorney Trish Kelliher, is relying on Ellis as her star witness, since bad evidence handling by law enforcement has potentially affected the case.

Dixon referenced testimony from a 2004 preliminary hearing in which a sheriff's official testified of a possible contamination of the evidence; the official reportedly testified that Cloer's clothing was being stored in a file cabinet along with Thompson's DNA sample.

Kelliher said Friday there is no issue regarding contamination.

The trial is set to start Feb. 18. This Friday, however, telephone interviews will be conducted of two elderly witnesses who cannot easily come to court to testify, a former sheriff's detective and a former coroner. The interviews could be booked in as evidence for jurors to evaluate.

The trial could last up to two months.

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