Murder defendant Philip Arthur Thompson has been in the El Dorado County Jail over four years waiting to tell his story. During those long months he suffered a near fatal heart attack and was rescued by jail personnel and transported to Placerville’s Marshall Hospital and then to the Sacramento’s Sutter Memorial. He received excellent care and was once again returned to the county jail to await trial. The trial date was repeatedly delayed as both the prosecution and the defense sought to re-construct an event that happened during the Vietnam war years. Thompson is now 62-years-old and the majority of the jurors who will decide his fate are much younger then the defendant. Some have only read about the tumultuous years around the time that a young mother named Betty Cloer was brutally attacked and murdered.
As the trial entered its fifth week the only time the jury’s attention focused on the defendant was when his attorney Dain Weiner would ask him to stand up while asking several witness if this was the man they had seen with Betty Cloer in the early morning hours of June 19, 1971. No one identified Philip Arthur Thompson with the sole exception of armed career criminal Stanley Gene Ellis who claimed to have seen Cloer with Thompson that night while waiting up for her in her apartment. However, none of the female witnesses who lived at the Cloer apartment complex recognized Ellis as a neighbor although he lived in one of the apartments with his wife and two young sons.
There was a steady stream of prosecution witnesses often presented in a disjointed manner because of decisions made by Judge James Wagoner. For example, the defense was prevented from immediately cross-examining the prosecution’s two main witnesses Stanley Gene Ellis and Mark Alan Masterson because Judge Wagoner ruled they needed to be protected. This ruling prevented the jury from hearing both sides of the story in an orderly fashion. The strange order left the impression that the defense had nothing with which to counter the testimony of these two men.
Prosecutor Trish Kelliher also extended her presentation day by day resulting in some of the defense witnesses having to be called out of order because of their age, frail health and/or the distance they had to travel in order to testify.
As the weeks passed and the prosecution’s case dragged on the jury and the defendant must have felt like one of the prisoners in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. In this famous tale prisoners are chained in a cave unable to move their necks. They can see only the shadows cast by puppets on the wall in front of them while they hear the puppeteers moving behind their backs. On that slim evidence, the prisoners must decide what is shadow and what is reality.
Finally, on the fourteenth day of testimony, the prosecution rested its case. At 10:45 on March 27, 2008 defense attorney Dain Weiner called Philip Arthur Thompson to the stand. For the first time the 6’5” man rose, sat in the witness chair, swore to tell the truth and spoke for the first time. His voice was soft and friendly. He told his side of the events in a narrative form as his attorney led him back in time.
Hi spoke of his 1968 marriage to Diane Thompson Saylor and their honeymoon in Hawaii. He recalled they made their first home at Kings Beach on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. Then the young couple moved around northern California living for a while in San Jose, Los Gatos and Shell Beach before finally settling in Sacramento, the state’s capitol, in August 1970.
Thompson was asked how he knew Mark Alan Masterson who had previously testified as a prosecution witness. Thompson said that his parents, who lived in Sebastopol, had sort of adopted Masterson, a “lost soul” who had been in a serious automobile accident and suffered severe head injuries. Thompson and Masterson went into business together with Thompson putting $10,000 up and borrowing $30,000 from his father with the understanding that each man would be responsible for repaying his father one-half of the loan amount. Mark Masterson’s money was tied up in a trust and he could not immediately invest any money. However, the company bore his name and was called Masterson Automotive. The business consisted of buying older cars, repairing them and reselling them. The other part of the business was automotive repair and that was more lucrative then the resale of cars.
Thompson said that by January 1971 he knew that he wanted out of the partnership because Masterson was unreliable, writing and bouncing company checks and using company funds for personal expenses. In later testimony Thompson said he severed all ties with Masterson in February of 1971 and Masterson Automotive closed down. Thompson said that Masterson did not take the break up well, crying at the time.
Later Masterson continued to come around to see Thompson and, at some point, told Thompson that he had homosexual fantasies about him. This last statement was immediately objected to by Prosecutor Kelliher and her objection was upheld by Judge Wagoner. However, under direct examination by Trish Kelliher, Masterson admitted to being a homosexual and he said that sometimes his fantasies get in the way of his mind.
At this point in the narrative, Dain Weiner asked his client if he had a second occupation during that time frame.
Thompson answered by saying that he had been hired in 1971 by Art Cohen, Chief of Staff for California State Senator Randolph Collier who had offices in Santa Rosa, Yreka and Sacramento. When asked what he did for Mr. Cohen and the Senator he replied that he was a “gopher” handling canteen issues, driving the two men around, taking them to the Metro Airport in Sacramento and delivering campaign cash to various politicians.
Thompson said he also had another job working for Alan May, the Northern California field director for Richard Nixon. He had worked for that man originally in 1966 and 1967 and again periodically throughout 1970, 1971 and 1972. Later when cross examined by Prosecutor Trish Kelliher, Thompson explained that May was the manager for President Nixon’s 1972 Committee to Re Elect the President commonly known by the acronym CREEP. When Kelliher asked him what he did for May, Thompson explained he worked on issues involving campaign money and issues involving lobbyists. He also served on the Intelligence Evaluation Committee dealing with such issues as anti war protestors and those who were sent to disrupt conventions and events.
Because of these responsibilities it was suggested that Thompson obtain a concealed weapons permit in 1970 or 1971. Thompson obtained the permit through the sheriff in Yolo County and had a permit to carry a .357 Colt and a Ruger Blackhawk .357 revolver.
Weiner returned to the fall of 1970 and Masterson’s earlier testimony dealing with the rape case involving 16-year-old Sharon Strain. Both Thompson and Masterson had been arrested on December 3, 1970 and charged in the rape of Strain. When this occurred Philip Arthur Thompson had only known Mark Alan Masterson for a period of four months.
After a preliminary hearing and a delayed trial they were both found not guilty by a jury in October of 1971. However, in the Betty Cloer murder trial, Masterson testified that the two men did, in fact, rape the girl and he described the alleged event in detail.
As part of preparing for the defense in the Strain case, Thompson said that their attorney had requested that they drive over the route Strain said she had been on the night of her alleged rape. During one such trip with Masterson Thompson said that his business partner said something very strange. He told Thompson that he” felt guilty”. When the preliminary hearing for the Strain case was over Masterson told Thompson “I don’t know what she was complaining about. She enjoyed it.” Thompson said, “What?” Masterson simply repeated, “She enjoyed it.”
Later proceedings in the Strain case were delayed when Sharon Strain went in for “stomach surgery”. At that time Thompson said Masterson told him that Strain was my girlfriend. She was pregnant with my baby and she was going to get an abortion.
Thompson’s voice grew quieter and he said that the Strain case ended his marriage, ruined his finances and altered the course of his life.
At 1:30 pm the defendant once again took the stand and the subject turned to the second rape charge that had been leveled against Philip Arthur Thompson by a witness who had testified for the prosecution named Melinda Montgomery. Thompson turned himself in to the Sacramento Police Department in the middle of March 1972 when he was informed there was an arrest warrant out for him. Thompson’s co-defendant was a black man named James Allen, who is now deceased. Allen admitted the rape and served a jail sentence for the offense. Thompson entered a plea agreement that enabled him to serve a sentence that ran concurrent with a jail sentence he had received for forgery. The plea agreement, signed by a judge, was for assault but it specified that no gun was involved.
Defense attorney Dain Weiner then recited his client’s lengthy rap sheet of prior offenses and Thompson was asked if he recalled each charge and conviction. In 1972 Thompson was convicted of forgery and assault. In 1975 he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and forgery conversion. In 1976 he was convicted of solicitation to commit murder and of being an accessory after the fact. In 1979 he escaped from prison and was once again convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. In 1982 he was convicted of robbery and in 1983 he was convicted and began spending a long jail term for again being a felon in possession of a firearm, receiving stolen property and two counts of robbery and 2 counts of kidnapping. While in prison in 1994, he was convicted of being an accessory to possession of marijuana for sale. In two instances Weiner had to supply a document to Thompson to refresh his memory. When the list was concluded the defendant had answered, “yes” or “that is true” to each crime on the list.
Then Philip Arthur Thompson addressed the testimony Stanley Gene Ellis had introduced under direct examination by prosecutor Kelliher. Ellis had stated under oath that he had not seen Philip Arthur Thompson since he allegedly saw him with Betty Cloer the night she died. Thompson disputed that statement saying that he had encountered Ellis twice in the Sacramento County Jail where both men were prisoners. Thompson had been in that facility from April 1972 until November 1972 and again from the first week on April 1975 to the first week of October 1976. During 1972 Thompson explained that he served as a hospital orderly taking a cart full of aspirin, cold medication and Band-Aids around to each prisoner as needed and he came in contact with Ellis many times during that year. Thompson said that he also saw Ellis in 1976 going to and from court. This time Ellis was is prison charged in some murder. Kelliher immediately objected to this statement and Judge Wagoner upheld her objection. Thompson then said that in 1976 Ellis was kept separate from the other prisoners because he had a reputation as a “rat” or informant. This statement was also objected to by the prosecutor and her objection was once again upheld by the judge.
Changing the subject Dain Weiner asked if April 9, 2003 meant anything to his client. Thompson first said April 9th is his brother’s birthday and then continued saying that Sgt. Hal Lamb of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department came to interview him at California state prison in Solano. Weiner showed Thompson a picture taken of him in 1974 or the first part of 1975 with shoulder length hair. Thompson sort of winced at the picture and Weiner asked him if that was his hair style in 1971. Thompson answered no, that it was much shorter then.
Thompson said that Sgt. Lamb had shown him a picture of a young woman with long blond hair and asked him if he recognized her. Thompson said “it looks like someone I knew from Del Paso Heights” but he did not recognize the hair.
On October 27, 2003 Thompson heard that he had been charged with the murder of Betty Cloer. Thompson then said that he had not raped or murdered Betty Cloer.
Dain Weiner then asked him if he had an explanation of how his sperm was found in Betty Cloer’s panties.
Thompson told the jury and the hushed courtroom it was because he and the young woman had had sex several weeks before the 4th of July, 1971. He explained that he had gone to a party being held at the home of a Ron Williams. Thompson stated he had gone to the party with his friend Kemo, a Hawaiian, who had wanted to meet a girl there. The party was in honor of an Air Force helicopter mechanic who was going back for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. He said it was a barbeque and beer party with a band set up in the garage. Shortly after dark Kemo borrowed Thompson’s truck and took off. The defendant said he was tired from working and wandered around to the large back yard, laid down on a hammock and fell asleep until around 10 pm. He awoke when three girls walked by drinking beer. A little while later two of the girls brought him a beer. He told them that he did not like beer and one of the girls said neither did she. Later one of the girls came by with a bottle of Tequila and offered him some. He said no, but they continued to talk. In the background they could hear people, the band playing and dogs barking. Near the Hammock was a tent set up in the yard, they went inside and had sex. When questioned about the act under cross-examination by Trish Kelliher, he said it took about twenty minutes. Afterward as they got dressed some dogs poked their noses playfully into the tent. The woman got out and walked to the front of the house. He finished dressing and went to the front of the house also. He was going to talk to the woman but saw that she was talking with a man under the tree in the front yard. In the light he could see that she was a little plump and not too tall. He said she was wearing green pants and had dark hair that he described as being just a little longer then Ms. Kelliher’s haircut but much fuller. At just about that time his friend Kemo came back having obtained a ride with someone else. He told Thompson that he had wrecked his truck. Thompson said he went to take care of that and he never saw the woman again.
Prosecutor Trish Kelliher began her cross-examination at 2:30 in the afternoon. Under her sharp, quick questions, Thompson admitted that his wife was not at the party. He also said that before July 4th, 1971 the sexual encounter with Cloer was the only time he had been unfaithful to his wife.
When asked by Kelliher how he could be so sure that the party was a couple of weeks before July 4th, Thompson said that he believed that was true because Kemo and he had purchased fireworks in downtown Sacramento earlier that day. When asked how many people were at the party Thompson replied that people were coming and going during the party, but he would estimate about 30 people were there.
Kelliher asked the defendant why this event stood out in his mind. He said because it was one of those things that made me ask myself, “What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid?”
When shown Exhibit 70, a photo of Betty Cloer without the blond wig and with her own hair color and style, Thompson said “That’s the person I had sex with in the tent.”
Just prior to Thompson taking the stand an older male deputy district attorney had read into the record the deposition testimony of Detective Mergen, the original detective on the Cloer case. In that testimony Detective Mergen said that he had been given the photo of Betty Cloer in her own hair style and color by her family. He then took the photo to a photographer friend and had that man superimpose the blond wig Betty Cloer had purchased the day before her murder and had worn to the bar that night over her own hair. This composite picture is the only photo that Sgt. Hal Lamb showed to Philip Arthur Thompson during his visit to Solano State Prison in April 2003.
The prosecutor wanted to know more about what this man with this long criminal record had been doing when he worked for Senator Collier and Alan May. Thompson again went over his duties working with campaign people, transporting his employers around, and conveying campaign cash to and from various places.
Kelliher kept pushing, wanting to know the names of people and or organizations that Thompson had delivered cash to when he was working. At this point Judge Wagoner abruptly interrupted the questioning loudly saying, “Stop, stop! We are going to take a break.” It was just 3 pm and the break would last an unusually long 20 minutes before the jury was called back in and proceedings resumed.
But when the prosecutor again began questioning the defendant it seemed as though she had run out of steam. It had been a very long day for everyone involved. After the defendant took the stand many deputy sheriffs, investigators and deputy district attorneys began coming in and out of the courtroom taking copious notes and going through case files as they observed the proceedings. Then at 4:30 the court called a recess. Cross-examination will continue on Tuesday, April 1, 2008.
Virginia McCullough © 3/31/08