Bob Kistner had given up hope of ever finding his great-aunt's killer. The retired police sergeant was just a rookie at the Long Beach Police Department in California when Maybelle Hudson, 80, was beaten, raped and strangled in her Inglewood garage after returning home from choir practice one day in April 1976. The last time Kistner called detectives at the Inglewood Police Department, in 2006, he was told that given the amount of time that had passed since the twice-widowed woman was murdered, the perpetrator was likely deceased or in prison.
"They had eliminated all of their suspects, cleared all of those suspects, so at that time, it was the investigators' belief that the guy was either dead or in prison. I thought that was the end of it," says Kistner, "until Inglewood called the other day and said we've got some real good news for you." (See the top 25 crimes of the century.)
A suspect, John Floyd Thomas Jr., had been arrested in late March and charged on April 2 with the rape and murders of two elderly women in the 1970s. According to police, DNA evidence also apparently tied Thomas to the crimes against Kistner's great-aunt. A grimmer scenario loomed, however: investigators now believe that Thomas was behind many more sexually-motivated murders and may turn out to be the most prolific serial killer in Los Angeles history.
To former co-workers at the State Compensation Insurance Fund (State Fund), where Thomas worked as a claims adjuster, the charges against him seem unfathomable. "This is certainly not the man that we knew. The man that we engaged with was always very pleasant, very personable. We never ever saw him lose his temper. Never. He always had a pleasant smile, always had a kind word," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who retired from State Fund last December and is president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. Hutchinson says Thomas was married with children. "I knew [Thomas] was quite a bit older than myself," he says. "I used to ask him what was the secret to his youthful appearance. He'd always laugh, with that smile of his, and essentially say, 'Just good living.'" (See pictures of the LAPD cracking down on homicide rates.)
Los Angeles Police detectives say good was far from how Thomas lived. He allegedly preyed on elderly women who were living alone, according to police, beating and raping his victims before strangling them to death. Unbeknownst to his co-workers, Thomas, 72, had an extensive criminal history. He was arrested a number of times between 1955 and 1978. His previous criminal convictions consist of multiple burglaries, many of which involved the sexual assault of his victims. According to Jennifer Vargen, a spokeswoman for State Fund, where Thomas worked from 1989 up until his arrest, they were unaware of his criminal history. Back when Thomas was hired, Vargen says, mandatory criminal-background checks weren't in effect (they were instituted for new employees in the mid-1990s). Now, in light of the case against Thomas, she says the human resources department is reevaluating whether to conduct criminal-background checks for employees hired before the mandatory practice went into effect.
It was Thomas' background that appears to have come back to land him in jail. He was tied to the latest charges through DNA samples taken from him in October 2008 as part of California's ongoing process to swab registered sex offenders. Thomas was required to give the samples because of a rape conviction in 1978 in Pasadena. He was also convicted of burglary and attempted rape in Los Angeles in 1957. On March 27, the California Department of Justice DNA Laboratory notified detectives that Thomas' DNA matched evidence for the rape and murder of Ethel Sokoloff, 68, in the mid-Wilshire area in 1972. On March 31, detectives were told that his DNA matched four other slayings.
Thomas is also charged with the rape and murder of Elizabeth McKeown, 67, in Westchester in 1976. And detectives believe that not only is he likely connected to additional murders, but he may in fact be the infamous "Westside Rapist" who terrorized the county in the 1970s. Cases associated with the Westside Rapist investigation with available, if partial, DNA profiles appear to match Thomas' DNA. At a news conference on April 30, police said they plan to file charges against Thomas for three Inglewood slayings 33 years ago, including that of Maybelle Hudson, and that they are combing through cold-case files dating back to the 1950s to see if he's linked to at least 25 more cases in Hollywood, West Los Angeles and the Wilshire area. (See pictures of crime in Middle America.)
"I believe he's very much connected to a lot of these cases based on the time he was in and out of custody, his location in regard to a lot of these crimes, the crimes we have proved against him already and the modus operandi on those crimes, [which] match the MOs on these crimes," says Detective Richard Bengtson of the Los Angeles Police Department's Robbery Homicide Division, Cold Case Homicide Section, which cracked the case. "If we are able to prove even half of these cases, it would make him [one of] L.A.'s most prolific serial killers, if not the United States'."
Thomas, who is being held on $1 million bail, will be arraigned on May 20 for the murders of Sokoloff and McKeown. He does not face the death penalty because the murders took place before the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, says Bengtson, the lead detective on the case. However, if Thomas is charged with subsequent crimes that took place in 1978 or later, the death penalty may be considered. Police feel confident that more victims will be identified. "It's just in its infancy stage, and it's only going to get bigger," says Bengtson. "We're just going to focus on the investigation and build from here."
For Kistner, who plans on attending Thomas' upcoming trials, the investigation's findings may finally bring some closure to the tragedy of his great-aunt's death. "Especially in my line of business," says the ex-cop, "we like closure; we like happy endings, I guess, if there can be a happy ending to this. You're always looking for the bad guy, especially someone who could do something to an old lady like that." He adds, "I plan on attending the trials when they come up for the personal satisfaction of actually physically seeing him in custody and knowing that he's going to stand for the charges. I've always been a proponent of the death penalty, but if he gets life in prison, I would be just as happy knowing that he won't get out again."