Jeff Thompson long ago made peace with the fact that his father paid a hit man to kill his mother in their St. Paul home to collect more than $1 million in life insurance and, prosecutors said, free himself for another woman.
Still, he lives with it daily, in his own mind and through the people who approach him even now, 50 years after his father was convicted, and ask him if it’s true that he is T. Eugene Thompson’s son.
“It’s like losing an arm. You never forget it,” said Jeff Thompson, now chief judge for Minnesota’s Third Judicial District, based in Winona. “But you have to adapt and adjust and move on, and that I think is what we’ve managed to do.”
The coldblooded slaying of Carol Thompson in her upper-middle-class Highland Park neighborhood — and the Dec. 6 murder conviction of her husband, a successful attorney, along with that of two henchmen — forever robbed St. Paul of the stubborn notion that things like that just didn’t happen here.
City Council Member Dan Bostrom, then an assistant manager at the Emporium department store who would join the St. Paul Police Department a year later, said the slaying and trial gripped the metro area.
“It was a big story to begin with, because of where it happened and the brutality of this whole thing,” Bostrom said. “But now when [T. Eugene Thompson] becomes a suspect, and we’ve got papers morning and afternoon, that of course was just the discussion of the day.”
How big a story was it?
Former Minnesota historian and archivist Lucile Kane once called it the most important murder case in state history. The Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo” was said to be partly based on the slapstick nature of the brutal crime.
And a story on the trial was running on UPI’s national wire on Nov. 22, 1963, when it was interrupted by the bulletins from Dallas that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. William Swanson, who wrote the definitive book “Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson,” was surprised by the dozens who told him about their personal ties to the case — the kids (now grown up) who remembered that they couldn’t play outside for weeks afterward, the homeowners who said that was when they first started locking their doors at night.
“There was this paradigm of the early 1960s wife and mother. And then capping it off was the eventual arrest of this woman’s husband, who was relatively known in the community,” Swanon said. “These were not the kinds of people that these sorts of crimes happened to.”
A botched killing attempt
On the morning of March 6, 1963, 34-year-old homemaker Carol Thompson was surprised in her bedroom by an intruder. He knocked her out with a rubber hose and tried to drown her in the bathtub; when she came to and escaped, his pistol wouldn’t fire, so he beat her with the gun’s butt. He then stabbed her in the neck.
Thinking she was dead, he went to wash up — only to find she had fled out the door to a neighbor’s house. “I never saw anyone who wanted to live so hard in all my life,” he was later quoted as saying.
But she died four hours later at Ancker Hospital in St. Paul. Her husband sobbed when he got the news.
Police were suspicious of T. Eugene Thompson from the start.
Police finally linked fragments of the pistol’s grip found at the scene to a gun given to ex-boxer Norman Mastrian, who had passed it to a two-bit thief named Dick Anderson. The case broke open when Anderson confessed he had killed Carol Thompson for $3,000 at Mastrian’s behest, who he said had been hired for the job by her husband.
T. Eugene’s trial was covered in exacting detail (down to what spectators wore in court) by all four Twin Cities newspapers, along with TV and radio. The Saturday Evening Post did a story, and a Life feature was scrubbed only because of the Kennedy assassination.
Ramsey County Attorney William Randall built a circumstantial case against T. Eugene, who took the stand in his own defense. Jeff, then 14, also testified. After deliberating for 12 hours, the jury found T. Eugene guilty of first-degree murder and he was given a life sentence.
Most of those who played major roles in the case are gone, with the notable exception of T. Eugene himself. Now 86 and living in a St. Paul suburb, he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Swanson’s book tells of how Jeff Thompson, now 64, and his three younger sisters struggled for years to come to grips with their mother’s death while forging uneasy relationships with their father, who served more than 19 years before being paroled in 1983.
Three years after he was paroled, when T. Eugene continued to insist that he had been framed, Jeff — by then a seasoned trial attorney — suggested that the entire family hold court, and give him a chance to make his case and “clear the air.” Jeff would be the prosecutor.
By then, Jeff was convinced that his father was guilty.
“I was reading the transcripts and there was a point in T. Eugene’s testimony about the phone” — which had been removed from the bedroom just before the murder — “that I just said to myself, ‘This is total baloney,’ ” Jeff said. “And when I read my testimony, then I kind of understood what had happened and how I’d been manipulated by my father.”
The family trial went for hours before T. Eugene produced a blood-sample report suggesting that another killer had been involved. It was all the evidence he had.
“The best way to summarize it is, he failed,” Jeff said.
But T. Eugene still maintains his innocence, Jeff said.
There remain aspects of the case that still nag at Jeff and will not let him go, such as the fact that his father got rid of the family’s excitable dachshund a few weeks before the crime. “He gave away the family dog,” he said. “On Valentine’s Day!”
Jeff and his sisters still see their father occasionally, most recently a couple of months ago at his home.
“It was very pleasant and we didn’t talk much about the case,” Jeff said.
“It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that people who have done bad things are still multidimensional. They have good aspects,” Jeff said. “T. Eugene can carry on a good conversation, he has perceptive insights, he taught us a number of very good things when we were children. But he did something that was unforgivable. That’s true of the people I deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Jeff, who has been a district judge for 14 years, said he still harbors one hope: “Someday, somebody will meet T. Eugene and say, ‘Oh, you’re Jeff Thompson’s dad,’ rather than what I used to get all the time — ‘Oh, you’re T. Eugene Thompson’s son.’ ”