T. Eugene Thompson, the St. Paul attorney who had his wife murdered for insurance money and whose trial and conviction 52 years ago riveted the nation, died last month on his 88th birthday, his son said Wednesday.

About two dozen people attended a private memorial and mass Saturday in Edina for Thompson, who was paroled from prison in 1983 and had spent his final years living at a Roseville condominium.

His son, Winona County Chief District Judge Jeffrey Thompson, said his father died in his sleep. His health had been failing for some time and he had stomach problems, he said.

"It was a very nice service," his son said. "We met some of the people closest to him, and there were good stories about T. Eugene.

"I'm a little jealous of people who have good memories, because I don't have those memories."

Former Minnesota historian and archivist Lucile Kane once called Carol Thompson's killing the most important murder case in state history. The Coen brothers' movie "Fargo" was said to be partly based on the bungling nature of the brutal crime.

But Thompson maintained to the end that he had been framed. After he was released from prison, his children convened a kitchen court to weigh his guilt or innocence. His son, by then a seasoned trial attorney, presented the evidence against him and asked him to respond.

The only thing his father could produce, Jeffrey Thompson said, was a blood-sample report. He concluded that his father was guilty.

William Swanson hoped to interview T. Eugene Thompson for his definitive 2006 book on the case, "Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson," but wasn't able to persuade him.

"He was a world-class schmoozer," Swanson said. "He was great in a crowd — a friendly, smiling, charming fellow, eager to shake your hand and chat as long as it wasn't about the murder of his wife."

Rural roots

Thompson, named Tilmer at birth, was born in Blue Earth, Minn., and brought up in Elmore near the Iowa border, the son of a hatchery owner in a family of seven children.

He dropped out of Elmore High School to enlist in the U.S. Navy, serving onboard a minesweeper in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. He returned to Minnesota to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, where he studied economics and began seeing Carol Swoboda. They married while he was still in school.

After graduating from law school in 1955, he joined the St. Paul law firm of Hoffman, Donahue and Graff, where he handled a variety of civil and criminal cases. The family moved to a large home in an upper-middle-class Highland Park neighborhood.

On the morning of March 6, 1963, Carol Thompson was home alone when she 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 revived and escaped, her attacker tried to shoot her, but 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. Her husband sobbed when he learned that she had died.

Before long, however, police were identifying Thompson as a prime suspect. Investigators linked crime scene evidence to a small-time thief named Dick Anderson, who confessed he had killed Carol for $3,000 at the behest of another man, ex-boxer Norman Mastrian. He said Thompson had hired Mastrian for the job.

Trial coverage made Thompson, short and square-jawed with a fedora atop his trademark flat-top, a familiar figure in local newspapers and broadcasts. The trial drew global attention; a story on it was running on United Press International's wire on Nov. 22, 1963, when it was interrupted by bulletins that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

Prosecutors said that Thompson planned to collect more than $1 million in life insurance he had recently taken on his wife. Another motive, they said, was to free himself for another woman.

After deliberating for 12 hours, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. He was given a life sentence and paroled after nearly 20 years in Stillwater prison.

After leaving prison, Thompson worked as a systems analyst with Schaak Electronics and got a real estate broker's license. He was never released from parole, despite his requests for a new trial and direct pleas to the state corrections commissioner.

He also worked hard to reconcile with his children, achieving a cordial if somewhat distant relationship with each of them. Besides his son, Thompson is survived by three daughters, Patricia, Margaret and Amy; three sisters, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Jeffrey Thompson said Wednesday that he hadn't seen his father in two years. While it's hard losing a parent, he said, his father's death in some ways lifted a burden that he and his sisters had carried for decades.

"I don't have to worry anymore about what might happen in the future," he said. "We weren't very close, but I remember a sense of relief for myself when he was paroled from prison, and I think it's a similar kind of feeling right now. He's been paroled from an interesting life."

kevin.duchschere@startribune.com 651-925-5035