A Cold Case Gets Hot: Is This L.A.’s Westside Rapist?

A Cold Case Gets Hot: Is This L.A.s Westside Rapist?

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 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.”

A suspect, John Floyd Thomas Jr., had been arrested in late March for the rape and charged on April 2 with the murders of two elderly women in the 1970s; it turns out, according to the police, DNA evidence also apparently tied Thomas to the crime 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, 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 a 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. He said Thomas was married with children. “I knew he was quite a bit older than myself. 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.'”

However, Los Angeles Police detectives say good was far from how Thomas lived. Thomas allegedly preyed on elderly women who were living alone, according to police, beating and raping his victims before strangling them to death. Unbeknown 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 sexual assaults of his victims. According to Jennifer Vargen, a spokeswoman for the State Insurance Compensation Fund, where Thomas worked from 1989 up until his arrest, they were unaware of his past criminal history. Back when Thomas was hired Vargen said mandatory criminal background checks weren’t in effect. They weren’t instituted for new employees until the mid-1990s. Now, in light of the case against Thomas, she says the human resource department is re-evaluating whether to conduct criminal background checks for employees hired before the mandatory practice went into effect.

It was Thomas’ past background, however, 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 sample 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 his DNA matched evidence form the rape and murder of Ethel Sokoloff, 68, in the mid-Wilshire area in 1972. On March 31, they were told that his DNA matched four other slayings.

Thomas is also charged with raping and murdering Elizabeth McKeown, 67, in Westchester in 1976. Detectives believe Thomas is not only likely connected to additional murders, but may in fact be the infamous Westside Rapist, who terrorized the city in the 1970s. Cases associated with the Westside Rapist investigation with available, if partial, DNA profiles appear to match Thomas’s DNA. At a news conference Thursday, police said they soon plan to file charges against Thomas for three Inglewood slayings 33 years ago, including that of Maybelle Hudson, and are combing through cold case files dating back to the 1950s to see if he’s linked to at least 25 more in Hollywood, West Los Angeles and the Wilshire area.

“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 regards to a lot of these crimes, the crimes we have proved against him already, the modus operandi on those crimes match the m-os on these crimes. If we are able to prove even half of these cases, it would make him L.A.’s most prolific serial killers if not in the United States,” said Detective Richard Bengtson of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery Homicide Division, Cold Case Homicide Section, which cracked the case.

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, however, because the murders took place before the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, said Bengtson, the lead detective on the case. However, if he’s charged with subsequent crimes that took place in 1978 or later, the death penalty may be considered. Police feel confident more victims will be identified. “It’s just in its infancy stage and its 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’s 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 add, “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.”