Monday, September 7, 2015

Infamous Thompson murder case had associations with Duluth...

By Jim Heffernan 
T. Eugene Thompson in 1963 (Source: CBS News, Minneapolis)

T. Eugene Thompson is dead. If that means anything to you, you are getting along in years. I am getting along in years.

I had a couple of unlikely run-ins with the case of the St. Paul attorney who was convicted of arranging the murder of his wife in 1963. I was reminded of the infamous murder case reading Sunday’s New York Times, which ran an extensive obit on Thompson, who died on Aug. 8, his 88th birthday. (Read story HERE.)

Thompson had been accused of arranging the murder of his wife, Carol, in their home in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. He had paid a college friend, Norman Mastrian, to do the job, but Mastrian sub-contracted the actual murder to another man, Dick W.C. Anderson, who botched the killing in the Thompson home. Mrs. Thompson escaped from Anderson after being bludgeoned and stabbed and ran into the neighborhood crying for help, but she died a few hours later in a hospital.

 The motive? Thompson had taken out a $1.1 million life insurance policy on his wife, which it was revealed he had planned to use to start a new life with a girlfriend, his secretary. Thompson started a new life, all right. He served nineteen years of a life sentence for first-degree murder in the state penitentiary at Stillwater before being paroled. Anderson and Mastrian were also convicted, the latter after a trial in Duluth under a change of venue from St. Paul due to the extensive publicity connected to the case.

The Mastrian trial resulted in one of my contacts with the case. The first involved an unexpected encounter with Thompson himself.

Taking last things first (the Thompson encounter), I should point out that all this was occurring right when I was starting my career as a reporter with the Duluth Herald and News Tribune in October 1963. By then the Thompson trial was going on in St. Paul, having no direct connection with Duluth.

However, Thompson had posted bail and was free during the trial. One night, heady with my newfound role as a journalist but knowing almost nothing about journalism, I stopped with a couple of friends at an all-night eatery after an evening on the town, and there sat T. Eugene Thompson, taking a weekend break in Duluth from his St. Paul trial. I’d seen his picture often.

Ohmygosh, I was thinking, here’s the biggest news story in the state, the Midwest, even the country, right here in my lap. Should I try to get an interview? What a feather in my cap that would be.

A seasoned journalist would have no such thoughts, and been content to let Thompson be. The accused murderer wouldn’t be inclined to give an interview under such conditions. Studying him from across the room, I hesitated, not knowing what to do.

Soon, I knew exactly what to do: Nothing. From out of the nearby restroom strode the publisher of the Duluth Herald and News Tribune, Eugene McGuckin Jr., my ultimate boss, who proceeded to join T. Eugene (that’s how everyone seemed to refer to him) at his table. The two of them chatted warmly as I sheepishly looked on from a booth some 20 feet away.

So much for my first “scoop,” a term reviled by seasoned journalists, who know there are almost no “stop the presses” moments outside of the movies. I found out later that McGuckin had met Thompson at a nightclub bar, struck up a conversation with him, and the two decided to join each other for coffee after their evening out.

My second contact with the case came a year or so later when Mastrian was brought to Duluth for his trial. Unlike Thompson, Mastrian had not posted bail and was still in custody when the trial was about to begin. At the newspaper, we’d been tipped that he was to be brought to Duluth by train and housed in the St. Louis County jail.

I was dispatched to the Union Depot, still in active use in 1964, to cover the arrival of Mastrian. Duluth police were there in force to assist whatever law enforcement personnel would have ridden the train with the defendant.

At the time, the Duluth Police Department had a large van known as a paddy wagon, capable of holding maybe 15 or 20 miscreants at a time. This time it was poised for just one, accompanied by a couple of cops, backed up to the curb at the track level of the depot.

In a matter of minutes after arrival, Mastrian was hustled from the train, an officer on each arm, and into the paddy wagon for the short trip to the downtown Duluth county jail. He was housed there throughout his trial, in which a Duluth jury also convicted him of complicity in the murder of Carol Thompson.

One more brief anecdote connected to this case: The jury returned a guilty verdict for Thompson on Dec. 6, 1963, just two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, the day of the assassination, the wire service United Press International (UPI) had been carrying an account of the Thompson trial on its national wire when it suddenly ended in mid-sentence with the words URGENT…URGENT and reported that shots had been fired at President Kennedy in a Dallas motorcade.

A bigger story than the T. Eugene Thompson trial had broken – one that did stop the presses.