Suit dismissed? $200 million action over High's prosecution hits bump

The deadline for serving defendants in the $200 million civil suit against the City of Staunton passed on April 12, and the plaintiff says he's not sure whether his case will now be dismissed after a high-profile defendant allegedly avoided service.

"I'm very disappointed that the mayor– of all people– wouldn't come forward, acknowledge it, and defend the city," says plaintiff Bill Thomas of Staunton Mayor Lacy King, the allegedly uncooperative defendant.

Thomas's suit– which he's waging without the assistance of a lawyer– alleges decades of harassment and a conspiracy by city officials and police relating to a brutal double slaying in an ice cream parlor 41 years ago. Mayor King worked for the Staunton Police Department for 32 years before retiring as Deputy Chief in 2001, and he was elected to City Council the following year.

According to a notice in the court file, Thomas had 120 days after his December 13 filing to serve the defendants. He says he was advised by the U.S. District Court clerk in Roanoke to instead get the defendants to sign a form waiving service. So he sent certified letters to four defendants, including Mayor King, City Manager Stephen Owen, and Staunton City Attorney Douglas Guynn. Owen and Guynn signed, says Thomas.

Victor Santos, the attorney representing the city, says he also signed the waiver request. But Santos says while such waivers are a standard operating procedure in civil suits, he says defendants are not legally obligated to waive; they can demand service by the deadline.

King did not return the Hook's calls, but Santos says King gets 30 days to respond– so King could yet waive service. Santos also questions Thomas' decision to send the waiver requests mere days before the deadline rather than going ahead and serving defendants, something that can't be ignored.

"If time was an issue," says Santos, "he should have had someone serve it." 

"I just did what the clerk instructed me," responds Thomas, who concedes that having a lawyer would simplify matters.

"He's got multiple procedural hurdles to overcome," notes Santos.

Thomas, however, says procedural hurdles are nothing compared to the pain he's suffered over the past four decades.

The 68-year-old, who last held a steady job in the late 1960s, says he suffered myriad insults and injuries ever since Staunton officials charged him in the brutal slaying of two young women working in the High's Ice Cream parlor on the night of April 11, 1967.

The case dragged on with no suspects for several months until alleged statements that Thomas had been making around town– coupled with an investigator's claim that he'd been seen near the parlor the night of the murders– brought him to attention of authorities.

Thomas denies making any such statements and immediately proclaimed his innocence. In 1968, a jury found Thomas not guilty of one of the murders, but the case continued to hang over him as the second murder remained an open investigation. That is, until late 2008, when some citizen investigators identified the real killer as Sharron Diane Crawford Smith.

At the time of the murders, Smith was 19 years old and, according to Thomas' suit, was romantically involved with a Staunton police detective named Davie Bocock– the lead investigator in the High's murder case. Bocock, the suit alleges, may have fathered one or more children with Crawford and even helped her hide the murder weapon on his farm.

As Smith would eventually confess before her death in early 2009, Bocock (who died in 2006) helped her cover up the crime before targeting Thomas as the suspect. The suit points out that witnesses emerged to relate that Smith had issued death threats and had even showed someone the gun she planned to use– in the weeks before the killings.

With no one ever successfully prosecuted for the crime, Thomas says, he felt like he was under constant surveillance. Indeed, in a 2009 interview with the Hook, the twin brother of one of the victims reveals that he once contemplated killing Thomas when he encountered Thomas in a grocery parking lot.

"It was constant fear for my safety" says Thomas, who hasn't applied for work since 1970, when his hiring by the A&P grocery store chain was canceled after a last-minute criminal records check. "That's the last job I applied for," says Thomas.

Since then, Thomas has supported himself by searching title abstracts for mineral companies– oil, natural gas, coal. It wasn't enough, however, to make a solid living; he lost the family home in the tiny Shenandoah town of Spottswood to foreclosure in 1996 and now lives next door. A former horse barn converted with plastic sheeting and patches of drywall, the building is heated by a single pot-bellied stove, an admittedly "humble" home.

Thomas talks of recent intimidations and harassment, but he declines to elaborate, except to say he felt so threatened that he spent some time in a hotel.

If Mayor King doesn't sign the waiver and the case gets dismissed, legal rules might still allow Thomas to refile, and he vows to persevere in his quest for justice. But opposition attorney Santos says he doesn't believe, even if Thomas meets all the rules and deadlines, that Thomas can win.

"You've got to show there was conspiracy," says Santos. "But if there was, where in the world would you get the evidence? Most of the main players are dead. The officer and his partner are deceased; the person who says she did it is deceased."

Furthermore, says Santos, court records show that while a judge, in an effort to fully clear Thomas, made a show of officially dismissing a second indictment after Crawford's confession, there is no record that Thomas was ever actually indicted for the second murder.

"It wasn't hanging over his head all these years," says Santos. "He believed for some reason that it was."

Thomas, however, says the facts of his life and the wrongs he says he has suffered due to the alleged misdeeds of the defendants will speak volumes in court; so he's not giving up, even if City officials throw up roadblocks, as he believes Mayor King has done.

"It's been 42 years of me against them," says Thomas, "and this is just another way to try to draw things out or complicate the matter."

1 comment

"tiny Shenandoah town of Spottswood": Spottswood is in the Shenandoah Valley and in southern Augusta County.