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Auburn bathtub drowning ‘murder’ confession questioned by defense

Patricia Thomas accused of killing 4-year-old daughter in 42-year –old cold case
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Placer County Superior Court filings on behalf of Patricia Thomas are providing more information in a 42-year-old drowning case involving her 4-year-old daughter that authorities are now calling murder. In court-filed documents accompanying a successful bail motion last week to release Thomas from jail while the court case against her moves ahead, defense attorney Thomas Leupp casts facts in a different light. Auburn Police investigators say they caught Thomas in a confession. Leupp said a well-meaning Thomas was duped into telling a false version of her daughter, Cindy Howell’s death at the family’s Auburn home. Leupp said no new physical evidence from the 1970 case has been presented and authorities “are relying on the revamped statement of a witness who was 5 at the time of the incident.” Leupp said that the witness – Thomas’ 47-year-old daughter, Wendy Peck – suffers from dementia. It’s a contention that was disputed last Thursday by Prosecutor Jeff Wood. Wood said the daughter was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome related to what she saw the night of May 25, 1970 – and had been recently examined and not shown to have dementia. Wood went on to describe the brief filed by the Thomas defense team as “overwrought and inappropriate” before Judge Larry Gaddis warned the two not to start trying the case early on. Gaddis did grant a defense motion that allows Thomas to be confined to her Grass Valley home rather than jail while the case proceeds. Leupp said there is no physical evidence to show Thomas is a murderer. “The physical evidence has never supported the contention that Patricia Thomas or anyone else murdered Cynthia Howell,” Leupp stated. That lack of evidence included any indication that – based on the daughter’s statement taken this past January – Patricia Thomas was inside the bathtub as she dangled the victim by her legs and drowned her, the statement said. “According to the autopsy report, and the coroner’s report, there is absolutely no physical evidence to support this contention,” Leupp stated. The defense document also attempts to cast doubt on the events surrounding a secretly recorded conversation in January between Thomas and her daughter that allegedly culminated in a confession. The conversation was encouraged when an Auburn police officer called Thomas and posed as the daughter’s psychiatrist, Leupp said. The officer told Thomas that he was calling to facilitate communication between mother and a daughter who had been estranged from Thomas since the summer, the statement said. “Any statements made by Patricia in this phone call must be taken in context, for Patricia Thomas is a 66-year-old mother who lost her second-born child to a tragic accident,” Leupp said. Thomas yearned for a healthy relationship with her surviving daughter and trusted who she thought was a psychiatrist when he told her that the daughter would never lead a healthy life until someone told her the “truth” about what happened, Leupp said. “Patricia Thomas had no way to know that ‘Dr. McLaughlin’ was really Officer McLaughlin of the Auburn Police Department, or that the call was to ‘trap’ Patricia Thomas rather than to ‘free’ (daughter) Wendy Peck,” the defense brief stated. Leupp said Thomas would have said anything to her daughter to build a relationship with her but that she did not admit to a murder. The surviving daughter told investigators that she had walked into the bathroom and saw her mother holding 4-year-old Cindy Howell’s legs in the air in the tub. Thomas yelled at her to leave, she told authorities, according to court documents. During what authorities are saying was a confession, court filings by Auburn Police state that Thomas broke down in the Jan. 13 conversation and said she bumped Cindy’s head on a faucet, knocking the girl out and leaving her to drown. Witch trial comparison “In the Salem witch trials, a suspected witch was thrown into water,” Leupp said. “If she survived, she was a witch and if she drowned she was innocent. There was no difference here. Wendy Peck told Patricia Thomas that if she did not tell Wendy the ‘truth’ then Wendy would ‘go to’ the police.” The defense attorney stated that Thomas did not know she had been set up by her daughter and told Wendy: “So all you’re saying is agree with me and I’ll drop it.” “It was only after relentless pressure, and Wendy Peck’s threats that she would go to the police, that Patricia Thomas finally ‘admitted’ that she had bumped the victim’s head as she was putting her into the bathtub,” the brief said. “As indicated in the autopsy report, the bump was inconsequential, but Patricia Thomas said what she thought her daughter wanted to hear.”