Victims' families, prosecutors frustrated by delays in John Wayne Thomson's murder trial

By Barbara LaBoe / The Daily News | Posted: Saturday, July 21, 2012 10:00 pm

Lori Hamm's parents are tired of waiting for their day in court.

Jerry and Marcia Hamm have mourned their daughter and done their best to move on with their lives, buoyed by their faith and community of friends and family.

But they're still waiting for justice for Lori, who was murdered in Cowlitz County six years ago this month at age 36.

John Wayne Thomson, the man accused of killing Lori and two other people, has sat in a California jail cell since his arrest on Aug. 7, 2006. His trial in a California murder case finally was set to begin this fall, but it now has been delayed nearly a year because he recently was assigned his third set of new public defenders.

The Hamms say the waiting is unbearable, and the California prosecutor agrees it's taken a "ridiculous amount of time" to get the case to trial.

Marcia Hamm wishes Thomson would stand trial for the Cowlitz County case first, saying the California cases seem to move slow unless someone famous is involved. "With someone like O.J. Simpson it was wham, bam, thank you ma'am,' " she said with a grimace from her Kelso home earlier this month. "But not this one."

Both the Hamms also fear that witnesses may disappear or evidence could go bad the as time passes.

Jerry Hamm plans to attend the California trial whenever it starts. He says he believes it's his best chance to see justice served for Lori, even though she won't be mentioned during that case.

"It's important for me to see a trial and see him put away," he said quietly, his hand clenched in a fist. "To ensure he'll never hurt anyone else."

A month of murder

Thomson's alleged month-long killing spree started July 7, 2006, in Spokane. According to police, he allegedly met 73-year-old James Ehrgott, killed him and stole his car. Ehrgott's body has never been found, but he's presumed dead. Thomson then headed to Southwest Washington, where he grew up.

Lori Hamm — who knew Thomson from singing karaoke in local bars — was last seen on July 16, 2006, as she left church in Kelso.

The next day a man answered her cell phone and told her father she wasn't there. The Hamms called police, noting that a car crash and month-long coma in 1988 left Lori's judgment impaired and that their daughter sometimes trusted people she shouldn't.

Despite her injuries, Lori relearned to walk and talk and graduated from Kelso High School and Lower Columbia College. She worked as an early child care educator, was active in church and the Beta Sigma Phi sorority and owned her own home in Longview, which she shared with her beloved Pomeranian Midge.

Lori's car was found in the Home Depot parking lot July 21. By then, though, Thomson had taken another car and fled to California.

Lori's body, with a gunshot to the head, was found in the woods near Castle Rock on Aug. 1 — the same day Thomson is accused of killing his third victim, 55-year-old Charles Hedlund in California. Hedlund's body was discovered near San Bernardino, Calif., Aug. 5.

Thomson remained on the run for several days, and the FBI got involved in a search that blanketed the West Coast.

Terrified, the Hamms had all their locks changed, fearing Thomson still had Lori's keys. (According to court records, Thomson told police when he was caught that he was headed back to Washington).

He was finally captured in California Aug. 7, while allegedly attacking a woman with a hammer in a carjacking attempt. Two Victorville, Calif., newspaper pressmen subdued him.

Based on his confession and other witnesses, Thomson likely killed Lori on July 16, but the exact date and circumstances are unclear.

The lack of details haunts her parents. Lori's body was found about 50 feet from the road. Jerry Hamm doesn't think Thomson could have carried her that far.

"So did she walk back there? Was the gun out at that point?" he said. "That's what keeps me up at nights."

'Frustrating' delays

Thomson, 52, has been assigned three sets of public defenders. Each change has delayed proceedings as the new lawyers get up to speed on the death penalty case. Prosecutors protested the latest delay in April, noting they've been ready to go to trial since 2007.

"It's very frustrating," said San Bernardino County Deputy District Attorney Robert Bulloch. "This is not normal. ... This is six years of just waiting for these attorneys to be ready."

Thomson will stand trial in California first because that's where he was caught. He could then be returned to Washington to face murder charges in Cowlitz and Spokane counties. Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur said she intends to bring Thomson back to face the local charges no matter what happens in California. Calling Thomson one of the top five worst killers she's ever prosecuted, Baur said he needs to face a Cowlitz County judge for the "horrendous" acts allegedly committed here.

Jerry Hamm, though, doubts the state will spend the time and money to convict someone already facing death or a lengthy prison term in California.

So he follows the California case closely, emailing court officials about each scheduled hearing, cursing each delay and keeping a detailed scrapbook of everything written about Thomson.

While it's unlikely given the murder charge and possible death penalty, Marcia Hamm fears the delays and budget cuts in California could lead officials to release Thomson on bail. Some counties in Oregon have released some suspects to save on jail costs, she notes.

"It just really bugs me," she said. "He's a three-time convicted felon already. He should have stayed in jail (for that)." (Thomson was previously convicted of three rapes in Washington. State officials tried to commit him to McNeil Island as a sexual predator, but he wasn't deemed dangerous enough to keep locked up after his prison term was complete.)

"It's a very visceral reaction," Laura Hedlund said of each new delay. She's the sister of the California victim Charles Hedlund and shares the Hamms' frustration. "I don't understand why it's taken this long," she said by telephone from Minnesota last week.

Jerry Hamm believes Thomson — facing death penalty charges in two states — is deliberately delaying the case.

"Either everything that can possibly go wrong has, or he's a master manipulator of the court," Jerry Hamm said. "And I think it's the second one. ... The trial gets close, and all of a sudden he doesn't want his attorneys. And the judge grants the request."

"He's sly like a fox," Marcia Hamm added bitterly.

Bulloch, the California district attorney, said he couldn't comment on Thomson's motives, but he stressed that despite the delays he remains ready to take Thomson to trial.

"We're certainly aware of the impact the delay has on the victims and their families ...," he said. "All I can do is just be ready whenever the judge says 'Let's go.' "

'I want to face him'

The Hamms leave town each year as the anniversary of Lori's disappearance and death approach.

"It's a day we just don't think about anything but staying on the road and being with each other," Marcia Hamm said. "There's no phone, no TV."

Just like the local families who lost children to local killer Joseph Kondro in the 1980s and 1990s "we've all been robbed of our children," Jerry Hamm said. "It's not fair, but that's what we were dealt."

"He deprived her of finishing her education and her marriage and her children, our grandchildren — all of her goals," Marcia Hamm said of the future she dreamed for her daughter. "That's what angers me the most."

They take comfort that the scholarship they established in Lori's name has helped six students since her death. It's for a Kelso student who overcame an obstacle to graduate, just like Lori did following the 1988 car crash.

Mostly, though, the Hamms say they need to see Thomson in a courtroom.

"I want the finality of it," Marcia Hamm said.

Though Lori's death isn't part of the California case, Jerry Hamm hopes he'll be able to address Thomson during the victims impact portion of sentencing.

What will he say?

"I don't know yet," he said quietly, staring off into the distance and clenching his hands together. "But I want to face him in court."