Mastermind of the murder that shocked St. Paul dies: Lawyer arranged 1963 slaying of wife, one of the state’s most sensational crimes
ST. PAUL -- T. Eugene Thompson is dead. The man behind one of Minnesota's most infamous crimes of the 20th century -- the contract murder of his wife, Carol, in March 1963 -- died on Aug. 7 at his condominium in Roseville. He was 88. Tilmer Eugen...
ST. PAUL - T. Eugene Thompson is dead.
The man behind one of Minnesota’s most infamous crimes of the 20th century - the contract murder of his wife, Carol, in March 1963 - died on Aug. 7 at his condominium in Roseville. He was 88.
Tilmer Eugene Thompson was a St. Paul attorney who hired a hit man to kill his wife in their Highland Park home. He had previously purchased $1.1 million in life insurance policies on her.
The murder - and the case against Thompson, which resulted in his conviction in December 1963 and a life sentence in prison, of which he served 19 years - sparked months of top-of-the-news coverage by all four Twin Cities newspapers and on all the local TV and radio stations.
In terms of rampant publicity, Thompson’s six-week murder trial was “the O.J. Simpson trial of the time,” said his son, Jeff Thompson, who is the chief judge for Minnesota’s Third Judicial District, based in Winona.
“There was apparently at least one reporter who was assigned to write about who talked to whom, how people looked, who was out having cigarettes with whom,” Jeff Thompson said.
The trial was covered by reporters from across the country. In fact, a story about the trial was running on UPI’s national wire on Nov. 22, 1963, when it was interrupted by the first bulletin from Dallas that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, said Bill Swanson, the author of “Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson.”
“For those of us alive and living in these parts at that time, the Carol Thompson murder case was one of the markers of our experience,” said Swanson, who lives in Minneapolis. “It was the biggest local story of the time. For nine months, it was on the front page of all four of our daily papers. It was the subject of barbershop and beauty-parlor conversations. It was a very vivid drama playing out right in front of us with people that we all seemed to know.”
“It had everything,” lead prosecutor William Randall said nearly four decades later, referring to the essential components of a classic murder case: “Blood, money and sex.”
T. Eugene Thompson’s paid obituary, which ran in Wednesday’s Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, did not mention the murder case. It said Thompson “loved engaging in thought-provoking discussions and … was a multi-faceted person. Oscar Wilde said, ‘Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.’ Amen.”
Jeff Thompson, who was 13 when his mother was murdered, said he has a copy of the Wilde quotation posted on his bench at the Winona County Courthouse to remind him that “very few people turn out to be just one thing. Everybody has got another side, and you should try to look for both sides.”
“What people want from the criminal-justice system is punishment and consequences for the people they don’t know, and sympathy and compassion for the people they do know,” Thompson said. “I was kind of right in the middle of that, so I can certainly see things from both sides. Judges especially have to understand that nobody is just one thing.”
Jeff Thompson, now 66, said he did not have much contact with his father in his later years.
In 1986, about three years after T. Eugene Thompson was released from prison, Jeff Thompson said he and two of his sisters held a “family showdown” with their father, who continued to profess his innocence.
“We sat down with him and gave him a chance to show us that he had been wrongly convicted,” Jeff Thompson said. “It was pretty clear during the course of that conversation that he wasn’t going to be able to do that. After that, I didn’t hear a whole lot of protests. I didn’t bring it up again. I told him that if he wanted to admit and ask for an apology, I’d rethink my position on him, but otherwise we were pretty much done.
“Yes, I’m convinced he was guilty,” he said. “I have faith that the jury came to the right verdict. I have faith in our criminal-justice system in the state of Minnesota. Still. After 40 years of involvement.”
Carol Swoboda Thompson, 34, was a housewife and the mother of four young children, ages 6 to 13, when she was slain on the morning of March 6, 1963.
“She was, in many ways, the prototypical early 1960s wife and mother,” Swanson said. “I mean, they had everything except the white picket fence out front. She was active in her church (Edgecumbe Presbyterian) and active in the Scouts and did all the things that stay-at-home mothers did in those days. She had a million friends with whom she played bridge and got together for coffee parties.”
Her slaying at the family’s home at 1720 Hillcrest Ave. was brutal and bloody.
According to newspaper accounts, her killer, Dick W.C. Anderson, struck her on the head with a piece of rubber hose and attempted to fake a bathtub drowning. When that didn’t work, he tried to shoot her, but the gun misfired. He battered her face with the butt of a Luger pistol and stabbed her more than 50 times with a kitchen knife.
Carol Thompson was able to stagger to a neighbor’s house, three doors down, to ask for aid. When the neighbor answered the door, she found a woman standing barefoot, blood streaming from her head and face.
“She was so bloody, they didn’t even know who she was,” Swanson said.
“I’ve got a knife in my throat,” she gasped. “A man did it. … He came to the door. Won’t you please help me?”
Carol Thompson was rushed to Ancker Hospital, where surgeons took a 3-inch knife blade from her throat, but she died three hours later.
The brutal murder shocked the Twin Cities and traumatized the Highland Park neighborhood.
“People started locking their doors,” Swanson said. “There was a great deal of fear, even panic, throughout the area because for several weeks, there were no arrests made, and there were fears of a homicidal maniac who just walked in the front door of a respectable person’s home and just started slashing - there was just a great deal of fear.”
An arrest made
Pieces of the pistol’s grip, which had broken off during the attack, were left at the scene and led investigators in April 1963 to Anderson, an ex-convict from Michigan. He confessed to the killing, saying he was hired by Norman J. Mastrian, a former Twin Cities prizefighter, on behalf of T. Eugene Thompson, to murder Carol Thompson for $3,000.
Thompson, a notorious womanizer, had been taking out life insurance policies on his wife of 15 years in “bits and pieces” over about a year, Swanson said. “He had a long-running girlfriend - he had several girlfriends - but he had one in particular who, according to her testimony, he was eager to marry,” he said.
Swanson said Thompson carefully masterminded the hit, including getting rid of the family’s dachshund and removing a phone that Carol Thompson could have used to call for help.
Mastrian, the hit man he hired, was a former client, Swanson said.
“Norman Mastrian was a guy who was known to police, in and out of trouble,” he said. “He had been involved in the murder of an underworld-type years earlier, and T. Eugene had been involved in his defense.”
Mastrian “was probably a cold-blooded murderer himself, but for some reason he drew the line at murdering a church-going wife and mother,” Swanson said. “Unbeknownst to T. Eugene, he subcontracted the job. According to several underworld sources, three or four of these guys turned Mastrian down. Finally, a troubled Korean War combat veteran named Dick W.C. Anderson took the job.”
Anderson and Mastrian were indicted in May 1963 on first-degree murder charges and each sentenced to life in prison after being convicted.
A jury in Hennepin County District Court, where the case was transferred, found Thompson guilty on Dec. 6, 1963, of first-degree murder.
Telling the story
“Everybody of a certain age in St. Paul knows the T. Eugene Thompson case,” said author and former Pioneer Press reporter Larry Millett. “It was, in its day, the most sensational murder case that had occurred in St. Paul in a long, long time. … The media loved it because of the way it played out. You had so many story lines: You had high-powered defense attorneys representing Thompson throughout the whole trial, and you had all the elements of a great murder mystery set right here at home. It really riveted people here for a long time.”
After the trial, Don Giese, who covered the case for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, “forever carried a pistol in his raincoat because he was afraid that if Mastrian ever got out of prison, he’d come after him,” Millett said.
The case - and Giese’s involvement in it - turned out to have a big impact on Minnesota’s journalism community.
“In the days before fair trial-free press guidelines in the mid-’60s, the case produced an unprecedented local media circus,” recalled Don Effenberger, a retired city news editor who worked at the Pioneer Press from 1978 to 2006.
Many of the stories were based on anonymous sources, and that led Thompson’s attorney to try to overturn his conviction in 1969, Effenberger said.
Giese found himself at the center of the case over an unattributed story that said the police would soon land “a big fish” in the case, Effenberger said. Shortly after that, Thompson was charged with the pay-for-hire murder of his wife.
When Giese was ordered to reveal his sources, he refused and a Hennepin County judge found him in contempt and sentenced him to 90 days in jail. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, quickly overturned the decision on technical grounds.
“The Giese contempt citation, however, galvanized the state’s journalism community, which pushed successfully in 1972 for a limited state shield law allowing reporters to protect their sources in many instances,” Effenberger said.
A nice life
T. Eugene “Cotton” Thompson grew up in Elmore, Minn., a small town on the Iowa border, where he was a high school classmate and played high school football with former Vice President Walter Mondale. He was nicknamed “Cotton” because of his white-blond hair.
“We grew up together. His family lived just a block from mine,” Mondale said. “His dad was in the poultry business. It was really painful for me when he got into severe trouble with the law. He did something for which there was no excuse. He had to pay that price, and he did. … He’s got a nice family. I feel sorry for them, and I extend my deepest sympathies to them.”
Thompson lied about his age and joined the Navy after high school, serving on a minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II. He attended Macalester College and St. Paul College of Law, now William Mitchell College of Law.
He met Carol Swoboda, who had grown up in St. Paul, at Macalester, and the two married in 1948.
“Thompson had such a nice life, such a nice deal,” Bill Randall told Bill Swanson years later. “I guess he just wanted more.”
A friend, Doug Young, reflected on Thompson’s wasted opportunity in Swanson’s book.
“T. Eugene could have been a very wealthy man, Young mused,” Swanson wrote. “He had a bright future in the law and perhaps in local politics as well. He might have been a judge. ‘Gene was always willing to work hard,’ Young concluded. ‘He just wanted to start at the top.’”
Thompson served most of his sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater. After his release, he resettled in the Twin Cities and married Margaret Culver, who preceded him in death.
A convicted felon, he was prohibited from practicing law.
“How did he support himself? That’s a pretty good question,” Jeff Thompson said. “I believe he had some real estate dealings, but I was not a close part of his life after that.”
Swanson said that if ever asked T. Eugene Thompson how he was getting by, he would answer: “‘Well, the market has been good to me,’ and maybe it had. He was a smart guy. T. Eugene Thompson was a very smart guy and very canny with money.”
Jeff Thompson said he has grown used to the notoriety that comes with having such an infamous father.
“It’s always, ‘Oh, you’re T. Eugene Thompson’s son,’ ” he said. “I remember one time saying, ‘You know, I just want to be around sometime when T. Eugene introduces himself and somebody says, ‘Oh, you’re Jeff Thompson’s dad.’
“I think I’ve been able to deal with (the notoriety). I’d rather deal with it than have my sisters have to deal with it, which they don’t want to,” he said. “I’ve got the Thompson name. They don’t.”
Thompson is survived by two sisters; four children, Jeff, Patricia, Margaret and Amy; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
A private memorial service was held Saturday at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in Edina.
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