H.A. Murder suspect built life on coast
Detectives kept an eye on Thompson because of his Hells Angels membership
CRESCENT CITY — Robert Daniel Thompson was the only man in town who tended to his daily chores in a Hells Angels jacket.
That, plus that he is a registered sex offender, got the attention of Del Norte County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Morris and his detectives.
But until Merced County sheriff's deputies came calling with an arrest warrant, stemming from the murders of two girls 20 years ago, the self-employed landscaper gave local authorities little to sniff into.
A deputy found Thompson's photo on a biker Web site posted by the Shasta County Hells Angels and determined that the father of four was the club's sergeant at arms, responsible for collecting membership dues.
And Thompson once had a few angry words with a school resource officer who banned one of his daughter's T-shirts because it had a reference to the notorious motorcycle club.
But Thompson had not caused any big trouble in this coastal town that is surrounded by ancient redwood trees and a rugged coastline.
"We follow him because he is a Hells Angel," Morris said. "And he's the only patch-wearing Hells Angel in our county."
Thompson may have left California's heartland and its sweltering summers behind, but his past came calling this week, when authorities from Merced paid a visit to Crescent City, 20 miles south of the Oregon border.
Thompson, 41, was arrested Thursday, on suspicion of killing 12-year-old Jodi Marie Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter on Dec. 13, 1986.
Friday, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said a DNA hit tied Thompson to the murders of the two Atwater girls who borrowed a car and went out for a joyride when adults thought they were sleeping in their beds.
A farmer spotted Jodi's and Sheila's bodies along Campodoncia Road, near Alves Road, in Cressey one Saturday morning two decades ago.
Jodi and Sheila died from blows to the head.
Investigators did not find the telltale signs of a struggle and concluded that the girls were killed by someone they knew.
Suspicion fell on Thompson — a big man who stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall — from the start.
He had been released from prison three months earlier, having spent 13 months behind bars for drug and weapons possession, according to the state Department of Corrections.
The authorities believe he borrowed a car belonging to the stepfather of Sheila's boyfriend on the night of the murders. They found blood on the floor of the car.
Sheila's boyfriend killed himself two weeks later.
Convicted of kidnapping
A year after Jodi and Sheila were killed, Thompson was convicted of kidnapping a 26-year-old Atwater woman at knifepoint in a convenience store parking lot. In that case, he was accused of driving the woman to Le Grand, where he forced her to undress.
She told the court that he changed his mind and let her go.
Thompson was sentenced to 14 years in prison and released after seven years. He returned to the lockup two more times for parole violations. He was last released in September 1998, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Since then, Thompson and his wife, Angela, 40, have lived in various places around the state, settling in Crescent City about 18 months ago, Morris said.
Robert and Angela Thompson have four children, who range from preschool age to high school. She is a licensed psychiatric technician and works at Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum-security lockup and the largest employer in Del Norte County.
They live in a middle-class neighborhood, in a mustard-colored rental house that looks more dilapidated than others on their street.
Two trucks full of brush, two pickups, a compact car and a camper van sit on a side lawn. A heart-shaped plaque near the entryway says: "Home is where you hang your heart." In the distance, residents can hear barking sea lions.
A hard-working person
Saturday, Tim Thornton of Eureka answered the door at 1111 McNamara Ave. He said he is house-sitting for Angela Thompson, who was headed to Merced with her children. He said he doesn't know much about the stiff criminal charges leveled against Thompson.
"From what I know, he was a hard-working person," Thornton said.
Margie Morrow, who lives next door, said she was shocked to read about Robert Thompson in their local newspaper.
"I can't believe it took them 20 years," she said.
Morrow said she often spoke to Angela and the children but didn't have much contact with Robert Thompson. She said the only time she talked to him was when his pit bull chased her dog, and he later came over to apologize.
Robert Irwin said he was once called to the home, because the Thompsons knew he is a registered nurse and needed help with a man who had taken too many drugs.
"I see different men over there, and I don't ask," Irwin said.
Morris believes Thompson was recruiting new members to the Hells Angels and trying to set up a chapter in Del Norte County.
Members of the Shasta County's Hells Angels participated in a 50-mile "Lost Coast Poker Run" Saturday — an event Thompson helped organize — that ended at the Golden Bears Casino in Klamath, 20 miles south of Crescent City.
They said the charges against Thompson "are bull----," then declined to comment further.
"We're not the kind of folks who talk to newspapers," a leather-clad woman said.
Morris and his team worked with six deputies from Merced for two days before they arrested Thompson.
First, they set up surveillance and watched Thompson's house. People came and went, Morris said, but Thompson never came outside.
Instead of waiting longer, they called Thompson and told him they knew he had just returned from a huge Hells Angels rally in Sturgis, S.D., because officials there cited Thompson for driving on a suspended license.
As a registered sex offender, Thompson was not supposed to leave the county for more than five days without notifying the authorities. So Thompson had to come to the sheriff's department to update his paperwork.
When he arrived, deputies from Merced asked if he remembered Jodi and Sheila.
An hour later, Angela Thompson showed up, looking for her husband.
"I had to tell her that her hubby was on his way to prison," Morris said.
Arrest was big news
Thompson will be arraigned on first-degree murder charges this week, 480 miles from his adopted home. Prosecutors have not decided if they will seek the death penalty.
In Merced, officials were tight-lipped about their new evidence, saying only that investigators retested a DNA sample that was not visible to the naked eye.
The state Department of Justice gathers blood, hair and saliva samples from all offenders who are on parole or probation and anyone arrested on suspicion of murder, voluntary manslaughter or serious sex crimes. State crime labs have samples from more than 500,000 felons statewide and get about five matches on cold cases each day.
In Crescent City, Thompson's arrest was big news.
But it wasn't the first time this town of 7,500, which has 15,000 more people in the surrounding area, found a fugitive in its midst.
Last year, the U.S. Marshals came to town to arrest an ex-police officer who had escaped from prison in New Mexico, Morris said.
Tony Anaya, a janitor who wishes the fishing and timber industries hadn't dried up, said men like Thompson may be attracted to Crescent City because it is hemmed in by mountain ranges and often covered with fog.
"He probably thought he could just fade out here in Mayberry," Anaya said.
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