image source Murdered for insurance cash?
On the day after Christmas in 2003, a 31-year-old mobile-phone company manager named Russel Douglas, after spending the holiday with his estranged wife and their two children, left their Whidbey Island home in his yellow Chevrolet Tracker. The following afternoon, in a remote corner of the island, Douglas was found in his car, dead, with a single bullet in his brain.
image source Murdered for insurance cash?
It has taken nearly eight years, but as of Saturday the two chief suspects in his murder are now in custody.
The apprehended suspects are James Huden and Peggy Sue Thomas. Thomas, who in 2000 competed as Ms. Washington in the Ms. U.S. Continental Pageant in Las Vegas, had worked in a beauty salon owned by the victim's estranged wife, Brenna Douglas. According to trashy TV show/scourge of criminals everywhere America's Most Wanted, Brenna stood to gain upward of $500,000 in insurance money after his murder. Huden, a guitarist in the smooth-jazz band Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists, was Thomas' boyfriend. The two were up from Nevada and visiting Thomas' former home over the holidays, and left town the same day that Douglas was found dead.
The trail leading to the pair was long, but not too winding. First there was Thomas' phone number appearing on Douglas' cell phone the day he died. Then there was the gun that Huden left with an acquaintance in Nevada, which was later determined through ballistics testing to be the murder weapon. Then there was the Florida friend of Huden's who told authorities that Huden had confided that he'd killed a man, that Thomas had helped him do it, and (according to America's Most Wanted, but absent from the charging documents) that Brenna was in on it as well. Then there was Thomas, speaking to cops in 2004 at her home in Nevada, which they'd just searched, saying that Huden had killed Douglas, but that she had nothing to do with it.
By the time of that interview, Huden had left Thomas to return to his wife, Jean Huden, in Florida. While there, he allegedly confided in his friend and fellow musician Bill Hill to committing the murder. Hill notified the authorities, but before they could arrest Huden, he fled Florida. He was charged in absentia with first-degree murder in 2005.
image source James Huden with Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists.
America's Most Wanted profiled Huden in 2008, noting that cops believed he was likely in Mexico and living off his smooth-jazz guitar chops. As it turns out, he was. After a tip to police from Jean, whom he'd left behind in Florida, Huden was arrested on June 9 in Guadalajara, where he'd been making a living as "Maestro Jim," a guitar teacher. He has since been extradited to Whidbey Island, where he's being held on $10 million bail on a charge of first-degree murder. He was arraigned earlier today, pleading not guilty.
Which brings us to Peggy Sue Thomas.
Thomas was not officially a suspect in the case until Wednesday, when Island County Prosecuting Attorney Gregory Banks charged her with first-degree murder. The charge was based on the strength of statements from Jean, who, after alerting authorities to her husband's whereabouts, further explained that she and Thomas had become friends over the years, and that Thomas had confided her role in the killing. According to Jean, Thomas planned the killing because Douglas was an abusive husband.
Peggy Sue Thomas is not fighting her extradition to Washington.
Acting on information from the Island County Sheriff's Office, investigators in New Mexico's San Juan County confirmed that Thomas was living on Navajo Lake, on a houseboat worth $150,000 (not $500,000 as reported elsewhere) which Thomas had recently renamed "Off the Hook."
Apparently unaware that she'd been charged with murder, Thomas was lured from her boat with the promise of a package waiting for her on shore. She was arrested without incident and is awaiting extradition to Island County to stand trial. Appearing in court earlier today in New Mexico, she waived her extradition hearing, and will arrive back in Washington shortly. (The date has not yet been set.) She will be held on $5 million bail.
Gregory Banks, Island County's prosecuting attorney, told Seattle Weekly earlier today that he's pleased with the arrests. "It's about time," he said. "The case has never left the top of the shelves here in my office."
But what about Russ Douglas' widow, Brenna? Is she a suspect?
"At this point, I'm not going to comment on that," he said. Brenna is still in the state of Washington, he added, and "we know where she is."