During the interview portion of the 2000 Ms. U.S. Continental Pageant in Las Vegas, the leggy, red-headed Ms. Washington—Peggy Sue Thomas of Whidbey Island—wanted judges to know she was a trailblazer.
“Women,” said the pretty, oval-faced Thomas, who’d repaired naval aircraft and been an auto mechanic, “have to know it’s OK to do things out of the norm.”
They should set an example for their children, the single mother of two added. The greatest ethical challenge facing women today was “Raising children with morals, even with all the violence, sex, and drugs in the media,” she said.
Thomas, then 35, finished out of the money in the Vegas pageant for single, divorced, and married women ages 25 to 55. But the comely six-footer, in four-inch heels and a plum-colored dress, did win the evening-gown competition. And she appears to have turned the pageant into a life-changing experience, adopting that don’t-be-normal advice she gave.
After attending beauty school as a teen, doing a hitch in the Navy, coaching a girls’ basketball team, and working in an auto-repair shop, she hired on as a Vegas limo driver and later helped run a horse ranch. Her Lexus bore the personalized plate FIRYRED, and she lived in a gated community in a Vegas suburb. She married and split with several husbands, one leaving her bankrupt, another—whose horse won the Kentucky Derby—making her a millionaire.
She endured tragedy out of the norm as well: Her father’s wife was murdered, as was her stepbrother. Another sibling died young, while a stepsister took her own life.
But Thomas’ most extraordinary moment came just a few weeks ago on another stage. On Halloween, now 46 and no longer pageant-svelte, she walked into a Whidbey Island courtroom, where a judge asked the formerly drop-dead-gorgeous beauty contestant if she’d helped murder a 32-year-old man named Russel Douglas, who had been shot once in the head while still strapped into his car’s seat.
Douglas was slain on a dead-end road above Mutiny Bay the day after Christmas 2003, sending chills through the bucolic island community. “It was done in such a cold-blooded manner,” says Jeanie Dodd, a neighbor of Thomas and her mother in the postcard island village of Langley, better known for its tourist boutiques and calming views of Saratoga Passage. “I had the urge to put a sign out front of her mother’s house: Good parents don’t let their kids get away with murder.”
Homicides are rare on America’s 40th-longest island (35 miles), half of whose 60,000 residents live in the boondocks. “We’ve had three other murders I can think of in the last eight years,” says Island County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Wallace. One of them, an unrelated murder in 2003, is still unsolved. The others occurred just hours apart last month. Two north Whidbey men, both 80, were killed at separate locations, allegedly by their grandson, Joshua Lambert, 30. The homeless suspect, who insists he’s sane, is defending himself in court.
But it is the once-languishing homicide of Douglas, which suddenly coalesced into arrests this summer, that “is really one for the books,” says Island County prosecutor Greg Banks. Or one for television, at least. America’s Most Wanted and NBC’s Dateline, among others, have been on the scene, just as they and other national media were in the case of “Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore of nearby Camano Island. His criminal history is recorded in Whidbey’s Island County Superior Court, where he still faces dozens of burglary and theft charges related to his folkloric 2008–10 crime spree in the San Juans and across the U.S. to the Bahamas, where he was arrested as a fugitive and thief.
An international trail is an element of the Douglas case as well, leading from Whidbey to the Southwest, Florida, and south of the border. Accused gunman and fugitive James Huden, 58, Thomas’ onetime boyfriend, was arrested in June for first-degree murder after hiding out in Mexico for six years, posing as a guitar instructor named Maestro Jim. A witness from New Mexico has supplied the murder weapon, while Huden’s Florida wife, who was busted earlier this year on more than 20 drug, theft, and forgery charges, has become a potential star witness. She brokered a plea deal in Florida that brought the Whidbey case against her husband back to life, agreeing to tell authorities where Huden was hiding and claiming that both he and his lover Thomas confessed the Whidbey killing to her.
An investigator labels Douglas’ death a murder-for-hire case, pointing to the widow of the victim. But prosecutors have wavered in their original claims that Brenna Douglas may have been involved in a contract shooting to collect on her husband’s $500,000 life insurance policies. They have not charged her, and she has denied their claims.
Not that any additional strange twists were needed. But after Thomas was arrested in July for first-degree murder and extradited from Nevada, the Island County court dropped her $5 million bail to $500,000, which she made. Thomas, wearing a GPS tracking device, was then allowed by a fill-in judge to take off, Lindsay Lohan–like, on a 3,500-mile road trip through the western U.S. She attended a family funeral in Idaho, worked on her houseboat in New Mexico and a home in Vegas, then saw her dentist and shopped for winter clothes.
Prosecutor Banks wondered if the accused, who faces more than 30 years in prison if convicted, might be tempted to cross the line from New Mexico to old Mexico. “We’re sure hoping she comes back,” he said as Thomas left the court Oct. 6.
But here was the cinnamon-maned defendant on All Saints’ Eve, attired in a stylish hip-length checkered coat and three-inch heels, towering over her elderly mother, Doris Matz, as they entered the packed Island County courtroom in Coupeville for the afternoon arraignment calendar. Banks grinned an acknowledgment to Thomas’ Coupeville attorney, Craig Platt, as the defendant slid into a seat, smiling at those who exchanged glances with her.
Thomas watched the parade of in-custody defendants come before the bench to make bail pleas in their orange jumpsuits and chains, just as she had in August after spending almost a month behind bars. If she hadn’t shown up, it could have resulted in the forfeiture of the property she’d posted as bail: her $331,000 Vegas home and her frail mother’s $231,000 house in Langley, where Thomas has agreed to live while facing trial.
“State of Washington versus Peggy Sue Thomas,” the judge called out. She got up and stood next to her attorney. Thomas was ready for trial in January, Platt told Judge Alan Hancock, submitting some new paperwork.
“I’ll enter a not-guilty plea for you,” Hancock said to Thomas.
“Thank you,” Thomas said.
Outside the courtroom, a Seattle Weekly reporter started to introduce himself to Thomas. “She has no comment,” Platt said, stepping in.
“Sorry,” Thomas said with a smile. She led her mother outside to a new Ford F-150 4×4 pickup and headed back toward Langley.
Ed Wallace, the detective, who was in the court hallway, says the evidence in the case is amazing—or at least the story behind it is. All those people phoning in information from around the country? For investigators, he says, “It was kind of like winning the lottery.”
But Thomas has a phone-call story of her own, which she has told to prosecutors. She says it proves who killed Douglas, and it wasn’t her.
Mark Allen and his family got rich from Alaska oil. Mark’s father, Bill Allen, was chief executive of the family-owned VECO Corp. pipeline service and construction company, likely best remembered as the man at the center of the Alaska corruption scandal. A series of trials and hearings featuring testimony from Bill ended the political careers of several Alaska politicians including U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history.
Bill, who agreed to a plea deal in return for his testimony (and a promise from the feds not to prosecute his son Mark for any wrongdoing), accused Stevens of accepting favors from him. Stevens was convicted and lost his 2008 re-election bid, although the verdict was later reversed.
Stevens, 86, died in an Alaska plane crash last year. Bill still faces prison time, but hasn’t been sentenced.
Mark Allen recalls that he fell for Peggy Sue Thomas the night they met, after she picked him up, literally, in Las Vegas. As a chauffeur for Presidential Limousines in 2006, she was dispatched to ferry the wealthy New Mexico horseman to casinos and hotels around the Strip.
“She caught my eye,” says Allen. “She drove me and some friends a few times, and after that I started calling the company and asking for Peggy.”
That led to a few dates, and four months later, marriage. It wasn’t long after, Allen claims, that Thomas began to complain about the way he ran his ranch, the Double Eagle, in Roswell. “I paid a lot of unpaid bills for her before we even got married—credit cards and stuff like that,” says Allen. “But hell, I liked her. Then she started telling me how to take care of horses.”
Allen says his marriage was falling apart after only a few months. “First she had her mom move in. They were a package deal. Then Peggy wanted all of her people to take over from my people—whoever her people were. That wasn’t gonna happen.”
Thomas had no ranching experience, Allen says. “Hell, she didn’t know which end of the horse to hang a bridle on.”
They began to argue, Allen says, and at times physically mix it up. “One night she pulled my shirt off me, scratched me up real good, and tried to goad me into hitting her. But I don’t hit women. I got a restraining order and got her off the ranch, though her mom was still here. Then I had to get the police to come escort Mom off the property.”
Thomas, through her Coupeville attorney, opted not to comment on Allen’s statements.
In less than a year, Allen says, the marriage was ending. By then, the Allen family had sold VECO to CH2M Hill. Mark, according to news reports, received about $30 million as his cut.
With money from the sale, he invested heavily in expanding his thoroughbred stable, notably purchasing a gelding named Mine That Bird in 2008. He and neighbor Leonard Blach took a $400,000 flyer on the horse which, as a yearling, had sold for a mere $9,500 the year before.
In February 2008, the estranged Thomas sued for divorce, a court battle that lasted two years, according to New Mexico court records. During that time, Allen’s horse-racing investments made him even richer: In 2009, Mine That Bird, a 50-1 long shot, came from dead last to take the Kentucky Derby’s $1.4 million winner’s purse. The horse now has its own website, minethatbird.com, where, according to a publicity release, its “down-home cowboy owners” are offering contestants a chance to be a jockey for a day aboard the Derby winner. The horse is also the subject of a new series of graphic novels for kids and a soon-to-be animated movie.
In May 2010, Allen and Thomas reached a divorce settlement. “I felt she played me pretty good,” says Allen, looking back. Thomas walked away with roughly $1 million, he says, including $700,000 cash and a houseboat on a New Mexico lake—which she named, apparently in honor of her divorce, Off the Hook.
But she knew she wasn’t off the hook in Washington state, where authorities, trying to solve the murder of Russel Douglas, had been questioning her about the case since 2004.
“She told me something about that once,” says Allen, “about police coming and talking to her. She said they were mistaken. I said why didn’t you just take a lie detector and clear yourself? She told me her attorney said not to. That never really made sense to me, if she was innocent.”
But she is, Thomas insists today. She didn’t kill anyone, she confided to an investigator. But maybe her boyfriend did.
Russel Douglas was found by a man walking his dog two days after Christmas 2003. His body was still in the driver’s seat of his 2002 Chevrolet Tracker just off Wahl Road in the south Whidbey business and commercial center of Freeland. A coroner determined he had been shot in the head the day before, around 1 p.m. A .380-caliber shell casing was found inside the car.
The 32-year-old Douglas was estranged from his wife Brenna and two children, who lived on Whidbey. He had recently taken an apartment in Renton, and worked for Tetra Tech, an environmental engineering and consulting firm, where nine months earlier he had taken out a $200,000 life insurance policy, court records show. His wife told investigators that Douglas had come to visit his family over Christmas. She last saw him on the 26th, when he left to run errands.
Officers searched Douglas’ yellow SUV and the crime scene, but found no gun. Sheriff Mike Hawley said Douglas had been shot from about a foot away. “It’s frustrating because we cannot find a motive for the shooting,” he told reporters. Maybe it was robbery, or drugs, he said.
Four months later, the name Peggy Thomas popped up on the sheriff’s radar. The lead detective on the case, Mark Plumberg, an Island County officer for 14 years, found Thomas’ name and number on Douglas’ cell phone. Plumberg had been going over a list of incoming and outgoing calls, and determined her number had been recorded three days before Douglas’ death, December 23. He eventually tracked down Thomas and chatted with her by phone. As he would recall in his May 12, 2004 report:
“She told me that she was a limousine driver in Las Vegas. She said that she was a friend with both Russel Douglas and his wife Brenna Douglas. She explained that she had been in the Whidbey Island area visiting family. She said she had called Russel on December 23, 2003 at around 9 p.m. at his apartment in Renton, Washington, and gave him a present for him to give to Brenna.”
Thomas, investigators would come to learn, was born and raised on Whidbey Island, but graduated from Bellingham High School when the family moved north. After attending beauty school, she joined the Navy, and worked as a mechanic, then as a beautician, in the late 1990s before competing in several beauty pageants and winning the 2000 Ms. Washington title. She married James Kelvin Thomas in 1991, and they had two girls before divorcing. (The girls, now grown, live in New Mexico. Kelvin Thomas chose not to comment for this story.)
Peggy Sue came from a large family with numerous stepsiblings, most of them the offspring of her father Jim Stackhouse and his first wife, Mary Ellen. According to information given to investigators by family members, Mary Ellen Stackhouse was murdered in 1963 at her home in San Jose, Calif., by a teenage intruder. Jim, a Navy man, moved his kids—three boys and three girls—to Whidbey, where he’d been assigned to the naval air station at Oak Harbor. Jim subsequently wed Doris, who gave birth to Peggy Sue in 1965, and who already had two daughters from a prior relationship. Jim and Doris were later divorced, and Jim wed a third time in 1984.
Around that time, Rob Stackhouse, a son of Jim and Mary Ellen and a stepbrother to Peggy Sue, was murdered at a party in Alaska by a man he had beaten in an arm-wrestling contest.
“It is a family that was beset by tragedy and drama,” prosecutor Banks says. Adding to the woes is the recent death of one of Thomas’ stepsisters—Brenda, 52, who hanged herself at a relative’s home in Marysville on September 25. She had been in contact with investigators, supplying some limited information, and was a potential witness for the prosecution at Thomas’ trial.
“Some family members were suspicious because the manner of her death was unexpected,” says Banks. He asked Marysville police to look into the case, but, he says, “there is no indication of foul play.” In the family’s obituary of Brenda, they wrote: “Brenda lived her life with gusto until slowly her struggles and health problems seemed too much to conquer.”
Thomas’ stepsister Rhonda Vogl, a family spokesperson, confirms the family deaths, but says they prefer to not comment beyond that. “Our family has been rocked for the fourth time with a terrible death,” she says, referring to the loss of Brenda and the earlier deaths of Rob, Mary Ellen, and an unnamed sibling. The Stackhouses, adds Vogl, “just do not want to talk about family issues right now.”
Several family members, including Brenda, commented on the Douglas murder case in the online versions of Whidbey newspapers. Brenda was a frequent poster, using her name and photo. She never quite revealed her position, preferring to analyze the comments of others trying to dissect the murder.
“I want to clarify something right now,” she wrote in September, not long before she took her life, responding to a commenter who questioned her family’s values. “Peggy is my sister & I love her. I think about her when she was a baby. I think about the fun times we’ve shared & it is very hurtful. I can honestly say that she loves her daughters very much. I can’t say she was involved in Russel’s murder, because I wasn’t there. But, when you stand on your pedestal & spew family & what family stands for, you insult me. You don’t know our family dynamic. You probably don’t know me. Saying she would be better off without any of us . . . why is that? Our family was always one big game of Red Rover & some of us rarely had our names called. Now, after all of these years, our names should be called & we should come running? Peggy didn’t call or ask any of us for help with this situation. We all found out through the press. So . . . come again with this family thing? I have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”
Much like any jury that has not heard all the evidence, Whidbey readers appear divided on Thomas’ culpability, as do those asked on the streets of Langley about the case. One woman, who preferred not to give her name, remembers Thomas, once her hairdresser, as “a very nice woman who would do anything for you.”
But neighbor Jeanie Dodd is convinced Thomas did it. “From my knowledge of her, she’s a sociopath,” says Dodd, a massage therapist who used to live next door to Thomas and her then-husband Kelvin and, after they broke up, lived next door to Brenna and Russel Douglas, the murder victim, who rented the home from Thomas. Dodd now lives just around the corner from Thomas’ mother Doris, with whom the accused murderer now lives—in a house that Dodd and her family also once lived in.
“Peggy’s probably staying in my daughter’s old room,” says Dodd. “I know the family pretty well, and I think Peggy’s certainly capable of doing what they say she did. She trapped herself—she says her boyfriend did it, and that she didn’t even know he had a gun. But they found her fingerprint on his gun manual.”
That fingerprint would turn out to be just one of what would become a series of long-distance breakthroughs for investigators.
A retired Air Force veteran named Bill Hill called the Island County Sheriff’s Office on July 26, 2004, with information on a former Whidbey Island musician named Jim Huden. Hill, a friend of Huden’s in the little west Florida town of Punta Gorda, south of Tampa, said Huden told him a secret that, in good conscience, Hill couldn’t keep any longer: In February, Huden had confided that while visiting Whidbey Island over the Christmas holiday in 2003, he had shot a man in the head.
The gun was a .380, Hill said. Huden had looked for the ejected shell after he shot the man, Hill added, but couldn’t find it.
Another thing: Huden, who was married, was having an affair with a woman named Peggy something, who lived in Las Vegas. Actually, Hill said, he’d met her once: He and Huden had gone to Vegas together, and Huden introduced him to Thomas.
As he understood it, Thomas once worked at a beauty salon owned by Brenna Douglas, the murder victim’s wife. According to Hill, Huden told him that he and Thomas had lured Russel to a deadly rendezvous by claiming they had a surprise Christmas present for him to deliver to Brenna.
Huden might run for it, Hill told authorities. He was getting antsy and had recently said Whidbey investigators were nosing around (they had called Thomas about the cell-phone number in May). Huden, said Hill, complained that he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to offer as his alibi, and needed to confer with Peggy.
A week after Hill’s call, four Island County detectives were airborne, two heading to Florida, two to Nevada. According to interviews and their reports, Huden allowed the investigators into his Punta Gorda home. A slender six-footer who then wore shoulder-length brown hair, Huden worked as a computer programmer and professional guitarist. He usually had a Crown Royal in one hand and a Swisher Sweets Little Cherry cigar in another. He’d lived on Whidbey for 20 years, where he knew Thomas, and moved south in the 1980s, running a computer business in downtown Punta Gorda with his wife Jean. At night, he played guitar for a smooth-jazz band, Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists.
Huden said he had shacked up with Thomas for a few months in Vegas, and that they had traveled to Whidbey for the Christmas holiday. But they didn’t kill anyone, he asserted. They stayed at the vacation home of a friend and left the island by December 23, Huden said, then stayed at a SeaTac motel until the day after Christmas.
As for Russel Douglas, well, yes, he did know of him. Huden said he’d dropped off a Christmas present at Douglas’ Renton apartment on the 23rd, en route to SeaTac. It was the first and last time they met, Huden said.
Meanwhile, two other detectives were knocking on Thomas’ door in the Vegas suburb of Henderson. She let them in. “She didn’t have much choice,” says Det. Wallace, one of the team members. “We had a search warrant.”
Thomas told detectives she certainly knew Brenna Douglas, the victim’s widow. Thomas had worked at Douglas’ Langley beauty shop. At the time, she also owned the home that Brenna was living in. Brenna and Russel had rented the house in February 2003, not long before they separated and he moved to Renton.
Huden, Thomas confirmed, had been living with her around Christmastime, and they traveled to Whidbey. But she flew up to Seattle, and Huden drove her Lexus there, she said. They spent until December 23 on the island, then stayed the next three nights at the SeaTac Marriott.
But her story began to vary from Huden’s. On the 23rd, she said, she and Huden—together—drove to Renton and gave Russel the present for Brenna. And they were on the island the day Russel Douglas was murdered. They had driven all the way back to drop off the house keys, Thomas said. And while they were at the vacation home again, she did some laundry and made the beds.
During that time, Huden took off for about a half hour, she said. After he returned with cigarettes, they left for Vegas.
The two detective teams, after huddling and sharing their information, felt they were assembling a solid case. Then came another long-distance phone call.
On Aug. 18, 2004, news of the possible involvement of Huden and Thomas leaked out in the local newspaper, the South Whidbey Record, citing the duo as persons of interest in the case. According to prosecutors, that led to a roundabout series of events:
After seeing the story, Whidbey resident Scott Mickelson called his cousin, Keith Ogden, in New Mexico. Mickelson knew Huden and Thomas and had visited them in Vegas, where Ogden had then lived. Ogden, a retired police officer, met the duo through Mickelson.
Sometime after Huden returned from the Christmas trip to Washington, he asked Ogden to store a gun for him. Ogden, who owned guns, had once shown Huden how to clean and operate the pistol, a Bersa .380. Huden said he didn’t want the weapon around Thomas’ house because her two daughters also lived there. Ogden agreed to store it. He later moved to New Mexico and took the gun with him.
After Mickelson’s call, Ogden’s wife Donna went online and read the Record‘s news story. Keith Ogden then got the Bersa and turned it in to the Doña Ana County sheriff’s office, which called Whidbey investigators.
Detectives flew to New Mexico, interviewed Ogden, and picked up the weapon, and on August 24 the Washington State Crime Lab matched the spent casing and the bullet recovered from the Douglas crime scene to the Bersa .380. Subsequently, they’d find Thomas’ fingerprint on a page of the Bersa’s gun manual.
Within weeks, James Huden disappeared from his Florida home. His wife didn’t know where he went, she said. But everyone’s guess was Mexico.
Whidbey authorities later issued a $1 million warrant and America’s Most Wanted took up the chase, noting that musician Huden “has contacts in the cruise-line business and may be playing on cruise ships or in clubs.” Last seen by his wife, he “seemed distraught, talked of suicide, and left with a handgun.”
But if Huden was the shooter and Thomas his accomplice, what were their motives?
That still seems a mystery today, although Douglas’ widow Brenna had sought a restraining order against her husband seven months before his death, according to court records, claiming he punched her and threatened her life. That gave rise to speculation she might want her abusive husband offed.
But was Brenna willing to pay for such a favor? Investigators suggested as much, noting there was $500,000 worth of life insurance money at stake, though the widow adamantly denies any role in the death.
The accusation has, however, made it difficult for her to collect on the policies. When Brenna Douglas sought the proceeds of one policy—for $200,000—in January 2004, AIG, the insurer, refused to pay, saying that prosecutor Banks had labeled both Peggy Sue and Brenna “accomplices” in the murder by Huden. The state Slayer Statute—denying benefits to anyone involved in an unnatural death—therefore applied, AIG argued in court.
Brenna Douglas challenged Banks to prove she had a hand in the killing. “I am in no way responsible for the death of my husband,” she said in a court statement. “I had no involvement in the murder, and there cannot possibly be a scintilla of evidence that proves otherwise, because none exists.”
Banks backed off. “She is no more a suspect than anyone else,” he said in a letter to Douglas’ attorney in July 2004. After more court sparring with AIG, Douglas got her money, with $1,200 interest, in 2005.
She also attempted to collect on another policy, for $300,000, from Farmers Insurance, which she and her husband had taken out in 2002. But the insurer claimed in court that Russel Douglas had answered falsely to a health questionnaire, failing to tell Farmers he’d been treated for a heart murmur. That would have nullified his eligibility, attorneys argued. A judge agreed and dismissed Brenna Douglas’ lawsuit in 2008. (Brenna, who reportedly now lives in eastern Washington, couldn’t be reached, and her attorney did not respond to a request for comment.)
Asked today about the widow’s role, Banks remains noncommittal. “She’s linked in a variety of ways: victim, survivor, and also someone who was looked at as a strong person of interest,” he says. “We have several theories about her involvement, but I will reserve discussing them.” He also told Brian Kelly, editor of the Record, that “Everybody keeps asking me about the third suspect. I have to be pretty careful. She’s not charged, and she has those rights as an individual. If we don’t have enough to charge her, I don’t see any point in dragging her name through the mud.”
Still, sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Beech said last year, during a TV segment about alleged gunman Huden on KCPQ’s Washington’s Most Wanted, “We believe that Mr. Huden was hired, a contract, to kill Russel Douglas.”
Kelly also published details from a 2005 e-mail exchange between Banks and then-sheriff Hawley which indicated that the investigation was focused on three suspects. The exchange also exposed some bickering between the two officials.
At the time, the sheriff was upset that Huden had gotten away, and said Banks’ delay in issuing an arrest warrant was “sucking the momentum out of the investigation.” Banks fired back that “(1) The investigation has so many flaws, it seriously undermines our ability to prosecute; and (2) the last information I had reviewed was tailor-made for a defense of ‘someone else did it,’ and (3) we suspect that there were two other participants in the crime, and moving prematurely on Huden would likely foreclose their prosecution. I would like to make sure that we have a solid case before we bring him into court.”
Banks says he and current sheriff Mark Brown, elected in 2007, are now on the same page. And this past June, both rejoiced as they did indeed bring Huden to court, thanks to another long-distance bombshell.
In the spring, Jim Huden’s wife Jean was busted in Florida for theft, forging checks, and possession of marijuana and cocaine, and thereafter decided she had some information to trade on her fugitive husband, Whidbey investigators say. In June, the feds arrested her husband in Guadalajara. He was extradited and remains in the Island County jail on $10 million bail. In the first week of July, according to Florida court records, Jean Huden pleaded no contest to one drug charge, with more than 20 other charges dropped, and was released on probation. The next week Thomas was arrested.
Jim Huden’s attorney, public defender Peter Simpson, says his client is wrongly accused. Simpson has also taken an interest in the e-mail bickering between the prosecutor and former sheriff, and asked the court for copies of them. “They may be pertinent to the defense,” he says. Banks is resisting, saying at least one of the messages was “apparently improperly and probably unlawfully released” to the newspaper. But, says editor Kelly, “Actually, those documents were given to us by an anonymous source.”
Huden is clearly in a tight spot, made tighter by his accused accomplice. He didn’t go out for smokes that day on Whidbey, Thomas now says. He went for a kill.
Shortly after Huden fled to Mexico in 2004, Thomas, after contacting an attorney, issued a written statement to Whidbey investigators, claiming that Huden had confessed to her over the phone on Aug. 31, 2004.
Thomas claims that Huden said that when he left for cigarettes that day after Christmas, he met Douglas and shot him in the head. She had no idea he’d done it until he called to tell her, then vamoosed south of the border.
That has been her story since. Prosecutor Banks doesn’t want to get into further details, nor does Thomas’ attorney Platt, who tells Seattle Weekly: “I am not inclined to get into a detailed analysis of the evidence in public at this time.”
But Jean Huden had more to say to investigators. Her husband confessed the murder to her, she said, as did Thomas.
In an interview with Whidbey detectives in June, Jean said she helped her husband flee to Mexico, sending him money and visiting him several times, where he told her all about killing Douglas and how Thomas helped set it up and lure him to the crime scene.
Jean also flew to Vegas to see Thomas. She knew Thomas and Jim had had an affair, she said. But Jean still maintained a friendly relationship with Thomas—or did at the time, anyway.
According to an investigator’s notes, “Jean said Peggy told her she had called Russel and lured him out to the murder location with the story about delivering a Christmas present. Jean said that Peggy told her that while James went to the murder location to kill Russel, Peggy went to the store to buy cigarettes so she would have a receipt as an alibi for the time of the murder.”
Should Jean Huden testify against both her husband and Thomas, her veracity and cooperation would likely be questioned by the defense. Florida records show she was busted again last month for drugs, and awaits trial. As a result of that arrest, her earlier plea-bargain was reopened, and she faces a new hearing on that deal. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutor Banks says he’s staying in close touch with his potential star witness. “Her family and friends are trying to help her stay healthy,” he says. “We’re hopeful.”
Thomas’ trial is set to begin January 24, Huden’s March 31. Neither will comment, nor will their attorneys, on their defense plans, which has Whidbey abuzz with speculation: Is there a third indictment in the works? Will Jean Huden show up to testify? Is Maestro Jim going to name names, or possibly work out a plea? Will Thomas be able to minimize the importance of the gun-manual fingerprint?
And, finally, can the ex-beauty queen win the hearts and minds of Langley?
“Peggy doesn’t really have any empathy for people,” says neighbor Dodd. “I don’t think the town has much for her, either.”