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Thompson Murder Case Figure Still in D.A.'s Sight

Appeals court will decide if Orange County can pursue man linked to notorious slayings of an auto racing legend and his wife in 1988.

October 19, 2003|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Orange County prosecutors this week face a critical challenge in their effort to resolve the 15-year-old ambush-murder of race-car legend Mickey Thompson and his wife: They must persuade a state appeals court to change its mind and let the case proceed.

Since Michael Goodwin, a former business partner, was arrested in 2001 on suspicion of arranging the murders, the case has been stalled by a debate about whether the Orange County district attorney's office has the right to handle the case.

Prosecutors maintain they have jurisdiction because there is enough evidence to show Goodwin planned the murders from Orange County, where he lived and worked when the Thompsons were killed outside their Los Angeles County home.

Defense attorneys adamantly disagree, arguing that the evidence against Goodwin is being stretched or fabricated, and that Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas is partly motivated by his friendship with Thompson's sister.

They point out that Los Angeles prosecutors earlier declined to file charges against Goodwin for lack of evidence.

Rackauckas denies any conflict of interest and a judge last year rejected a defense attempt to disqualify him from the case.

This week, the two sides will spar before the 4th District Court of Appeal in their first courtroom showdown since prosecutors conceded that a 9-millimeter gun they said Goodwin provided to the killers could not have been the murder weapon.

Although prosecutors say their case remains solid, Goodwin's attorneys argue that the revelation about the gun is just one more example of why the charges should be dropped and Goodwin released from jail after being held for nearly two years.

"The allegation that Mr. Goodwin provided a 9-millimeter [gun] was one of main bases for establishing guilt and venue," said Jeff Friedman, one of Goodwin's attorneys.

"That evidence has been proven 100% wrong."

Prosecutors seem undaunted by that revelation. But with that weapon out of the picture, it's unclear what evidence they have left to present. They lost the first round before a panel of three appellate justices, who found in a preliminary ruling earlier this year that Orange County lacked jurisdiction to pursue the case, even after weighing the evidence about the gun.

If the panel dismisses the case, Orange County prosecutors could appeal to the state Supreme Court or ask Los Angeles County or state prosecutors to file charges.

Neither agency has said whether it plans to prosecute the case.

Mickey and Trudy Thompson were killed in the driveway of their Bradbury home on the morning of March 16, 1988, as they left for work. Two masked men who ambushed the couple came and went on bicycles, and have never been found.

Goodwin was always suspected of orchestrating the hits. His business relationship with Thompson, a pioneer in the auto racing business who was the first American to break the 400-mph land speed mark, ended with a bitter legal battle that cost Goodwin thousands of dollars.

The investigation languished for nearly 14 years while the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department tried to put a case together. At one point, Los Angeles County prosecutors found there was not enough evidence against Goodwin to bring charges.

Goodwin was arrested in November 2001 after the Orange County district attorney's office agreed to file charges. He pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and murder, but remains in custody with no bail allowed.

Orange County prosecutors say they have jurisdiction because, they allege, Goodwin plotted the murders from his Laguna Beach home.

To advance this theory, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Mark Lillenfeld testified that a 9-millimeter gun that Goodwin bought in 1984 could have been one of the murder weapons, and that a stun gun found at the crime scene matched one that Goodwin kept at his home.

Prosecutors also allege that Goodwin staked out the neighborhood before the murders, and that he made incriminating statements to a girlfriend.

Goodwin's attorneys immediately attacked the case -- with no success -- on the grounds that Rackauckas should be recused because of his personal and professional relationship with Collene Campbell, who had been crusading for years to put Goodwin behind bars in her brother's slaying.

Rackauckas represented the family during probate proceedings and interviewed witnesses after the murders, they alleged. The defense persuaded the 4th District Court to hear the venue issue last year.

And after a hearing in February, the appeals panel found that Orange County prosecutors lacked the authority to pursue the case, and ordered them to show why the case should not be dismissed.

That was two months before Goodwin's lead attorney, Jeffrey Benice, alerted prosecutors that the fatal bullets could not have been fired from Goodwin's 9-millimeter gun because that weapon had different rifling characteristics than the murder weapon.

He used information from a gun maker, an FBI manual and the government's own ballistics report to prove it.

Prosecutors have conceded the error, but described it as an innocent misinterpretation of a ballistics report; they maintain that losing that evidence will not significantly affect the case against Goodwin.

They argue the remaining evidence supports territorial jurisdiction lies in Orange County.

"That [the pistol] was part of the mix ... of all the evidence that pointed to the fact that this was a hit, that it was well-planned," said Deputy Dist. Atty. James Mulgrew.

"It's our position that the evidence is still more than ample to support the finding [of venue]."

The gun, however, will not be the only question under review in this week's hearing.

The justices have indicated that one issue they are focusing on is the hearsay testimony of Gail Moreau Hunter, who told investigators that Goodwin, when they lived together years later in Colorado, told her he had planned the murders.

They want to know whether her statements establish jurisdiction in Orange County, and whether she will testify.

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