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L.A. County Takes 1988 Murder Case

Racer's ex-partner had hoped for release when O.C. lost jurisdiction but faces new charges.

June 09, 2004|Christine Hanley and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County prosecutors Tuesday charged Michael Goodwin with the 1988 murders of race car legend Mickey Thompson and his wife, marking a dramatic turn in a case that appeared to have all but collapsed two months ago in Orange County.

Goodwin, who has been held without bail in the Orange County Men's Jail since his arrest nearly three years ago, appeared to be only weeks away from freedom after an appellate court dismissed the case, ruling that Orange County did not have the right to prosecute a crime that took place in another county.

Instead, he'll get a new jailhouse address in Los Angeles County and could face the death penalty under the new charges.

Goodwin, a onetime racing promoter who had a fierce business rivalry with Thompson, has long been considered the prime suspect. Nonetheless, Los Angeles County prosecutors for years declined to file charges based on the evidence gathered by Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators.

Los Angeles prosecutors said the case continued to grow once the Orange County district attorney's office filed charges. When the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in April that Orange County lacked jurisdiction, Los Angeles decided to take a fresh look at the evidence.

"We really did take a top-to-bottom review of this, and the district attorney made the decision to file the case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick Dixon, who heads the major crimes division in Los Angeles County.

Goodwin is expected to be formally arrested by Los Angeles County authorities next week and arraigned in Superior Court in Pasadena on two counts of murder, along with the allegations that he committed multiple murders and was lying in wait.

He will not be charged with murder for financial gain, a count he faced in Orange County. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

In a telephone interview from jail, Goodwin said he was not surprised new charges were filed but was disappointed he would not have at least a few days of freedom. "I have to say the most important thing in my life is my 91-year-old dad, who I haven't been able to touch or hug. He's lost his house over this," Goodwin said.

Jeffrey Friedman, one of Goodwin's attorneys, said Los Angeles prosecutors were hurried into action by his recent efforts to have Goodwin released.

He said the case against Goodwin is flimsy and based on the fact that Goodwin and Thompson didn't like each other.

"Well, lots of people didn't get along with Mickey Thompson.... They just chose to focus on Michael Goodwin ... to the exclusion of all others," said Friedman.

He maintains that his client will be vindicated.

Goodwin is suspected of orchestrating the March 16, 1988, slayings of Mickey and Trudy Thompson. They were leaving for work when they were shot in the driveway of their Bradbury estate. Two masked men allegedly arrived and left on bicycles but have never been found.

Investigators ruled out burglary as a motive; the killers left behind $4,000 in cash the Thompsons were carrying, and $70,000 worth of jewelry Trudy Thompson was wearing. Instead, they focused on Goodwin's fractious business relationship with Thompson, a pioneer in the auto-racing business who was the first American to break the 400-mph land speed mark. The partnership ended with a series of bitter legal disputes that left Goodwin bankrupt and, investigators say, vengeful.

Goodwin has repeatedly denied any involvement, and the case languished for nearly 14 years while Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators failed to put together enough evidence.

He was finally arrested in December 2001 after the case was presented to the Orange County Grand Jury. Prosecutors said they had jurisdiction based on allegations that Goodwin planned the killings in Laguna Beach, where he lived and worked at the time.

To advance this theory, Los Angeles County sheriff's Det. Mark Lillienfeld testified that a 9mm 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 alleged that Goodwin made incriminating statements to his then-girlfriend and staked out Thompson's neighborhood.

Goodwin's attorneys immediately attacked Orange County's jurisdiction and argued that the evidence was being stretched or fabricated.

Further, they said, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas was partly motivated by his friendship with Mickey Thompson's sister, Collene Campbell, the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano. Rackauckas represented the family during probate proceedings and interviewed witnesses after the murders, the attorneys alleged.

The appellate court found that Rackauckas did not have a conflict but agreed to take up the venue question two years ago. In the process, prosecutors conceded that the fatal bullets could not have been fired from Goodwin's gun. They maintained that they had jurisdiction because the gun was only part of the evidence of a murder-for-hire plot.

The appeals court disagreed. In an April 23 ruling that dismissed the charges, the panel found Orange County prosecutors showed too little evidence to prove jurisdiction. But they also left room for Los Angeles County to reconsider the case and encouraged Orange County to turn over the evidence.

"The prosecuting county is not connected with the murders at all. That is the problem," the court concluded.

"We emphasize that any new evidence, not previously considered by the Los Angeles district attorney prior to its rejection of the case, can -- and should -- be given to the Los Angeles district attorney for reconsideration of that decision."

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