Walter Mondale, T. Eugene Thompson and Me
I'm sure it was only a coincidence, but two men I shared a common origin with and whose lives intersected with mine came back into the public eye last week.
The first and most important was former Vice President Walter Mondale, whom I covered as a correspondent for Minnesota newspapers when he was a senator and served as his press secretary when he was vice president. I received an invitation to help celebrate his impressive legacy of public service in Washington on Oct. 20.
The other was T. Eugene Thompson, who left a far different and less honorable legacy. Thompson, who died at 88 on Aug. 7 but whose death wasn't announced until last week, was Mondale's high school classmate in Elmore, Minn., just down the road from my hometown of Blue Earth.
Thompson was a St. Paul criminal defense lawyer convicted of ordering his wife's murder in 1963 to collect more than $1.1 million in insurance benefits which he intended to share with a 27-year-old former secretary. I was rookie reporter for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press and helped cover the sensational story, which stunned Saint Paul.
His obituary provided details of the heinous crime. As the New York Times reported on Sept. 6, Thompson, then 36, paid Norman Mastrian, a college friend and former boxer $3,000 to bludgeon his wife Carol, 34, with a rubber hose and place her naked in the bathtub to make it look like an accidental drowning. Mastrian subcontracted the job to a petty thief named Dick W.C. Anderson, who bungled the murder, beating her with a gun and stabbing her.
He fled as a bloody Mrs. Thompson stumbled out her house with a broken paring blade in her neck begging for help, before she died in a hospital. Police first suspected a homicidal maniac, but soon focused on Thompson after it became clear he had ordered the murder. He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison, along with Mastrian and Anderson. He served 20 years and was paroled in 1983, returned to St. Paul and remarried. (His second wife died of natural causes.)
At first, the Thompson's four children refused to believe he ordered their mother's murder, but in 1986, his oldest son, ironically a defense lawyer and prosecutor and now chief judge for Minnesota's southeastern district, convened a family court and concluded their father was guilty.
At this point, I come back into the story. While working for Vice President Mondale, I knew that Thompson had written to him asking him to support his parole, a request Mondale obviously turned down. Than in 2013, 50 years after Thompson's wife was killed, Mondale returned to Elmore for its sesquicentennial and spoke to 600 people at a dinner in his honor. Thompson was sitting in the audience, but they never acknowledged each other.
A final note: The same weekend, I was in my hometown of Blue Earth for a memorial service for an older brother who died in Florida in 2012, and Thompson was staying at the motel. I approached him in the lobby and introduced myself, but didn't tell him I'd worked for Mondale or that I'd covered his wife's murder. Nor did I tell him I agreed with his children that he was guilty as charged.