October 22, 2007
Cold case murder
Judge threatens to arrest
woman on contempt charge
By Eric Laughlin
Democrat staff writer
A judge made a key pre-trial ruling Friday in the 1971 cold murder case of defendant Phillip Arthur Thompson, but perhaps the most dramatic part of the proceeding was moments later when a Bay Area woman in the audience, suggested by the prosecution to be working for Thompson's defense, was scolded by the judge and nearly arrested on a charge of contempt of court.
The woman, Kate Dixon, is a journalist for the Website newsmakingnews.com and has frequently appeared in court in support of Thompson, who she says is being prosecuted for a crime he did not commit.
Thompson, now in his 60s, was arrested in 2003 after his DNA was allegedly found on the underwear of murdered Sacramento beautician Betty Cloer, whose body was dumped in a remote area of Cameron Park.
Dixon told the Mountain Democrat she thinks there is evidence that suggests another man killed Cloer, a man who is currently in state prison and due to testify for the prosecution.
El Dorado County deputy district attorney Trish Kelliher has made attempts to conceal that man's name in open court to protect his identity in prison. But Dixon, a former attorney, came to court to fight the concealment, having filed a motion days earlier to unseal the identity of the man, who has been referred to only as John Doe.
Intitially Judge James R. Wagoner ruled that Dixon and other media organizations can print John Doe's real name, since the name was legally obtained from the case file prior to his sealing of related records.
But prosecutor Kelliher argued that the court should bar the name from being printed until it researches the role Dixon and her colleague Virginia McCullough are playing in the case.
"We need to clarify who these women are," Kelliher said. "On one hand they claim to be journalists, but on the other they appear to be working for the defense."
McCullough is a contributing writer for Dixons's Website. McCullough said Friday she was working as a runner for the Thompson team, but that Dixon does not or did not have such a role. Thompson's attorney Dain Weiner agreed.
Wagoner agreed that more research needs to be done as to both women's role. He issued a temporary gag order on newsmakingnews, forbidding it from printing the actual name of John Doe. Dixon was then ordered to appear for the proceeding set for today.
The judge informed the Mountain Democrat that the gag order only applies to newsmakingnews. But the Democrat, citing the prosecution's argument of Doe's potential safety concerns, chose to hold off on releasing the name until future proceedings.
Dixon addressed the court, which immediately sparked a heated exchange.
"Your honor, does this mean I cannot visit Mr. Thompson before the hearing Monday?" she said.
Wagoner responded that for her to do so would "certainly tighten the noose."
"You have no noose on me," she fired back. "I know his honor has wanted to jail me for some time."
Wagoner immediately responded, "Ma'am, you are bordering on contempt. One more word out of you and you are going into custody."
Dixon then immediately lowered her tone and sat quietly through the rest of the proceedings.
The key ruling made by Wagoner was regarding a request made by Kelliher to exclude evidence obtained by the defense that suggests victim Cloer was working as an informant to law enforcement in the time leading up to her murder.
Weiner argued that there is credible evidence from a number of independent sources suggesting such a relationship with officials.
The defense attorney argued that the jury should be able to hear such evidence, since it provides insight into Cloer's state of mind the night she was killed. He suggested that her being an informant could explain why she got into the care of a man she had never met.
Weiner also said the information is relevant because it could provide information as to a possible motive by John Doe to kill Cloer.
Weiner argued: "John Doe has an extensive criminal history with regard to narcotics, including what we know to be a $250 a day heroin habit. If Cloer was working as a drug informant, that gives motive for suspects in cases with drugs to want to harm her."
Kelliher responded that John Doe is a witness and will be able to respond to Weiner's accusations while he testifies. Though she acknowledged the fact that Cloer's family said she was an informant, she said that there is nothing in the records suggesting such a circumstance.
Kelliher continued: "What we have is either a story made up by family members who wanted to paint her as this heavenly informant, or her telling her family this story about being an informant so they wouldn't give her a problem over her seeking distance from them."
Wagoner ruled to exclude Weiner's informant-related evidence, but said his ruling could change if new evidence was introduced in the days leading up to the trial.
The trial is currently set for late February 2008.
E-mail Eric Laughlin at