• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

To work Thompson's murder, Burritt first retrieved the brown paper bags of evidence -- clothing, knives, and blood -- collected at the 1987 crime scene, also stored in the department's basement. Burritt's work space is a corner office on the sixth floor of the downtown blue-and-white police headquarters. There, he donned plastic gloves and cleaned his counter. He scissors-opened the sealed bags and pulled out the evidence he would examine for DNA. He first had to establish Thompson's DNA profile. Using a moistened Q-Tip, Burritt ran the cotton swab along a swatch containing saliva taken from Thompson's mouth at the autopsy. He put that in a vial. Next, he ran a wet Q-Tip over a blood swatch from a bloodstain that was found on Thompson's hallway floor. He put that in another vial. These vials were cycled through the DNA-profiling process in the department's forensic lab. Within a month, Burritt got the results he wanted. The hallway bloodstain came back as "an unknown male," which "excluded the victim." Was this the perpetrator?

With this DNA profiling success, the job of re-opening the investigation fell to homicide detective Bob Donaldson, who supervises the cold-case unit. The 27-year police veteran told me that he was drawn in by the rare "overkill" of Thompson's death. Why all those stab wounds? "If it's hatred," he said, "a killer will go for the upper torso or the face. Shoot them in the face. Bludgeon them to death in the face type of thing, if it's hatred, versus 'I'm just going to burglarize you and shoot you in the chest.' It's the amount of stab wounds that's a red flag. Why would you stab someone 55 times versus stab somebody once or twice? Think to yourself, 'What is going to cause somebody to do that?' " Donaldson, whose brown eyes are lusterless and no-nonsense, also said that in his experience it's "not uncommon" for a stabber to cut himself. Pushing a knife to the hilt, his hand often slips onto the blade.

Donaldson refused to guess why Thompson was stabbed so many times. But he compared this case to another, in which a son killed his parents. The son killed the father by hitting him on the head just once. The son "hated" the mother "so badly that he beat her about the head until, basically, she had no face left." But in Thompson's demise, Donaldson saw that the investigating detectives found no such familial anger. Never married, Thompson had an elderly male cousin in Detroit and an elderly female cousin, Sadie Craft, who lived across the street from Thompson in a home he had just purchased for her. Thompson had wielded his power as a publisher and a politically savvy developer in Southeast to rail against drug pushers, so someone from that underworld might have wanted him silenced. But during their search, the police apparently found no one who wanted to silence him that bad.

It was an enigma -- the viciousness of the murder and its freakish intimacy. But in the late 1980s, there simply wasn't time for investigators to ponder that or any enigma. With San Diego's murder rate racing higher, detectives were called to the next drive-by shooting, drug hit, domestic murder. In 1987, Thompson's slaying would be one of 106. The killings only got worse. In 1988, 144 murders; in 1990, the highest ever, 159. Up to 50 percent of these crimes in the first year of inquiry would go unsolved.

The Murder

Sunday evening, January 11, 1987, William Thompson arrived home in San Diego at 6:00 p.m. from a weekend retreat of the West Coast Black Publishers Association in Monterey, California. There, he had been elected secretary, another post to add to those he already held in building organizations and at the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. According to Anna Brown, a business associate and friend, Thompson spent part of Monday, the 12th, collecting rents from tenants. She said that, as usual, he had a pouch full of cash and checks, which he took home with him that evening, preferring to make a deposit the next day. How did she know? She telephoned Thompson at least three times that evening at his home, and she said later, he told her that he had some $6000. Her last call was around 9:00 p.m.

The units that Thompson owned were, according to Charles Davis, a man who worked for Thompson at the time, "low-grade apartments on Euclid and Imperial, and 28th and Imperial." At 50, Davis is an ebulliently friendly and community-oriented developer who speaks with a trebly excitement in his voice. He runs Urban-West Development and oversees projects for the Jacobs Family Foundation, a Southeast-based philanthropic group that serves underinvested neighborhoods. Davis attributes his success to a long apprenticeship with Thompson, whom he recalls as "a father figure and a role model." Fresh out of UCLA in 1979, Davis wanted to learn business development and Thompson took him on. Right off, Thompson's sloppiness showed itself "when we'd collect rent, have cash, and then go to his house. In any community business, things leak out. Your habits get known. Your money habits. Taking the rents home rather than leaving the money in the office -- I thought there was danger in that for Bill."

The money on his person was one thing. But something else bothered Charles Davis. Thompson rented his units to low-income people, a few of whom dealt drugs. They'd dispense the highly addictive crack cocaine out the front door "like a pharmacy," Davis said. It was a time when the cheap drug was taking over America's poor communities -- crack pipes and free-basing and crazy-ass highs: Len Bias's overdose and Richard Pryor's self-immolation. Thompson "despised junkies," Anna Brown said. He began publishing the names of convicted drug dealers in the Voice and Viewpoint. During the summer of 1986, according to the San Diego Union, he "led a group of landowners in evicting known drug dealers from apartments and gave police the names, addresses and license numbers of drug dealers working the street." In Barrio Sherman, one resident said, "I would come out and go to work at 5 in the morning and there would be 10 or 15 people in the streets" selling dope. "From this corner to that corner, it was chaos." The resident and other neighbors praised Thompson as "instrumental" in keeping the drug merchants at bay.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close