By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The next morning, a neighbor said he had seen a black man park his car and walk around the neighborhood, entering and then leaving Stellern’s apartment courtyard. The neighbor had a habit of writing down unfamiliar license plate numbers. This time he jotted down the letters and numbers John 73.
The plate number was registered to then–41-year-old salesman John Floyd Thomas Jr., who lived on nearby South El Molino Avenue. When police searched his blue Ford Mustang, they found dark clothing and a ski mask, and he was charged with the Stellern rape. Yet even as he faced trial, the friendly seeming Thomas somehow managed to marry Colette Webb, on April 5, 1978. Then, on August 17, 1978, a jury convicted him of rape, burglary and mayhem — for viciously snapping Stellern’s leg.
Gary Stellern says the police “showed me [Thomas’] rap sheet. He had been busy” — in fact since 1957. (Please see sidebar.) That year, a crucial and deadly mistake by a county prosecutor allowed Thomas to get off lightly, and to spread his misery for years.
Thomas, at the time a 20-year-old county file clerk who had been dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, got arrested after breaking into a home on West 35th Place. He had climbed into an elderly woman’s bed and ordered her to be quiet, but was shot by the woman’s son-in-law after she screamed for help. Though injured, Thomas made it back to his apartment on nearby St. Andrew’s Place — but his wife called an ambulance. His suspicious wound led to his arrest for attempted rape. Just a month earlier, police had tied Thomas to a rape and an attempted rape. Despite all that, a plea deal was offered by a lenient Los Angeles County prosecutor, and Thomas was convicted only of burglary.
For more than two decades after that, whenever police searched the files for rape suspects, Thomas’ name did not appear. Because of the old plea deal slapping his hand for a mere burglary, Thomas escaped the post–Black Dahlia requirement to register as a sex offender. That was a disastrous misstep by the D.A., reverberating for 30 years, during which this predator apparently boldly repeated his murderous MO again and again. “The ball was dropped back in 1957,” says a clearly bothered Manchester.
Thomas’ known record, including the 1978 brutal rape and assault of Mrs. Stellern, did not seem to hinder his career, or alter his outward appearance as a normal guy. He did five years for raping Stellern, yet somehow, in 1983, he got a job as a hospital “peer counselor” in Chino. But finally, the cops noticed Thomas and he was forced to register with the San Bernardino County Sheriff as a sex offender on May 17, 1983.
Three months after Thomas was so belatedly placed on the sex-offender registry, Isabel Askew disappeared in Claremont, four miles from Thomas’ home. Askew’s body was found in a local vineyard. She had been raped.
In a harrowing drama over several years that nobody seemed able to stop, police now believe it was Thomas who returned again and again to wreak his havoc on the same Claremont block where Askew lived. In March 1986, an 83-year-old neighbor of Askew’s was raped and robbed. The next month, a 78-year-old woman was attacked a few blocks north of Askew’s apartment.
Then, in a case that few of the detectives will ever shake, in June 1986, Askew’s 56-year-old daughter, Adrienne, was found strangled — in the very apartment from which her murdered mother vanished. DNA found at Adrienne Askew’s murder scene 22 years ago has finally been matched to Thomas, who is also believed to have slain her mother years earlier.
Months later, in March 1987, Thomas — who had managed to link up with an unsuspecting girlfriend — became a father to a baby boy. He and his girlfriend married in April 1989 and returned to Los Angeles, where Thomas worked in the mailroom of the State Compensation Insurance Fund on Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue.
That’s when police believe his reign of terror finally ended. On July 1, 1995, the apparently dormant but oft-divorced Thomas walked down the aisle again, this time with Carolyn Moret.
One of Thomas’ co-workers at the Wilshire offices of the insurance fund was Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a well-known political columnist. Hutchinson — like many others — describes Thomas as personable and congenial. Thomas had found religion and liked to send his colleagues e-mails full of biblical passages and inspirational notes. Hutchinson recalls: “The biblical passage was tied in with something for the day, like stay positive, or if you are having a challenging time, read a passage from Cornelius.”
Hutchinson was amazed in those days by what great shape Thomas was in for a middle-aged guy. “I would say, ‘What is the secret?’ Thomas would chuckle and say, ‘Just good living.’ ” Says Hutchinson, “He was always with women — a circle of female admirers — because he was so congenial.”
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