Murder On the Last Turn
First there were the threats. “I’m going to kill that son of a bitch. I’m going to kill that motherfucker. I’m going to take out Mickey. I’m too smart to get caught. I’ll have him wasted. He’ll never see a nickel. I’ll kill him first. Mickey doesn’t know who he is fucking with. He is fucking dead.”
“Mickey” was Mickey Thompson, a dynamic, charismatic and much-admired former off-road racer and promoter. Fearless on his own behalf, he was “scared to death,” he told his sister, that someone was going to hurt his “baby” — his beloved wife, Trudy. He hired a guard to watch his house, asked the sheriff for extra patrols, wore a bulletproof vest, loaded his shotgun with buckshot, avoided standing in front of lighted windows, varied his work routine, but none of it made any difference in the end.
At 6 a.m. on March 16, 1988, as Trudy backed the van out of the garage of their home in Bradbury, a small gated community in the San Gabriel foothills just east of Monrovia, two black males in their 20s, wearing dark, hooded jogging suits, suddenly materialized out of the shrubbery. One fired a 9 mm bullet that shattered the side window and penetrated the windshield. The van rolled back and hit a wall. Trudy jumped out, lost her balance and tried to crawl away, breaking her acrylic fingernails on the concrete drive. At the same time, Mickey apparently ran out around the side of the garage screaming, “Don’t shoot my wife.” One shooter crippled Mickey with a volley to the legs and abdomen. Even as Mickey begged the gunmen to at least spare Trudy, the second shooter killed her with a shot to the back of the head. Then, to complete the job, the first gunman administered the coup de grâce to Mickey as well.
As the screams and gunshots brought early-rising neighbors rushing to their windows and decks, the killers jumped on two 10-speed recurve-handlebar bikes and fled downhill at top speed. Narrowly avoiding being hit by a woman driving her dog to canine-assertiveness training, the men pushed their bikes across North Royal Oaks Avenue, went through a break in a grape-stake fence, down an embankment, and disappeared along a jogging path, which had once been an old railroad right of way.
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v Cincinnati Reds
TicketsMon., Aug. 29, 7:05pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Cincinnati Reds
TicketsMon., Aug. 29, 7:05pm
UCLA Bruins Double Header: M Soccer vs Duke & W Soccer vs Penn St.
TicketsFri., Sep. 2, 5:00pm
UCLA Bruins Men's Soccer vs. University of Akron Zips Men's Soccer
TicketsMon., Sep. 5, 5:00pm
News of the killings flashed like summer lightning through the Thompsons’ family and friends. One of the neighbors called the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group offices at Anaheim Stadium to say that he didn’t know what had happened, but shots were fired and “someone is lying in the driveway.” By the time Thompson’s vice president for operations, Bill Marcel, got there, the Thompson compound was cordoned off with yellow tape, behind which he could see the bodies of Mickey and Trudy lying in the drive “50 feet apart.”
Marcel spent the rest of the morning waiting to be interviewed by Sheriff’s investigators. When they finally got around to him, they asked, “Do you know anyone who would want to ?do this?”
Yes, said Marcel. As a matter of fact, he did.
Next week, after 18 years of investigation, 40,000 pages of discovery, 1,000 interviews, four different lead investigators and a 61-volume murder book that took the defense attorney seven months to read, another dynamic and charismatic — though far less admired — race promoter, Michael Goodwin, will go on trial in Pasadena Superior Court for the murders of Mickey and Trudy Thompson.
It is a case that has engendered deep and bitter hatreds on both sides. For the prosecution and Thompson’s family members, it is the chance (finally) to make Goodwin pay for his vicious crimes. But for Goodwin and his supporters, it’s justthe latest chapter? in a wrong-headed vendetta.
As his longtime friend John Bradley tells it, Goodwin is not only innocent but a deeply wronged man, hounded by corrupt prosecutors and criminally out-of-control investigators who essentially made up evidence without which Goodwin never would have been arrested, let alone indicted for murder. And the person Goodwin most blames for all of this is the woman he sees as the power behind the throne, Orange County victims’ activist and politician Collene Campbell, who is also Mickey Thompson’s sister.
Goodwin’s defense attorney, Los Angeles public defender Elena Saris, readily admits that the fact that her client is innocent doesn’t mean he’s an admirable guy in every way. (Even Goodwin’s friends call him an “asshole.”) But just because someone is a complete jerk doesn’t mean he’s a murderer too. And she’s not saying that just because Goodwin is her client and it’s her job to defend him. “He has never wavered on his innocence,” she says. “He’s never asked for a deal or a plea bargain.”
For one thing, says Saris, he doesn’t have to. The prosecution essentially has no case. It can’t put Goodwin at the scene of the crime. It has no murder weapon, DNA evidence, tape recordings, letters, documents, phone records or photographs to prove that he hired the men who shot the Thompsons (or did anything else to help, assist or further their deaths). Sheriff’s deputies have never caught the hit men nor do they even know who they are (though they suspect they live in the Caribbean). Other than a “couple of people” who claim to have heard Goodwin threaten Thompson 18 years ago, says Saris, “they have no evidence whatsoever tying Goodwin to the crime.”
If the prosecution has no evidence, then why wasn’t Goodwin acquitted long ago? That’s a good question, says Saris. Deputy district attorneys stop her in the halls of the Criminal Courts Building to ask her the same thing all the time.
At the other end of the spectrum are people like Campbell and the lead investigator, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Mark Lillienfeld, who feel in their bones that Mike Goodwin plotted, directed and paid for the Thompson hits, but worry that because all the evidence against him is circumstantial, it is entirely possible that a jury might not convict him. “I’ve had stronger cases, that’s for sure,” says Lillienfeld.
That said, Lillienfeld adds, all the circumstantial evidence that he does have points to no one else but Mike Goodwin. “Ray Charles or Helen Keller could figure this one out. This is not a difficult case.”
I first began investigating Mike Goodwin in May 1988, when I wrote a story about the Thompson murders for the Los Angeles Times. But I never got a chance to meet him, because he and his wife had recently left the country to sail the Caribbean on their $400,000, 57-foot, single-mast yacht, the Believe. In 1992, after two years spearfishing and doing underwater photography, and another two years skiing in Aspen, Goodwin finally returned to Southern California, where, on his way out of court after filing a lawsuit, he was arrested on secret bank-fraud charges. When his trial started, I drove down to Orange County to watch the action in court.
Goodwin, I discovered, was a big, commanding presence in a nicely tailored sports coat. But he seemed, I thought, to know nothing of how a jury might perceive him. Everything he did was oversize and over-dramatic. He acted as if he were less a defendant on trial than an actor onstage. When his attorney handed him a document, he would hold it at arm’s length, furrow his brow and study it in the most transparent manner. If someone made even a feeble attempt at humor, Goodwin would chuckle longer and louder than anyone, in his confident, masculine way.
Although resolution of the matter took four years, in the end Goodwin was convicted of failing to list an unpaid prior loan on a new loan application and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Part of the reason, I think, was his phony public persona. (“I told him to be sincere,” John Bradley would later say of Goodwin’s TV appearances, “but I don’t think he has it in him.”)
There was nothing in Goodwin’s early childhood to suggest that he might one day find himself accused of double murder. By his own (and sometimes shifting) accounts, he was a Navy brat from Pensacola, Florida, and a chronic overachiever who claimed to make Eagle Scout in record time. After high school, he says, he ruptured a lung scuba-diving off Catalina, floated to the surface unconscious and was choppered to USC University Hospital, where an orderly put a dead-on-arrival tag on his toe before he regained consciousness. After taking off a year to recover, he enrolled at San Diego State, where he started out in mechanical engineering and ended up in marketing. He also began holding TGIF parties, charging girls 50 cents, he says, and boys $1.50. According to Goodwin, he dropped out of college six credits shy of graduation to take a job in sales for Procter & Gamble. He soon left to join a small promotion firm in San Diego. Bradley, who was the junior member of the company at the time, initially didn’t like him. “He was too loud and too brash,” says Bradley. And he had an explosive temper.
On the other hand, there was no denying Goodwin’s quick intelligence and relentless enthusiasm. No matter what they asked him to do, says Bradley, he always answered, “Super!” He actually seemed to like dealing with avaricious agents and their drug-addled stars. He was good with money. Unlike their clients, he apparently didn’t do drugs, and, because he was such a big guy — 6 feet 3 inches, 200 pounds — with self-confidence to spare, he could serve as his own bouncer. After it became clear that he was a better promoter than his bosses, he struck out on his own, eventually promoting concerts, Bradley says, with stars like Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, Sonny & Cher and Petula Clark.
The glamour notwithstanding, concert promotion was such a stressful, financially precarious business that, after what Goodwin once called the “traumatic experience” of Janis Joplin’s final tour, he decided he’d had enough. He bought a beat-up VW van and decided to spend a couple of years traveling around North and South America with his then-wife, Diane Seidel.
One day, Goodwin found himself in a men’s room in a Belize hotel reading a motorcycle-magazine story about a Madison Square Garden race that, despite poor sightlines and little in the way of professional production, still managed to attract 17,000 fans. This, says Bradley, gave Goodwin the idea of putting on a motorcycle show in a stadium with comfortable seats, clean toilets, hot dogs that were actually hot, and cold beer. When Goodwin got back to the States in 1972, he persuaded the manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum to rent the stadium to him for an event Goodwin called “the Superbowl of Motocross.”
Goodwin trucked in hundreds of tons of dirt, built all kinds of jumps and turns, and advertised it heavily. Celebrities like Steve McQueen came to watch. There were scantily dressed women, and prizes for the fans. But the big attraction was the famous peristyle jump. The riders rode a dirt ramp up through the stands and disappeared into one of the smaller side peristyle arches. Then, a moment later, they’d come flying back into the stadium through the big central arch, sailing 100 feet through the air before hitting the downhill ramp. It was “fantastically suspenseful,” an Internet motor-sports historian would later write. “The fans went wild.”
Goodwin’s shows made money virtually from Day One. He was soon running what are now known as Supercross events not only in the Coliseum but at the Rose Bowl, San Diego, Anaheim and other places around the country. But Anaheim was the big cash cow, and every year, the show got bigger. Goodwin put more people in the seats than the NFL; the only person to outdo him was Billy Graham. Goodwin once claimed to have made $600,000 in a single day.
In short order, Goodwin was driving a Clenet (an expensive hand-built reproduction of a ’30s touring car), wearing full-length fur coats, dining on pâté de foie gras and sipping champagne. He bought a 17th-century tapestry, an antique billiard table, a Frederic Remington sculpture and a Rolls-Royce supposedly once owned by Princess Grace of Monaco.
He traveled around the world on big-game expeditions, spearing a 185-pound wild boar in Tennessee and killing a Kodiak bear in the Aleutians with a .44 Magnum handgun (albeit, according to a fellow hunter, after first breaking the bear’s spine with a rifle shot). He fell off a motorcycle at 132 mph and, wrote Shav Glick of the L.A. Times, ground off “one cheek of his butt.” He won a contest to spend a “wild wicked weekend” with “lusty Gloria Leonard, the queen of porn.” The opening line of his winning entry: “I enjoy successful attractive ladies who share my zeal for exotic sex.”
Besides sex, he loved dogs and hummingbirds. He cried bitterly when his black Lab Jocko died. He spoke to his mother a minimum of twice a day, and when she suddenly died of a heart attack, says the friend who broke the news, “he began screaming, ‘My mommy! My mommy!’ He was sobbing uncontrollably.”
To display his animal trophies and artwork in high style, he built a three-story cedar-wood-and-white-stucco hillside home with an ocean view in Laguna Beach. The house featured a spiral staircase, an indoor waterfall, a bear rug, an elk’s head on the wall, and a roll-top desk that he says once belonged to the infamously sharp-dealing Gilded Age financier Jay Gould. According to Sports Illustrated, Goodwin kept two tape recorders with him at all times, one for incandescently creative thoughts and one for merely important ones. He had a main office in downtown Laguna Beach and, for his inner circle, a smaller office in his home, albeit one with 12 phone lines. He was driven, dominating, and terrifying to new employees. Most of his secretaries left in tears after two or three days. Goodwin didn’t care. “I’m not a people person,” he told Thompson’s lawyers in a deposition. “All I care about is results. If someone has a contract with me and they don’t perform, I’ll take their legs off.”
Unlike Goodwin, who blazed a trail through school, Mickey Thompson was lucky to graduate at all. Recognizing that he was not learning anything in class, his high school English teacher would let him work on her car instead. Mickey never learned to spell. Today he’d be labeled ADD, “but,” says Sheriff’s Detective Lillienfeld, “he was a genius with his hands.”
Thompson built his first car at age 7 using the engine from a washing machine. He went on to race cars, trucks, buggies, boats and planes. At the time of his death, he was the owner of or a partner in some 27 companies and held upward of 100 major patents. His companies manufactured high-performance precision parts for race cars, and heavy-duty tires used by both the Israeli army and the shah of Iran. He invented an early hydraulic version of the Jaws of Life (to cut him out of his own vehicle in case he wrecked it during an assault on the land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah). He manufactured a water-filled plastic vehicle barrier, which police used around St. Vibiana’s Cathedral when the pope visited Los Angeles. He designed the wide-oval, low-profile tires that later became standard at Indianapolis.
But his first and last love was racing.
“He crashed cars and sunk boats in two continents,” the L.A. Times said about Thompson in 1973. He entered more than 10,000 races in his lifetime and won 500 of them. Feature writer Jan Golab once described his racing strategy as “stand on the gas,” which is to say, driving as fast as he could until he wrecked his car or won the race. In the process, he was hospitalized 27 times, four times with a broken back, once for six months.
While such competitiveness (if not recklessness) made Thompson a dominant force in off-road racing, it also “pissed off, alienated and offended many people,” said Sal Fish, president of Score International, a sanctioning body for off-road races, shortly after Thompson’s death. “In his negotiations, Mickey got the job done, but in getting it done, he left a lot of carnage around. Mickey was the kind of guy who would pound on you and pound on you till he won.” You could spend all day negotiating with him, and then, by 10 p.m., when everyone would be exhausted, “Mickey would say, ‘We’re going to settle it right now. Let’s do it. Let’s do it right now.’ And 99 percent of the time,” said Fish, “the people would fold. I’d put him up against any graduate of Harvard, Yale or MIT, and Mickey would consume him. He was a street fighter.”
Thompson was so incredibly competitive that when he couldn’t find an even match, he’d challenge people to competitions he knew he couldn’t win: tennis, badminton, bowling. He’d challenge kids to races in swimming pools. “If you were flicking peanuts,” his son Danny Thompson once said, “he wanted to win that too.”
With Thompson, the term “Fightin’ Irish” wasn’t just a football metaphor. Once when he was still a teen, five kids in a car shouted obscenities at him. He jumped in his car, ran them off the road, knocked out two and scared off the others. On another occasion, a former concessionaire said, Thompson punched out a security guard who ventured one word too many about his wife. “I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with him,” said former Coliseum general manager Jim Hardy. “You wouldn’t beat him on points.”
On the other hand, says Fish, “Once you had a deal, Mickey kept his word. If he said you were going to get [paid a certain amount], you would get it and you would get it on time — no hanky-panky, no ‘Can you wait 20 days?,’ no ‘Can you take it on installment?’ But when you negotiated, you better get what you wanted, because what you got was what you agreed on.”
“I really liked him,” said another former Coliseum general manager, Joel Ralph. “He was a very imaginative guy. He was enthusiastic, exciting. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance.” And it wasn’t just Thompson himself. Both he and his second wife, Trudy, were warm, outgoing people who would attend any social event, even a retirement affair for an accountant. “They didn’t just pop in and shake your hand either,” Ralph said. “They would stay and talk. He would talk to the maintenance guy. Even the guy who handles the gate came to his funeral.”
It was obvious to everyone who saw them together that Mickey adored Trudy Feller. She was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who came out West and got a job as secretary to the publisher of Hot Rod magazine, where the first thing they told her was, “Here’s your desk, here’s your typewriter, and whatever you do don’t date Mickey Thompson.” She was feminine, petite and very engaging, and before she quite knew what happened she was married to him.
Thompson didn’t just adore Trudy. He depended on her. She protected him from himself. He was a wild man. She was a systems person who made everyone feel a part of the plan. She wrote the checks. Mickey never made a decision without running it by her first. “She was his bullshit detector, his eyes and ears,” says Thompson’s attorney, Phil Bartenetti. “She kept him grounded.”
In 1984, Trudy had orthoscopic surgery for a problem with her knee. Her doctors said there was a good chance she might end up in a wheelchair or lose her leg altogether. For Mickey, that was the last straw. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m going to spend more time with Trudy.”
The problem was what to do with his business. Ever since Thompson quit racing himself (Trudy told him she’d divorce him if he entered another off-road Baja race), he’d been putting on races in stadiums with pickup trucks and Baja buggies, much as Goodwin had been doing with motorcycles. “He took a hunk of Baja and put it in [a stadium],” Danny Thompson said at the time. “He would lay down 1,100 sheets of plywood to protect the field and cover that with 25 million pounds of dirt.” Then, to keep the spectators from being bored, he ran off something like 18 off-road truck and buggy races in three hours.
But even though the shows ran like clockwork, they still didn’t make any money. Sometimes, Thompson lost hundreds of thousands in a single night. It wasn’t until 1984 (and the cumulative loss of $3 million) that Thompson’s races began to break even. That was also the time when he learned that Trudy might never walk again. “All I could think of was, the heck with everything,” Thompson would later say in a deposition. “I just got to take care of her. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then the idea came up to merge the companies. I would get paid a good salary and I wouldn’t have to work.”
Although Thompson considered himself a pretty shrewd negotiator, Goodwin was in another league entirely. In their merger talks, Goodwin held himself out to be a “promotional genius” who understood accounting better than a CPA and who had created a “proven product with Supercross that [threw] off gross and net profit” like a golden retriever shaking itself dry. Goodwin told Thompson he had the experience to take Thompson’s company bigtime, put people in the stands and increase profits in everything from the gate to the T-shirt concession.
But the thing that really sold Thompson, Mickey said, was Goodwin’s contention that he could protect Thompson from Pace International, a big Houston-based motor-sports entertainment company, which, Goodwin suggested, had imminent plans to move into Southern California, start running truck and Baja buggy events, and drive Thompson out of business.
On April 1, 1984, Thompson and Goodwin signed the merger agreement, which called for what Goodwin would later describe as an 18-month “engagement” period, followed by a full merger after that.
Unfortunately, their first combined production, a race in Indianapolis in the summer of 1984, lost money, and their second event, at the Pontiac, Michigan, Silverdome, went broke before it started. When Thompson made a conference call to Goodwin and his company’s president, Jeannie Bear Sleeper, to find out what was going on, Thompson said in the deposition, Sleeper was crying so hard she was incoherent. “She said she didn’t know what she was going to do,” Thompson said. “We had to write checks. There was no money. And they were going to yank the advertising. We needed over $100,000 to put on the event.”
Thompson couldn’t understand why the event needed money. As he understood his contract with Goodwin, he was supposed to put in 30 percent, Goodwin would put in 70 percent, and they’d share the profits and losses accordingly. “Then,” according to Thompson, “Jeannie Sleeper said, ‘Mike, you know, we don’t have any money back here. You have got to put money in this thing.’ ” Thompson was stunned. “I said [to Mike], ‘What do you mean you’ve not put any money in?’ Mike said, ‘I have never put any money in, and I am not going to put any money in now.’ ” (In Goodwin's version of this conversation, Sleeper was upset all right, but because Thompson wouldn't put up any cash.) When Thompson subsequently called Goodwin’s office to ask for a financial statement, he was told, he said, that Goodwin had issued orders not to give him one.
Realizing now that he’d made a terrible mistake, Thompson demanded his company back. But Goodwin, says Bartenetti, simply told him, “No, I’m going to keep it.” At this point, Thompson sued Goodwin to return both his company and all the money he’d lost during the 1984 racing season. Goodwin responded with a $2 million countersuit, charging that Thompson had never made good on his promise to develop an artificial racetrack. Soon enough, 14 lawsuits were flying back and forth like misguided missiles.
Goodwin had never been a stranger to lawsuits. The difference this time around was that he was losing them. In October 1984, a judge ordered the return of Thompson’s company. And in May 1986, Thompson won his original lawsuit, with Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Lester Olsen ruling that Goodwin’s failure to provide Thompson with financial statements was “an intentional or recklessly careless act designed to mislead Thompson into continuing to advance cash.” Olsen awarded Thompson half a million dollars. When interest and attorney’s fees were added, the total came to $768,000.
Although Goodwin’s friends urged him to settle — “You lost the judgment, pay it off” — Goodwin adamantly refused, saying that Thompson won only because he “lied” in court.
When Thompson realized Goodwin had no intention of paying him, an L.A. County marshal, John Williams, was dispatched to seize Goodwin’s Mercedes 380 SEC luxury sedan. But Goodwin and his wife, Diane, cursed out Williams, he would later testify, in such vehement and profane language that he had to threaten first to have the pair arrested, and then to seize the car anyway. At this point, Goodwin transferred his rage from Williams to his business partner: “Mickey Thompson is fucking dead. He doesn’t know who he is fucking with.”
The first time Mickey Thompson was threatened by Mike Goodwin, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had been an off-road racer, a businessman, a promoter, a world land-speed record holder, a man who had been invited to the White House by John F. Kennedy. In all that time, not once had anyone threatened his life over a business deal. “Can you believe this?” Thompson told a friend. “This guy threatened to kill me if he lost the civil suit.”
It wasn’t only Thompson who was getting threats. Phil Bartenetti says that Goodwin hired a “defrocked Sheriff’s deputy” to follow him. Jeff Coyne, a court-appointed trustee whose job it was to collect money from Goodwin’s bankruptcy estate, said that on one occasion, when Goodwin was popping pills from a little pillbox, he warned Coyne, “If you don’t lighten up, bad things will happen.” Mike DeStefano, a former top motorcycle racer who worked for Goodwin before teaming up with Thompson, says that Goodwin called late one night yelling and swearing. “He must have been on drugs,” DeStefano says. “He went into a tirade. I hung up on him. He called right back. ‘You’re a dead man. You’re gone.’ I hung up on him again and made a Sheriff’s report.”
Goodwin was apparently so furious at what he considered Thompson’s outrageous insistence on collecting the judgment that once, when Bill Wilson, the manager of what was then Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, asked him how things were going, Goodwin said, “Terrible. Fucking Thompson is killing me. He’s destroying me. He’s taking everything I’ve got. I’m going to take him out.”
“He was agitated,” Wilson would later testify. “His voice was loud. He was irritated. I said, ‘Mike, that doesn’t make any sense. Mickey’s dead. You’re in prison. There’s no winner to that scenario.’
“He said, ‘Oh no. They’ll never catch me. I’m too smart.’ ”
In January, Trudy called her sister-in-law Collene to say she had “good news and bad news.” The good news was that the California Supreme Court had declined to hear Goodwin’s appeal of the Appeals Court ruling that upheld the trial court’s judgment for Thompson. The bad news was “I’m afraid we’re going to get killed.”
Although Thompson was so distraught at the thought of Trudy being harmed that he sometimes broke into tears, he had no intention of letting Goodwin off the hook. Even when Goodwin declared bankruptcy to prevent the seizure of his house furnishings, Thompson not only didn’t quit pushing, he went after him even harder. One by one, he took away the stadium contracts where Goodwin had once held the franchise. Then, in July 1987, Thompson drove a stake through the heart of what remained of Goodwin’s former racing empire. Anaheim Stadium, the crown jewel (and cash cow) of the motor-sports racing circuit, awarded Thompson the exclusive right to run motor-sports shows in the stadium for the following year.
Goodwin couldn’t believe it. He was the one who invented motorcycle stadium racing, was a tenant at Anaheim for 13 years, sold out 10 events in a row and held the attendance record for a stadium sporting event. Anaheim was where he made the money to put on a complete race schedule for the rest of the year. Now, thanks to Thompson’s bullheaded determination, he was locked out of the stadium.
Goodwin filed a lawsuit to prevent Thompson from staging events in Anaheim, but in January 1988, a judge ruled for Thompson. In the same month, the California Supreme Court refused to hear Goodwin’s appeal of the original judgment. And on March 2, just two weeks before the murders, Thompson won yet another lawsuit, this time stopping Goodwin from running ads untruthfully implying that Thompson’s shows had been canceled.
Goodwin wanted badly to get out of this mess. Every time he hired a new lawyer, he’d send Thompson a new proposal offering him various supposedly valuable rights if he would only forget about the judgment.
But Thompson’s lawyer, Phil Bartenetti, didn’t trust Goodwin. “Mike had this condescending manner,” says Bartenetti. “He always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. He was determined to prove it too, [saying,] ‘You want me to explain that to you?’ In negotiations he never gave an inch. He could rationalize any position. [He] had an ability to interpret words in a way totally contrary to their apparent meaning. He would try to convince you that black was white. Furthermore, he thought he could.”
He considered himself a character out of a Tom Wolfe novel, a “Master of the Universe,” albeit one so overflowing with paranoia, says Bartenetti, he didn’t even trust Bartenetti’s people to provide soft drinks when he came to their office for negotiations. And then there was the drug issue. Goodwin would bring a little ice cooler with diet soda inside. Although Bartenetti would later say he never saw Goodwin use any, he did note that after long hours of negotiations, when everyone was dragging badly, Goodwin would excuse himself to use the bathroom, and when he came back, he’d be “refreshed, confident and ready to go.”
In November 1987, Goodwin sent a series of memos to his latest attorney, Bill Lobel, laying out talking points for a settlement.
If Thompson would cancel the judgment, Goodwin wrote, he and his wife would give Thompson “all our Supercross events, not contest Anaheim and waive all our claims against him.” And finally, they’d send out a new “approved-by-Thompson” news release “retracting/apologizing for past releases.”
“We were very close to settling it,” says Bartenetti. Then Goodwin insisted on the right to draw down an additional $300,000 from some Palm Desert property belonging to his wife. Thompson, who had been through this sort of last-minute drill with Goodwin before, answered, “No way.” Forty-eight hours later, Thompson was dead. And in his place was Collene Campbell, a woman as determined in the courts as her brother was on the racetrack.
Collene Campbell lives in an exclusive gated community in San Juan Capistrano. Her house is a sprawling and secluded multilevel hillside affair surrounded by towering trees, redwood decks, a sweeping set of stairs, a flagstone patio with a swimming pool, and a small, circulating stream splashing over the rocks and ferns. Her Irish father might have been a modestly paid police captain from Alhambra, but at 74, Campbell has the classy look of old money. She’s a conservatively dressed, well-coifed matron who gives off an air of competence, dignity and gravitas, along with good manners, a hot temper and surprising warmth. Even at a first meeting, she makes you feel as if she has looked into your soul, likes what she sees and now regards you as her new best friend. When I step out of my car, she greets me with a hug, and when we meet in court a week later, she introduces me like a member of the family. Although I am an hour late getting to her house for our interview, she holds off lunch (egg-salad sandwiches and a gelatin mold) so I can join her and her husband, Gary. When I leave four hours later, she gives me a glass of iced tea for the long drive home.
Campbell is a busy person. Her phone rings all day long, and her Christmas-card list runs to 900 names. As a former mayor of San Juan Capistrano (and confidant of everyone), she regularly serves on state and federal commissions or testifies before Congress. She’s been honored for her advocacy on behalf of victims by former president George Bush, former governor Pete Wilson, federal and state attorneys general, and the California Legislature. She was part of the successful campaign to defeat former California Supreme Court justice Rose Bird, an advocate for former attorney general John Ashcroft at his Senate confirmation hearing and a driving force behind Proposition 115, the 1990 court-reform initiative that dramatically reduced the time between arrest and trial in the state. The walls of her utilitarian paper-strewn downstairs office are decorated with dozens of photos, plaques and awards from police, sheriffs and district-attorney associations. She knows so many prominent people, says Elena Saris, that “there are times we can’t meet with the judge to argue a motion, because she is meeting with George W. Bush.”
Campbell has been fighting for victims’ rights ever since the ’80s, when two men killed her 27-year-old son, Scott, for a pound of cocaine. Scott was apparently trying to sell the cocaine to a buyer in North Dakota. Since he couldn’t risk carrying drugs on a commercial airliner, he accepted an offer from a childhood friend, Larry Cowell, to fly him to the Midwest in a single-engine plane. Instead, Cowell flew him out over the Pacific west of Catalina Island, where an accomplice in the back seat, Donald DiMascio, broke Scott’s neck and threw him into the ocean from a height of 2,000 feet.
Collene Campbell normally talked to ?her son several times a day, so when she didn’t hear from him she knew immediately that he was dead. But when she and her husband, Gary, went to the police, they dismissed her fears, suggesting instead that Scott was just “shacked up somewhere with somebody’s wife.”
At this point, the Campbells launched their own investigation, renting off-road motorcycles to search remote mountain canyons, wading through fetid swamps, crawling into caves to look for his body. When Scott’s girlfriend told them he had talked about taking an airplane trip, they searched the parking lots of one airfield after another until, after two weeks, they found his car at the Fullerton airport. From airport logs they determined that Larry Cowell had rented a plane there, and when they looked inside, they found Scott’s blood on a curtain.
The Anaheim police then arranged to have investigators pretend to be bigtime drug dealers to whom Scott supposedly owed big money. Thinking that they were dealing with the Mob, Cowell and DiMascio separately confessed to killing Scott. DiMascio was subsequently sentenced to life in prison, and Cowell got 25 years to life.
Despite their convictions, Campbell was far from pleased. Cowell had to be tried a second time because his confession had been obtained under duress. Murder to final sentencing took seven and a half stressful years, a time during which Collene came down with ulcers and Gary developed high blood pressure. Collene felt so badly treated by the justice system, she decided to spend the rest of her life fighting to reform it. “Because we were only the mom and dad, we had no rights,” Campbell later said. “We were forced to sit outside the courtroom on a bench in the hall, like dogs with fleas . . . while the defendants’ families were allowed to be inside and follow the trial and give support to the killers.”
She and Gary subsequently lobbied hard — but unsuccessfully — for a constitutional amendment to give crime victims (and their families) some of the same rights given to defendants. President Bush later signed a new federal law, named in part after Scott Campbell, that gives victims or their surviving family members the right to testify at the sentencing phase of federal trials. (The law does not apply in Goodwin’s state trial.)
When I first interviewed Campbell for the L.A. Times a few months after Mickey and Trudy’s deaths, she was angry about any suggestion the killers might somehow get away with their crimes. “I’ll tell you,” she said at the time, “they got one more Thompson to take out if they think they’re going to walk.”
Now, 18 years later, I realize, she is just as determined as she ever was to put Goodwin away. And it’s not just because she still feels that Goodwin had her brother and sister-in-law killed. It’s what Campbell regards as the cruel and baseless assault Goodwin has made on her and her brother’s honesty and integrity, not only in court but also on JusticeOnTrial.org, a Web site maintained by Goodwin’s friend John Bradley.
“The Bradley site just upsets me,” she says when I begin to ask her about it. “I called the attorney general’s office and asked how I could make them be more responsible. He said, ‘You can’t. There’s nothing you can do.’ So there is no sense to me reading them because they only make me mad.’?”
Which perhaps is understandable, given that among Goodwin’s many allegations is the charge that Campbell has pursued him with unwarranted but relentless, single-minded determination for more than 18 years, pulling every string, pressuring every friend and colleague, and calling in every IOU to put him behind bars for a crime there is no proof he ever committed. Furthermore, he also claims, she used her position as executrix of her brother’s estate to raid Goodwin’s pension fund.
“They’re doing everything they possibly can [to sully our family’s name],” Campbell later tells me. “Our brother is dirty. Our son is dirty. Everybody is dirty except Goodwin.
“Well, there’s nothing there,” says Campbell. “I’ve kept all my checks going back 25 years. And if they want to call me to the stand and claim I robbed Goodwin, there’s nothing I’d like better. They can say that Mickey was involved with the Mafia drug lords and Trudy was a prostitute and Mickey was seeing other women,” but if that’s all they’ve got, she says, Goodwin is going down.
Given that so many people had named Mike Goodwin as someone who had reason to kill Mickey Thompson, Sheriff’s investigators had the keenest interest in talking to him. It wasn’t just the threats or his acrimonious dispute with Thompson. Although Goodwin was supposedly bankrupt, he and his wife still had enough cash on hand to buy $275,000 worth of gold coins two months before Thompson’s death and, says Lillienfeld, put them aboard his boat. In the meantime, his wife had wired $400,000 to banks on the Caribbean islands of Grand Turk and Caicos. Two or three months after the murders, they left the United States to cruise the Caribbean in the Believe for the next two years.
Following the murders, Sheriff’s investigators made heroic efforts to solve the crime. But despite interviewing more than 700 people in the first nine months, detectives essentially found nothing tying Goodwin to the murders. Most of the threats were hearsay (Mickey telling someone that Mike has threatened him) and thus inadmissible in court. It was undeniable that Goodwin had a strong motive — Thompson had, after all, forced Goodwin into bankruptcy and taken away his business. But motive still wasn’t proof. What was needed was a confession, the arrest of the gunmen, an eyewitness of some sort, or a wife or girlfriend willing to repeat any incriminating pillow talk. But detectives could never put together a case. And as years passed and lead investigators retired or moved on, the investigation slowly ground to a halt.
Then, in May 1997, Mark Lillienfeld, a highly rated and experienced homicide detective, was designated lead investigator on the case. It was quickly apparent to Lillienfeld that Goodwin was “brilliant,” “cunning” and “the smartest guy I ever met as a cop.” But, he says, he also soon discovered that Goodwin was a “bipolar,” “narcissistic sociopath” who liked “to intimidate people.” In 14 years as a homicide detective, Lillienfeld, a mild-mannered and self-deprecating Midwesterner, had never gotten a single threat. But once he started investigating Goodwin, he said, he began getting anonymous messages on his answering machine (“You motherfucking piece of shit”) and the number “187” on his pager (the state Penal Code section for murder).
If such tactics were intended to intimidate Lillienfeld, they didn’t work. In short order, the detective made what he regarded as a major breakthrough. From studying the bullet fragments found in Mickey’s and Trudy’s bodies, Lillienfeld concluded that the bullets that killed them could have come from a 9 mm Smith & Wesson Model 469, just like the one that gun-registration records showed Goodwin had purchased in 1984, four years before the murders. Lillienfeld also learned that a few days after the murders, in March 1988, Goodwin bought another Smith & Wesson “identical” to the first.
To Lillienfeld the inference was clear. Goodwin had given his first gun to the killers, and then, after the murders, bought a new gun to replace it. This wasn’t exactly proof of anything, but to Lillienfeld it was at the very least suggestive of criminal intent.
Then fate stepped in to lend a helping hand.
In 1998, at the end of one of many TV shows about the killings, viewers were invited to contact authorities if they had any leads. A tip led Lillienfeld to one of Mickey Thompson’s neighbors, Ronald Stevens, who had seen suspicious strangers in the area not long before the Thompsons were killed.
Stevens told Lillienfeld that around noon a week before the murders, he and his wife had seen two men in an old, badly oxidized light-green 1970s Malibu station wagon parked in front of his house on the wrong side of the street. One of the men was wearing a dark watch cap and peering through binoculars. As there was an elementary school just down the street, Stevens approached the car to ask what was going on, but when the driver noticed him, he looked startled and sped away. Lillienfeld later showed Stevens a photo lineup of six men, and, despite some hesitation, Stevens eventually picked out Goodwin.
With this tentative identification, Lillienfeld arrested Goodwin, who at the time was living in a house trailer with his elderly father in Dana Point, and put him in a police lineup, where both Stevens and his wife agreed that Goodwin was the man they’d seen in front of their house 13 years previously.
By December 2001, Lillienfeld believed he had enough evidence to arrest Goodwin on two counts of murder in the first degree, a development Collene Campbell’s family and friends celebrated with Mumm champagne and a toast.
In preparation for the preliminary hearing, the prosecution handed over some 40,000 pages of discovery in 114 boxes to Goodwin’s attorneys. Thanks to Goodwin’s being confined at the time to a 3-by-7-foot cell 23 and a half hours a day, he had plenty of time to pore over the documents uninterrupted. And what Goodwin discovered was that the evidence allegedly tying his gun to the murders was seriously mistaken.
Investigators had long ago established that the gun used to kill the Thompsons had six lands and grooves (the rifling machined into the barrels to make the bullets spin). But, as the FBI ballistics handbook clearly showed, 9 mm Smith & Wesson Model 469s like Goodwin’s had five lands and grooves. In short, pointed out Goodwin, by the Sheriff Department’s own analysis there was no way his gun could be the murder weapon.
When confronted with the evidence, the prosecution wrote a letter to the court noting, “Forensic evidence appears to exclude an inference that either of the murder weapons was the 9 mm Smith and Wesson purchased by the defendant in the charged case.”
At the time, Lillienfeld said he’d erred about the gun misidentification, and he was taking full responsibility, but it was also, he insisted, an “honest mistake.”
John Bradley, who began calling Lillienfeld “Mr. Ballistics” after that, ridiculed the notion that such an experienced detective could have made such an obvious mistake. And that false testimony regarding Goodwin’s gun, along with a highly dubious 13-year-old eyewitness identification that no one had ever even thought to mention to the cops before, irreparably harmed Goodwin’s life. Without the mistaken gun evidence, no judge, said Bradley, would have issued an arrest warrant to put Goodwin in a lineup in the first place. Without the lineup, Stevens would never have had the opportunity to (mis)identify Goodwin as the man he’d seen in front of his house 13 years previous. Without Stevens’ eyewitness identification, no judge would have ordered him held without bail for nearly five years, and he wouldn’t be awaiting trial for murder in Los Angeles County today.
The supposed identification of Goodwin in the badly oxidized Malibu station wagon, defense attorney Elena Saris later argued in a 2004 preliminary hearing, simply made no sense. The car was parked on the wrong side of the street, facing away from the Thompsons’ house, which wasn’t visible from that location anyway — it was three-quarters of a mile away, with a hill in between. “You couldn’t see them both simultaneously from a helicopter,” Saris later said. As for the two men in the car, given that they were looking though binoculars in the direction of a grammar school, they were far more likely pedophiles than someone casing Goodwin’s house.
Saris also tried at the preliminary hearing to dispose of the motive issue by asserting that Goodwin had no reason to want Thompson dead. Despite appearances, it was Goodwin who came out ahead of Thompson in their dispute, not the other way around. Goodwin, claimed Saris, wasn’t the slightest bit mad. He had done such a “decent job of hiding and protecting his assets” that all Thompson ever collected out of his $768,000 judgment was perhaps $1,800 worth of old engine parts and a few hundred from forgotten bank accounts.
To Alan Jackson, one of the deputy D.A.s prosecuting Goodwin, the notion that Goodwin wasn’t mad at Thompson was absurd on its face. “Mike Goodwin’s multimillion-dollar lifestyle had the knees knocked out from under it,” he replied. “His business was taken away. His livelihood was taken away. He had to declare personal bankruptcy. His very home, car, his personal bank accounts, they were all becoming subject to the whims, if you will . . . of Mickey Thompson. If Mike Goodwin was winning, he certainly didn’t say so. [Instead, he said:] ‘I’m going to kill that son of a bitch. I’m going to kill that motherfucker.’ ”
Not surprisingly, at the end of the preliminary hearing, Judge Teri Schwartz ordered Goodwin held for trial, saying, “Of all the evidence presented in this case, there is simply no one else the court can say committed this crime.”
“Of course, she doesn’t know anyone else,” defense attorney Elena Saris would later say. “The defense didn’t get the opportunity to present our side of the case.”
After 18 years, the case has taken an enormous toll on everyone concerned. Goodwin has been in jail without bail for five years, awaiting trial. He’s got high blood pressure, impaired vision in one eye, toe problems that make it difficult to walk and such severe back pain that he can’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time. Still, he keeps working. Writing with a 3½-inch stubby yellow pencil, he turns out complicated, cited, footnoted legal documents, memoranda and media briefing books with titles like “Government Fraud in the Thompson Murder Investigation,” “Elaborate Malevolent Conspiracy” and “There Is Evidence Thompson May Have Been Killed by Loan Sharks or Money Launderers.”
Because in jury trials it’s just not enough to declare one’s innocence, you have to suggest other credible suspects who might have committed the crime instead of you. Goodwin, therefore, along with John Bradley, has at times offered up six other possible suspects: (1) Saudis to whom Thompson’s tire company supposedly sold defective tires; (2) members of the Vagos motorcycle gang, against which Thompson once testified in Scott Campbell’s murder trial; (3) drug lords for whom Thompson supposedly transported product during all those off-road races in Mexico; (4) supposedly disgruntled business partners of Thompson; (5) Las Vegas mobsters and/or “freelance bankers” from whom Thompson had supposedly borrowed money that he couldn’t repay; and (6) Joey Hunter, a smalltime street hustler with alcohol and drug abuse problems who supposedly confessed to killing the Thompsons to his sister-in-law and failed two lie-detector tests.
Despite appearances, says Lillienfeld, Joey Hunter was never a serious suspect. “His alibi rang true.” His alleged confession was merely a joke. It was true he failed a lie-detector test. But that’s why, says Lillienfeld, lie detectors “are inadmissible in a court of law.”
As for the notion that Mickey Thompson hauled product for drug lords, Detective Lillienfeld didn't buy it. This was a man who didn’t smoke, rarely drank and didn’t even use coffee. In any case, says Lillienfeld, he checked Thompson when he took over the case. “He came out clean. There’s nothing there. Mickey grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. He didn’t know drugs from dog shit.”
As for the notion that Thompson owed money to Las Vegas mobsters, his former colleague, Mike DeStefano, said it never happened. “I was with Mickey all the time, seven days a week, day and night,” he says. “I went with him to Las Vegas. I never saw anybody who was shady. I’m Italian. I would know. In any case, Trudy never would have stood for it.”
Goodwin has always blamed Collene Campbell for his problems, and his attorney, Elena Saris, it seems, has fully adopted his point of view. Over lunch with Saris, I found her smart, engaging and candid but also surprisingly hostile to Campbell. “Show me a family that lives in a well-off gated community with two deaths in the family,” she said, “and I’ll show you someone involved in drugs.”
Saris further alleged, at the 2004 preliminary hearing, that Campbell paid witnesses for information, taped witnesses without their knowledge, hired private detectives, pressured Sheriff’s investigators who she thought weren’t taking her leads seriously enough, interviewed witnesses who subsequently changed their stories, and otherwise pushed investigators to find evidence against Goodwin while largely ignoring everyone else.
Well, what of it? responded lead prosecutor Pat Dixon at the 2004 preliminary hearing. It is the most natural thing in the world for someone in her position to want to act as an “investigator” in her brother’s murder. It wasn’t as if investigators were setting the world on fire. Goodwin wasn’t arrested for 13 years after the murders. Under the circumstances, he said, why wouldn’t she try to find out “who killed her brother”?
In any case, the prosecution suggested, there was nothing either illegal or unethical about her conducting her own investigation. Shortly after the murders, the Campbells had offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people who killed the Thompsons. Over the years they kept increasing it till it finally reached a million dollars. Whenever this reward was mentioned on TV, hundreds of tips would pour in, including one from a man who claimed to have accidentally recorded the two killers quietly admitting the Thompson murders while he was recording music at a bar. In another equally bizarre attempt to pump Campbell for money, convicted private-investigator-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano reportedly offered her information on the gunmen in exchange for $350,000 and the movie rights. (She turned him down.)
Recently, a jailhouse snitch, apparently trying to help his own case, told authorities that he heard Goodwin confess to having hired “Jack Ruby’s boys” to kill Mickey and Trudy. In the ensuing hubbub, most of Goodwin’s files were taken away from his cell, and, to keep him and the snitch separated, Goodwin was moved to solitary confinement, a development that caused him to break into tears. (He has since been moved elsewhere.) Although one old girlfriend of Goodwin’s claims that at this point he’s a “broken man,” he still seems to have enough fire in his belly to file lawsuits. His old friend John Bradley says that if Goodwin ever gets out of jail, the first thing he’s going to do is sue Collene Campbell for trying to put him in jail all these years, Orange County for jailing him even though it never had any evidence that any crimes were ever committed in that county, and L.A. County for having the chutzpah to employ what he regards as an evidence-fabricating detective like Mark Lillienfeld.
If anything, Campbell’s nerves are even more shot than Goodwin’s. She’s attended all 70 court appearances Goodwin has made over the five years of waiting for his trial to start, rising to leave her house in San Juan Capistrano by 5:30 a.m. to get to court in Pasadena by 8:30. “Friends sometimes ask,” she says, “how can there be a God who would do this to you? We think that God gave us a task to do. When we get to heaven, Mickey and Trudy will be waiting. I want to be proud of how I spent my life. I want to be able to say we did everything we could.”
Trials based primarily on circumstantial evidence are notoriously hard to figure. Lillienfeld says he naturally hopes for a conviction, but he can live with an acquittal. The one thing he won’t be able to stand, though, is, after nine years on this case, seeing it end with a hung jury. Saris, on the other hand, tells me she’s quite confident that Goodwin’s acquittal is everything but a foregone conclusion.
And if he were convicted anyway?
“I would be mortified.”
When I repeat this conversation later to one court observer, who prefers to remain anonymous, he tells me he feels Saris is completely sincere in believing that Goodwin is a deeply wronged and innocent man, but you have to consider, he says, just how completely she’s succumbed, like so many others before her, to Goodwin’s alpha aura and history of telling lies; he’s manipulating her in the same way he’s manipulated everyone else in his life.
“Have you ever seen them in court together?” he asks. “Goodwin whispers in her ear, and she jumps up and asks whatever he wants her to without even laying a proper foundation.”
So what, I ask, are you saying?
“Saris is a smart woman,” he says. “But she’s not as smart as Mike Goodwin.”
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.