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Reputed serial killer faces five new murder charges

September 23, 2009 |  9:13 am

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Prosecutors filed five additional murder charges this morning against a former state insurance claims adjuster accused of strangling more than half a dozen older women to death in the 1970s, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.

John Floyd Thomas allegedly raped and killed older women as the so-called Westside Rapist in the 1970s and later in the 1980s in the Claremont area, police and prosecutors say. Authorities are examining evidence they believe could link him to as many as 30 deaths.

Thomas was originally charged with murder on April 2 in connection with LAPD investigations into the deaths of Ethel Sokoloff, 68, in the Mid-Wilshire area in 1972, and Elizabeth McKeown, 67, in Westchester in 1976.

With the latest charges, Thomas faces a total of seven murder counts that include a 1986 slaying that could make him eligible for the death penalty. The new charges are an outgrowth of investigations by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Inglewood Police Department.

Thomas’ extensive criminal record included serving a six-year state prison sentence, beginning in 1957, for burglary and attempted burglary. Two parole violations sent him back behind bars until 1966. Within a few years of his release, authorities said, he began raping and killing white seniors.

The initial crime wave was concentrated on the Westside of Los Angeles and included killings -- now part of the amended criminal complaint against Thomas -- of three women in Inglewood and a fourth in the Lennox area, which is in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department jurisdiction.

Cora Perry, a 79-year-old Lennox resident, was killed Sept. 20, 1975. Her slaying was recounted in a story about the Westside Rapist by L.A. Times writer Bella Stumbo, who described “the stunned relatives, the terrified neighbors, the heartbroken friends of all the old women who have met such indecent deaths. People who now live in small colonies of terror."

Retired schoolteacher Maybelle Hudson was attacked in her garage as she arrived home in April 1976. The 80-year-old was beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. Two months later, 65-year-old Miriam McKinley was ambushed in her garage before being beaten and strangled. That October, Evalyn Bunner, 56, suffered a similar fate.

The attacks appeared to stop in 1978 when Thomas was convicted and sentenced to state prison for the rape of a Pasadena woman.

After his release in 1983, Thomas moved to Chino, coinciding with a wave of rapes and killings that began in the Pomona Valley area. Over the next six years, Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives would investigate five slayings of older women in Claremont, according to sources familiar with the investigation

One of those cases, Adrienne Askew, 56, the youngest of the Thomas' alleged victims, was found strangled to death in her apartment in the 600 block of Bonita Avenue in Claremont. Her case was one of the murder counts included in the filing today by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Detectives now believe the last in this cycle of killings occurred in 1989. They are not sure why the perpetrator stopped. That year, Thomas took a job in the state workers' compensation agency in Glendale.

Over the next two decades, the Westside Rapist faded from public memory, and authorities made little headway in the Claremont killings.

In November 2001, the LAPD created the Cold Case Homicide Unit to reopen about 9,000 unsolved slayings going back to 1960, using emerging state and federal DNA databases.

In September 2004, the department's crime lab matched male DNA taken from both the McKeown and Sokoloff crime scenes, police said. But they couldn't match the DNA to a suspect. Over the next five years, detectives developed 14 suspects, but their DNA ruled out each of them as the attacker.

The break came in October 2008, when two officers collected DNA from Thomas while searching for another suspect in a separate serial-slaying case. On March 27, the California Department of Justice DNA Laboratory notified detectives that his DNA matched the evidence from the Sokoloff slaying.

On March 31, they were told that his DNA matched the four other slayings. He was arrested later that day. Thomas is being held at L.A. County Jail, and his attorney has not commented on the case.

-- Andrew Blankstein

Photo: LAPD photos show suspected "Westside Rapist" John Floyd Thomas Jr. over a 45-year span. Credit: Los Angeles Police Department
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