Jurors next month will listen to tape-recorded statements by Henry Thomas in which the 89-year-old man tells a police investigator that three fellow retirement home residents were beaten to death by an intruder wearing a Santa Claus mask. Thomas, charged with three counts of first-degree murder, is scheduled to stand trial March 19. On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Wayne L. Cobb denied a motion by Thomas' attorney to keep prosecutors from using the two-hour tape, recorded by a Dade City investigator on New Year's Day 1989.
Myrtle Smith, 73, and Thomas' roommate, Max Nickbarg, 90, were found dead at the Reflections group home about 8 a.m. on New Year's Day. Thomas' other roommate, Frank Tear Sr., 89, died of injuries nearly a month later.
Thomas, the only one of the 10 residents missing when police arrived, was found walking near a downtown church by a Pasco sheriff's deputy. His cane and the pajama top he was wearing were stained with blood.
But in the recorded statement to police, Thomas said that he saw the shadow of a man in the corridor of the group home on the night of the murders.
Thomas said he could only make out the shadow of the intruder as he stood in the lighted hallway, but he could see that the intruder was wearing a Santa Claus face or hat and said: "We'll kill 'em all whilst we in here."
"I figured that means me too, so I got up and when I got up I heard a "whoop, slap,'
" Thomas said.
Thomas said he grabbed his shoes and a coat, and crawled out of his room, past the intruder, and through the front door of the home on his knees. "I went out hauling," Thomas said. "She (a worker at the home) told me that the door was locked but it wasn't.
"When I got to the door, the people inside was just hollerin,'
" Thomas said.
Dale Neuner, then a detective with the Dade City Police Department, asked Thomas why he didn't seek help after escaping from the home.
"Now that's a question," Thomas said. "It scared me so and I didn't want to go to the law without any proof," he said. "I really was scared and .
. they might think that I done it."
"I think I was a lucky Negro to get out of there," he said.
Neuner also asked Thomas to explain the blood on his pajama sleeves and cane. Thomas said that the blood must have splattered on him as he crawled out of the home.
Neuner showed Thomas pictures of the slain Nickbarg and Smith during the interrogation, then asked him: "What do you think about that?"
"That's awful," Henry said softly.
Thomas' attorney, Assistant Public Attorney William K. Eble, asked Cobb to quash the tape because Neuner misled Thomas when he read him his constitutional rights.
After reading Thomas his rights, Neuner asked him if he understood. Thomas replied, "Yes. I'm supposed to answer your questions if I know 'em."
Neuner said yes and proceeded to question Thomas. But Eble argued that Thomas believed he was obligated to answer Neuner's questions. Instead of proceeding with the questioning, Eble argued, Neuner should have explained: "You don't have to answer my questions at all, Mr. Thomas."
But Cobb ruled that Thomas clearly understood his rights and the tape was admissible evidence as a result.
On Tuesday, Cobb rejected a similar motion to bar prosecutors from calling police to testify about what Thomas told them before he was read his rights. Shortly after he was discovered, Thomas told Dade City police that he "took care" of a problem between his bickering roommates, Nickbarg and Tear.