Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

SILENT TREATMENT

A Bay Pines VA patient is found dead, a sock in his throat. Suicide is ruled. A nurse thinks murder. His bosses don't want to hear it.

An hour or so before midnight on Aug. 27, 1984, Bud Thompson put on his light blue pajamas, tossed his clothes in a paper bag that he shoved in a closet and climbed into bed. He locked away his belt with his dirty clothes.

Thompson removed his socks and put his black dress shoes - size 10E - on the floor by his hospital bed in the mental health unit at the VA hospital at Bay Pines.

A few hours later, a nurse approached Thompson's bed. She did not hear Thompson's chronic wheezing. She checked his pulse. The 60-year-old was dead.

As she looked closely, the nurse saw something deep inside Thompson's open mouth. She pulled the object out and placed it in a plastic foam cup by the bed.

It was a dark brown nylon sock.

IT TOOK ABOUT 10 days for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to settle on the cause of Thompson's death.

Suicide.

Detectives said Thompson, sick and depressed, stuffed the sock into his mouth and kept it there as he gagged and gasped for air. It is a finding that has never sat right with Thompson's family hundreds of miles away.

"Who ever heard of somebody killing themselves by stuffing a sock down their own throat?" said Thompson's younger brother, Douglas Thompson, now 81 and living in Las Vegas. "I couldn't picture it. If you tried it yourself, you couldn't do it."

Bud Thompson died three decades before the greatest scandal in the history of the VA, before the congressional hearings and revelations about how some VA officials lied to protect the agency and their reputations.

His family believed it had little recourse than to accept the official finding.

But someone else shared the family's suspicions, someone who had a very specific piece of information: a threat made against Thompson.

A threat involving a sock.

Investigators never heard this information, the man said, because he was pressured by his employer to remain silent. He said he feared losing his job if he spoke out.

He was a Bay Pines nurse.

NOT LONG AFTER the D-day invasion in June 1944, Lawrence K. "Bud" Thompson was found unconscious near his burned truck with severe wounds to his head, legs, ribs and back. Two GIs lay dead close by.

Thompson's family - he had seven brothers and a sister - later learned his truck had been bombed by a German plane. Thompson, a member of the Quartermaster Corps, had been rushing supplies to the front.

Thompson earned a Purple Heart. But the price was steep. He spent months in the hospital. He returned to his family's home in New Jersey a changed man from the 18-year-old who had volunteered for the Army after quitting high school in 1942.

Thompson tried house painting and worked as a mechanic. He opened a small garage. But his bad back made it hard to hold a steady job.

He fought depression and drank heavily, spending much of his VA pension on alcohol at his local American Legion post. He was married, then his wife died.

"He died in Europe, to a certain extent," said Douglas Thompson in an interview last month. "He never really recuperated from the war."

He recalled one incident after the war when Bud came home as the family sat down for dinner. Before walking upstairs, Bud told his brother, "Douglas, no matter what you do, don't go near my car."

Douglas immediately went to the car and saw a gun inside. The family took it away.

"He would never go through with it," Douglas Thompson said of suicide. "He was afraid to do it."

By the early 1980s, Bud Thompson lived with his younger brother, Joe, in Blairstown, N.J. One night, Joe awoke to find Bud standing over his bed with a knife. In retrospect, some of the family believed, Bud might have suffered from post-traumatic stress, what WWII veterans called shell shock.

The incident scared Joe Thompson, and Bud was checked into the closest VA hospital.

Not long after, Bud made his way to Tampa Bay. It is unclear why he came, though Douglas thinks he had friends in the state and had visited previously. Bud found an apartment in Clearwater, where he lived with a woman.

But he couldn't escape his demons. In August 1984 he was admitted to the mental health ward of Bay Pines. He was behaving oddly, drinking heavily, talking of suicide.

He'd been in Florida six months.

TOM WILSON MADE an unlikely nurse.

He grew up in a small, working-class town in Pennsylvania coal country, the son of a state trooper. He enjoyed fast motorcycles and drinking - and sometimes fighting - at the bars.

Because Wilson was partially blind in one eye, his ambition to follow his father into law enforcement was out of reach. He had a relative who worked in a state psychiatric hospital, so Wilson went to a local college to become a registered nurse. He had been a poor student in high school, but studying to become a nurse awakened something in him. He liked helping people.

In the early 1980s, eager to escape the small-town bar scene, Wilson moved to Florida, where nursing jobs were plentiful. He found a job at Bay Pines working on the psychiatric ward. It was considered one of the toughest jobs at the facility.

The ward was divided into two wings on the third floor of Building 37. The most violent patients and serious suicide threats were locked in the north wing. Wilson was assigned to the south wing, which was unlocked during the day so patients could walk around the campus.

But the south wing had its own volatile atmosphere.

Younger patients, many of them combat veterans of Vietnam, often bullied the older, more frail veterans. Wilson recalls the younger vets controlling the television in the common room.

Patients could be moody and angry. Drug abusers and alcoholics mixed with patients who suffered from post-traumatic stress or serious mental illness. Not long after he was hired, Wilson spotted a patient clutching a pool cue behind a doorway, waiting to slug him as he stepped in.

Wilson retreated to get help.

WILSON PAID LITTLE attention to the quiet old man with the stooped back and the ferocious cigarette habit who arrived on the ward in late August 1984.

The other patients noticed that Bud Thompson talked little and appeared to be depressed and withdrawn. Several people said Thompson made statements about wanting to die. He refused to eat, they said, and sometimes resisted taking his medication.

The nurses told the other patients not to give Thompson cigarettes. The veteran prowled constantly for them - Marlboros especially - and kept four cigarettes hidden in his wallet.

"Hell, I'm going to die anyway," someone recalled him saying as he bummed a cigarette.

At 6 feet 1, Thompson weighed just 125 pounds. One patient recalled seeing him stick a finger down his throat after meals to induce vomiting.

Doctors later described him as paranoid, suffering from a persecution complex. He sometimes called the FBI to report happenings around him.

One night, Wilson worked a medication cart in the ward as the patients lined up for their meds.

He handed Thompson his pills in a tiny plastic container and watched to see if he swallowed them. As Thompson turned to walk away, a young veteran who was next in line turned to a friend. Wilson said he clearly heard the young veteran say, "If he snores again tonight, I am going to stuff a sock down his f------ throat."

"What did you say?" Wilson asked the veteran.

He said the two men denied anything at all was said.

Wilson said he warned them to leave Thompson alone. The two men were much younger than the frail Thompson and in much better shape. Wilson said he believes they may have been Vietnam veterans, one nicknamed Spider.

But as threats went, Wilson didn't consider this one particularly alarming. At midnight, his shift ended, and he drove home.

SLEEPING IN THE same room with Thompson could be a challenge. A lifetime of cigarettes had given him emphysema. He also snored loudly, which the partial walls between the beds did nothing to block.

On the night of Aug. 27, another patient thought he saw Thompson in his bed at 10:30 p.m. A nurse's assistant making an hourly check saw Thompson was alive at 12:30 a.m.

But at 1:10 a.m., the same nurse's aide noticed Thompson wasn't breathing. He called over the only nurse on duty in the wing that night. The nurse saw Thompson was beyond saving.

The nurse called VA police shortly after 1:10. But a death investigation at a VA facility is handled by local law enforcement. So VA police called the Sheriff's Office.

Records show that a call to deputies was not made until 2:13 a.m. The delay is not explained in Sheriff's Office records.

Protocol in the case of a death is to leave the scene untouched before investigators arrive. But for reasons that also are not explained in records of the investigation, the nurse decided to remove the sock from Thompson's mouth.

The sock had been stuffed so far back, it had appeared to be in Thompson's throat, almost as if it had been partially swallowed.

AT FIRST, THOMPSON'S death was treated as a murder. One of the first sheriff's deputies to arrive described the ward as a "crime scene." The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office sent two prosecutors and an investigator in case a search warrant or legal advice was needed. A sheriff's detective got a call from dispatch telling him to go to Bay Pines because deputies were "presently working a death investigation that was somewhat unusual."

But the tenor of the investigation quickly shifted as investigators heard reports that Thompson often had talked of suicide.

Detectives interviewed other patients, the nurse's aide who found the body and the nurse, and Thompson's doctor.

Patients were asked if anyone had threatened Thompson or if anyone had been bothering him. They all told detectives they had seen nothing out of the ordinary.

A sheriff's report shows deputies did not find the key to Thompson's locker, where he had put his clothes the night before. The key's absence is unexplained.

By 6 a.m., less than four hours after they had arrived, investigators left the hospital and Thompson's body was taken to the morgue.

WILSON SAT DOWN to read his morning newspaper the first week of September in 1984. He was stunned by a story with the headline "Suicide suspected in death of Bay Pines patient."

Wilson, who had been off work, said this St. Petersburg Times story was his first inkling that Thompson had been found dead with a sock in his mouth.

He read in disbelief that a sheriff's investigator was quoted saying he was "pretty convinced" the death was a suicide. The investigator said there was no sign of a struggle and Thompson had attempted suicide previously by stabbing himself.

A Bay Pines spokesman told the newspaper that "six or seven staff members were on duty the night of the death and they were practically on the move all the time" checking patients.

Wilson said he knew that was untrue. At most, three staffers would be present overnight on the wing.

The reporter who wrote the story apparently asked the VA why Thompson did not hang himself with a belt that was found in his locker. The VA spokesman said Thompson was probably too frail or too visible to make such an attempt.

Wilson was dumbfounded. The death could not be a suicide, he thought. Not with the threat he had overheard.

He said he immediately called his nurse supervisor to report the threat.

"I told them it wasn't just a vague threat. It was very specific. 'I'm going to stuff a sock down his throat.' It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

Wilson said he needed to talk to investigators. The supervisor, Wilson said, promised to report it up the chain of command.

When he got back to work in the next couple of days, Wilson spoke to his nurse manager. He said his supervisor promised to tell authorities about the threat. Wilson said he expected sheriff's officials to call him.

Meanwhile, Wilson heard something else that disturbed him. The patient who had made the threat and his buddy had checked out of Bay Pines "against medical advice" the morning Thompson's body was removed.

Wilson said that was unusual in a ward where patients stayed weeks, even months.

Days passed, he said, and nothing happened. He kept reminding his supervisor. Wilson said he was told to be patient.

As the weeks passed, it dawned on Wilson that the VA had no intention of reporting the threat. Wilson believed the VA didn't want the bad press of a murder inside its walls.

"I couldn't believe it was being blown off," Wilson said.

Wilson said he kept pushing. Finally, he said, his nurse manager told him to keep his mouth shut and it would go badly for him if he called investigators.

Wilson said he knew what that threat meant. "I would have been terminated," he said.

Wilson said he didn't think he had a choice. If he lost the job, he believed he would never work as a nurse again.

Four VA employees who worked with Wilson confirmed that he spoke about the threat shortly after Thompson's death. They said Wilson was bothered by having to keep quiet.

"I guess he had a conscience," said nurse Steve Kisco, who is now retired from the VA.

WILSON WAS NOT alone in his doubts. Thompson's family never believed the death was suicide, either.

Brothers Douglas and Joe thought it impossible that Bud would kill himself by using a sock. For one, the gag reflex would prevent it, they thought.

"We never accepted it was a suicide," said Douglas Thompson. "Somebody killed him."

Joe hired a private investigator not long after Bud's New Jersey funeral. Douglas said the investigator made several attempts to get information from the VA. But, he said, the VA refused to allow the investigator to interview any of its employees.

"Both Joe and me thought there was a VA coverup," Douglas said. "But there was nothing we could do about it."

AS TIME PASSED, Wilson wondered if he had done enough.

Why didn't he call the Sheriff's Office? A nurse puts the patient above all. Had he let Bud Thompson down? Had he failed in his clinical duty?

Wilson said he visited a therapist who reassured him that by reporting the event to his superiors, he had done his duty.

"Everybody told me to let it go," Wilson said. "But it was hard to do that."

By the mid 2000s, Wilson said, he began to worry about a growing tolerance for patient misbehavior that reminded him of the climate in the hospital when he arrived.

Administrators, Wilson said, discouraged the removal of veterans from the mental health unit, known as the domiciliary, even when they behaved violently. He and another nurse, Jean Martinelli, said in interviews that employees found a cache of weapons in the trunk of a veteran's car after he overdosed. When the veteran was readmitted to the ward, workers were enraged.

Around 2009, Martinelli said, she wrote a memo complaining that some veterans in the psychiatric unit were often drunk. Other veterans, she wrote, felt this imperiled their own sobriety.

Dr. Dominique Thuriere, then a supervisor in mental health, threw the memo on Martinelli's desk, the nurse said, and told her she was overreacting.

Wilson said he overheard the confrontation and stepped over to defend Martinelli. Wilson said he reminded Thuriere that such a permissive atmosphere contributed to the death of Thompson in the sock case.

"Tom said it was just another one of those coverups just like when the man was killed with the sock," Martinelli said.

Thuriere, now the hospital's chief of staff, told the Tampa Bay Times she did not recall this incident and had never heard of the sock case.

By the late 2000s, Wilson said, he could sense that his supervisors thought he was pushing the sock case too much. They thought he was bringing it up too often, too openly.

He was criticized, he said, for his attitude. His evaluations, always outstanding, he said, began to suffer.

Wilson also had developed heart problems. His wife became ill with cancer. The pressures of the job and life became overwhelming. So in 2011, Wilson took a medical retirement.

This year, as a national scandal on VA care exploded, Wilson picked up a phone and called his local newspaper.

FEW, IF ANY, of the leading officials who worked at Bay Pines in 1984 remain there. Many have died or retired.

"I cannot speculate about a former employee's claim regarding this case from 1984," said Jason Dangel, spokesman for the hospital, now called C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office interviewed Wilson on Tuesday. Sheriff's officials did not respond to requests for comment from the Times.

Bill Pellan, director of investigations for the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's office, reviewed Thompson's autopsy at the request of the Times.

Pellan said nothing in the autopsy stands out as suspicious. But the office often relies on evidence beyond the autopsy in declaring a manner of death, he said.

If a witness heard a threat, that could influence an autopsy finding, Pellan said.

He noted that the medical examiner's office can always change an autopsy's findings, even after 30 years, if new evidence comes to light. But Pellan said his office would take its lead from the investigating agency, in this case the Sheriff's Office.

Pellan noted that the investigation showed Thompson was suicidal. "I can see how they went with suicide," Pellan said. "If someone else did this, why didn't he just pull out the sock?"

As to someone killing himself by stuffing a sock or other object in his mouth, Pellan acknowledged that is highly unusual. He said he could recall no similar case.

"Is it possible?" Pellan said. "Probably. Is it common? No."

Pinellas prosecutor Jim Hellickson, who was called to the scene of Thompson's death in 1984, said he recalled little of the case and declined to comment, though he acknowledged he would have liked to have known 30 years ago if a witness had heard a threat.

Unless the Pinellas Sheriff's Office decides to investigate again, Thompson's death investigation will remain closed.

Douglas Thompson, one of Bud Thompson's two surviving brothers, said he was stunned to hear Wilson's story. He regrets that his brother Joe, who died in 2012, did not live to hear it, too.

"I think it would have brought him some closure," Douglas said. "This bothered him for so long a time."

Tom Wilson said he is most angry that Bud Thompson's family has lived so long without answers.

"I just want to let them know that I tried," Wilson said. "I tried. It just wasn't good enough."

Times researchers John Martin, Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

* * *

TOM WILSON TALKS ABOUT BUD THOMPSON'S SUSPICIOUS DEATH AT TAMPABAY.COM/VIDEO

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement