So this is a war story and something new here. I think it was the summer or fall of 1993.
We received a call at our police department from a neighboring county about a double homicide that had occurred in a home just N. of Gooding, Idaho- about 60 miles away. The caller was the Gooding County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy, a guy by the name of Steve S. Steve said that the two murder victims had been last seen playing pool in a bar in Gooding with two unknown men. A witness in the bar said that the two men referred to themselves as "brothers" and said that they lived in Hailey. Steve wanted to know if we knew two brothers from Hailey capable of committing what was a pretty gruesome set of murders. A frenzy killing he called it.
Off the top of my head, I said "no."
After hanging up the phone I turned to my best friend and co-worker, Jeff, and asked him about it. After coming up with a couple of possible brother combinations, Jeff said to me-"ya know, Tommy and A.J. refer to themselves as brothers, even though they are only cousins."
Tommy Peterson and Robert "AJ" Johnson were a couple of small time criminals who lived in Hailey and were well known to our police department. Recently, one of them had shoved one of our police officers on a disturbance call, an incident which I was surprised to learn did not result in a trip to jail. Mostly they got in trouble for petty things although one of them was on felony probation. While we discussed the possibility that these two were the "brothers" in question, I remembered that one of them had family ties in the Gooding area. I can't remember now which one it was.
I began to search our records for a current address. The address we had was old. I checked with probation and parole and they had the same address. (I would later discover that the State of Idaho, Probation and Parole, had completely lost track of Tommy. In fact, he had not checked in for months and no warrant had been issued.)
While searching our records, I discovered that AJ had just filed a home invasion report with our police department. That report had actually been taken by the Chief of Police. In it, AJ claimed that two or three Mexican men had forced their way into his apartment and beat him up as he sought refuge in a bath tub. Not only did he not know any of the men- but he did not offer up any motive for why anybody would burst into his apartment and beat him up at 8 a.m.! They didn't take anything either. That didn't make sense. And in the policing world...
things always tend to make sense. In the end anyway.
Why did AJ report this crime? AJ reported several injuries he had sustained and oddly, he had reported this a day and a half after the murders in Gooding had taken place.
I contacted Steve in Gooding. He told me that the female murder victim had put up "one hell of a fight." Her boyfriend had been bound and his throat slashed. She had been struck over the head with a tire iron, raped, bound, stabbed, and she was eventually drowned in a bath tub. Steve said she was known locally for brawling and would have inflicted some damage of her own as she defended herself. They had found scrapings of hair and blood underneath her fingernails.
It became clear to us that AJ was building an alibi for his whereabouts and/or injuries by reporting a home invasion. More likely, he sustained his injuries while committing the murders. So we formed a plan based on the pretense that we were investigating the home invasion. Of course that would give us an opportunity to question Tommy more thoroughly and take a closer look at his injuries. He would be forced to comply since he was the "victim" of the home invasion and we were simply investigating that alleged complaint.
I remember thinking at the time, that Tommy and AJ were just a couple of small time hoods. I had a hard time believing that they could murder anyone.
We interviewed AJ at his apartment that night. He was visibly nervous. He couldn't describe his attackers, his answers were evasive and non helpful, and his story just didn't make sense. At the end of the interview, I asked him if I could see the injuries he had sustained during the "attack." I will never forget looking at the top of his scalp that night and seeing three fingernail sized grooves or trenches dug into the top of his head from back to front. Those were the kinds of horrific injuries that a desperate victim would inflict as she fought for her life. I wondered if AJ had actually looked at his own scalp. Had he clearly seen that damage- I don't think he would have offered to show it to us.
As we walked down the sidewalk and back to the squad car that evening, I remember looking at Jeff and saying, "These guys killed those two" although I'm sure my speech was a little more colorful than that.
The following day we contacted Gooding. They told us that Tommy and AJ had voluntarily walked into the police department that morning and had given them a statement and that they were no longer considering them suspects.
I was in shock. I contacted the Chief Deputy and told him what had transpired during our interview. I told him matter of factly, "these two are guilty."
That's about the time the weird stuff started happening.
The one thing you don't ever want to do, particularly with another agencies' case, is to trespass on it and destroy it. We had choreographed everything we had done by first obtaining permission from Gooding County and then discussing it with Steve, the Chief Deputy. So, win or lose, we had used the best collective common sense available to all of us at the time.
One of our first tasks was finding the car they had driven that night. It was an old Cadillac and we could not find it. We asked a tenant of AJ's apartment complex who we trusted to keep an eye out for their car. A day or two later he called when he found the car in the parking lot. Tommy was driving it. By that time we had a probation violation warrant for Tommy (for a variety of things) so we simply waited for him to get in the car and drive it. That way we were able to arrest him and impound the car which we locked in a large storage unit for safekeeping until we could get a search warrant and contact state lab personnel to search the car for trace evidence.
I don't remember whether they used luminol or amido black (tests for blood) on the interior of that car. What I do remember is the lab people telling us that there was human blood all over that car, virtually everywhere. Seats, armrests, door panels, handles.
Eventually we locked up AJ before he fled.
Our local sheriff's office decided that they would interview these two and get involved in the investigation while we were holding them in our jail. Given that opportunity, AJ spun some grandiose yarn about how Mexican drug dealers were going to his girlfriend's apartment that night to kill her. Having opened Pandora's Box, the sheriff decided then that it would be prudent for several of us to keep her place under surveillance all night long to keep her from getting killed. I was so angry. We spent the entire night, geared up and crawling through weeds, based on a complete fabrication by a murder suspect because our local sheriff just had to get involved.
At that point, with those two locked up, we just sort of withdrew from things. Slowly the facts began to emerge but you never really get all of the facts. A great interviewer told me once- that the bad guys always keep a few things to themselves.That is very true.
So this, from recollection, is sort of the crime summary and epilogue. Tommy and AJ had been in Gooding playing pool at a bar with the two victims. The victims left the bar first and went home. Sometime after that, Tommy and AJ were driven to that residence by their niece. They knocked on the door or just snuck in. It is believed that they struck the female victim over the head with a tire iron. At some point, they tied up her boyfriend and cut his throat. He died in his bed. The female victim put up a quite a struggle and after being tied up, raped, beaten, and stabbed- she was drowned in her own bathtub. That was where she was found. Tommy and AJ then left the residence using old county roads where they dumped their bloody clothing while enroute back to Hailey.
It is an odd thing but I have always thought that AJ's false report of his home invasion, up to an including his taking refuge in his own bathtub, mirrored the events as they unfolded that night at the victims' home.
I never really understood what their motive was. Was it rape? Robbery or a drug rip off? What were they so angry about? The other part of that story that has always mystified me was the order in which they did the things that night at the victims' home and why they included their underage niece as a getaway driver. How, when, and why did they recruit her after leaving the bar that night?
I suppose some of these things are probably buried in the Gooding County Sheriff's Office report. I know the niece cooperated with police. For their part, Tommy and AJ traded the death penalty for life in prison. Murder trials are notoriously expensive and rural Gooding County was probably relieved not to have to waste a million bucks they did not have.
While writing this, I stumbled onto an appeal these two had concocted a couple of years ago. They weren't the sharpest guys on the block back in 1993 and I can see that 21 years in prison hasn't done much to improve that.