Practice to Deceive
Kelly felt no such constraint. Beginning in the first week of September 2011, the reporter wrote headline stories about the Russ Douglas murder. Greg Banks had been closemouthed about the widow—Brenna Douglas—as the investigation continued. Now, Kelly’s first story announced that Brenna had been the third suspect in Russ’s murder ever since 2005, but the prosecutor and sheriff had chosen not to inform the public. He also wrote some searing articles about his perceived belief that county officials were involved in political wars that muddied the waters and resulted in too many mistakes in the Douglas case.
Of course there was information published that Greg Banks, Mark Plumberg, and Mike Beech had attempted to keep private until Peggy Sue Thomas and Jim Huden went on trial. Her attorney would have access to that through the rights of discovery—but everyone living on the island didn’t need to know that now.
The prosecution team was not pleased with Brian Kelly’s premature reporting.
In the twenties and thirties—long before television and the Internet offered virtually instant news—newspaper reporters were sometimes infamous for their outrageous tactics. But the era of Ben Hecht was long gone. Hecht, born at the end of the nineteenth century, was a popular journalist/reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He went on to write successful Broadway plays and scripts for Hollywood movies. In his book, A Child of the Century, Hecht wrote of the aggressive maneuvers reporters of the day employed to get exclusives before their rivals did. This included buying witnesses too many drinks, approaching the bereaved widows and families for interviews—often even before the police did—and even crawling through the windows of funeral parlors to get pictures of the recently deceased.
Some of Brian Kelly’s reporting smacked of the Hecht school of journalism. But, then again, he was an investigative reporter and it probably went against his every instinct to wait until the cases actually went to trial.
Prosecutor Greg Banks and lead detective Mark Plumberg were working hard to prepare for Peggy Sue’s trial now only weeks away, and Kelly’s continuing “breaking news” and revelations about things they had struggled to keep in-house wore on their nerves.
It was surely going to be much more difficult to find prospective jurors who hadn’t already read too many details in the media—including the specifics of the hefty insurance payoffs Brenna Douglas had collected after Russ died.
* * *
IN TRUTH, BRENNA DIDN’T receive nearly as much from the insurance companies as gossip said. She had quite a long struggle with their underwriters, particularly when she refused to have a chunk of the money put in a trust fund for her two children, Jack and Hannah.
Once she had her insurance payoff, she had spent most of it quickly, but not wisely. She put money down on a house—not Peggy Sue’s house—but the one she chose was foreclosed upon in less than a year. She bought an expensive SUV, and any number of items that chipped away at her bank balance.
* * *
BY OCTOBER 2011, TO almost everyone’s surprise, Peggy Sue Thomas had crossed off all the items on her to-do list: she had attended her half sister Brenda’s memorial service in Idaho, winterized all her properties, bought new clothes suitable for a fall trial, and collected documents for her attorney.
And then she came home to Whidbey Island!
Peggy still wore her tracking anklet, and a few of her relatives commented that they could hear it when it went off. She would have to wear it throughout her trial. She was semifree on bail, but she remained in a kind of purgatory.
On Halloween—October 31, 2011—Peggy was arraigned and formally charged with first-degree murder. To no one’s surprise, she pled not guilty.
Who would go to trial first? Peggy Sue Thomas and Jim Huden began a kind of musical chairs with their trial dates.
The holiday season was almost upon them. Ten Thanksgivings and Christmases had come and gone since Russel Douglas died. Newcomers to Whidbey Island didn’t even know who he was. The case had lain fallow ever since Jim Huden went into hiding. Predictably, neither of their attorneys wanted Peggy Sue Thomas and Jim Huden to be tried jointly.
Initially, Jim was supposed to go first, followed by Peggy Sue. He was expected to take the defendant’s seat in court on November 27, 2011.
I made reservations at a motel in Langley and packed my bags. And then I unpacked them.
Huden’s trial was switched with that of Joshua Lambert, the homeless high school dropout who was accused of killing both of his grandfathers on the same day.
On January 6, 2012, Judge Vickie Churchill granted attorney Peter Simpson’s request to release him as Jim Huden’s defense attorney. Matthew Montoya was chosen to replace him. Montoya immediately asked for a trial delay because he needed time to go through stacks of sheriff’s follow-up reports and legal documents.
Judge Churchill granted his request, and Jim Huden’s trial was now set for March 13, 2012.
Peggy Sue would face a jury after that. Her trial would begin on May 1.
But once again, the scheduling changed. None of this was a surprise; for a relatively small county with few prosecutors, three separate murder trials were going to demand a lot of juggling of dates and staff.
I kept making hotel reservations and canceling them. I finally just kept my bag packed. At some point, there would be a trial, although no one could say absolutely which of the two defendants would go first.
And then, once more, Jim’s and Peggy Sue’s trial dates were reversed. Prosecutor Greg Banks said it really didn’t make much difference which of them went first—that they would basically be trying the same case twice.
In the end, it was Jim who went on trial in Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill’s courtroom in Coupeville on Tuesday, July 10, 2012.
Courtroom 2 in the law and justice center had three long benches and shorter benches on opposite sides of the aisle. There were no windows beyond two small panes of glass in the door, making the courtroom isolated from the world outside.
Prosecuting attorney Greg Banks would speak for the state, with his assistant Michelle Graff and Detective Mark Plumberg beside him at the state’s table. Michelle could put her finger on whatever documents Banks might need, and Banks expected to call and recall Plumberg to the witness stand for the prosecution.
Matthew Montoya and his paralegal, Glenda Ward, sat beside Jim Huden at the defense table. The bailiff was Ron Roberts, and the court reporter was Karen Shipley.
Huden was clean shaven, his ponytail pulled back and cinched neatly. And compared to photos taken of him just after he was extradited from Mexico, he looked healthier and well rested. He wore a dark gray suit with a navy blue tie and shirt. The expression on his face was almost impossible to read.
The jury pool began with seventy-five potential jurors, and they filled the benches and sixteen folding chairs brought in to accommodate them. These possible jurors had to be winnowed down to twelve people, with two alternates—in case any of the sitting jurors became ill or had to withdraw for other reasons.
Judge Churchill addressed the jury panel, explaining the jury instructions, and they were given questionnaires to fill out. Nine prospective jurors were dismissed for cause; most of them had already made up their minds that Jim Huden was guilty.
There were soon others who appeared to know more than a little about the well-publicized case. Three said they had been influenced by “media bias,” one was dismissed for an illness in his family, and one had gone to high school with the defendant.
Clearly, the jury selection would be a long and tedious process. One by one, possibles were eliminated. Judge Churchill read over the questionnaires and saw that many had issues of anxiety and depression, spinal pain, and family responsibility.
As was to be expected, several juror candidates stepped down because they knew Banks and Churchill, or other members of the legal cast.
Hearing a list of witnesses expected to testify, the smaller panel didn’t seem to recognize them. Nor di
Greg Banks asked when they felt murder might be justified. Several answered in self-defense or time of war. Vigilantism? All said never.
“What about the killing of a rapist or serial child rapist?”
Overwhelmingly the panel believed that the justice system should handle it.
But could they all deal with graphic and grisly photos? More dropped out. Five responded that they watched violent television shows, and could view the photos without becoming upset.
Matthew Montoya asked more questions. “If you were required at this point to say what you believe?”
All answered “innocent.”
The day was inching by and it was after three. The courtroom had become progressively more muggy and warm and it was difficult for many to keep their eyes open. This is the curse of summer trials.
Greg Banks asked several members of the panel if they knew the difference between “reasonable doubt” and “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” This was a hard one, and none of those questioned could give a clear-cut answer.
Montoya asked how the panel would evaluate the credibility of a person or a scenario.
“By a person’s actions, eye contact, body language, intuition, and demeanor,” one prospective juror answered. Court adjourned at 4:10 that first day of trial. They had eliminated only twenty-seven members of the panel.
On Wednesday, cameramen from Dateline were busy setting up their gear and rearranging benches to be sure they got good shots of the participants.
Greg Banks told the forty-eight remaining members of the jury panel that there was an “extra chair” in the courtroom. He referred to “someone else who might be involved, but would not be called to testify.”
The only logical person would have to be Peggy Sue Thomas, now charged with first-degree murder, and long considered a prime suspect in Russel Douglas’s murder. She still wore the tracking anklet on her leg. Brenna Douglas was also a likely contender, but she was on the witness list.
And there was an empty witness chair, which would never be filled, one that the state had hoped would be occupied by Brenda Gard. Brenda had cooperated fully with the prosecution team, and they had expected her to make a compelling witness—probably the strongest witness—against Jim Huden, first—and then against her own half sister Peggy Sue. She had been prepared to testify that Jim and Peggy had offered to kill her estranged husband for her.
But Brenda had been dead for almost ten months. Mark Plumberg had called the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office within minutes of learning Brenda had died to tell detectives there that her “suicide” might be not be as it seemed. There were likely suspects who might well have wanted Brenda out of the picture.
In the end, the preparations she had left, her note, her financial records, other important documents, and her state of mind had convinced both counties’ detectives and medical examiners that Brenda had died by her own hand.
The possibility that someone might have murdered her just didn’t hold up, considering physical and circumstantial evidence.
One prospective juror said that any missing witness would not be an issue for him, and others agreed. It would have been foolhardy for Peggy Sue to show up in the courtroom with the tracking device on her ankle. Moreover, all eyes would have been on her, and most spectators would consciously or unconsciously link her to Jim Huden and a plot to kill Russ Douglas. Anything she said would, indeed, tend to incriminate her.
A man’s future depended on an impartial jury, and both Banks and Montoya were asking questions that many laymen wouldn’t have thought of, striving to dismiss those who might not qualify.
Greg Banks asked: “If you received a confession of a serious crime by a good friend or relative, would you report it to the authorities?”
“It would depend on the facts,” one said.
Several knew Wahl Road very well.
Three had higher degrees and were confident they could evaluate physical evidence.
Four said they had had good experiences with police.
Matthew Montoya asked several panel members: “Who do you trust?”
“My wife and my dad.”
“I don’t trust anyone—been burned too many times.”
The mostly middle-aged panel, which had begun with more men than women, was growing smaller and smaller.
By late morning on the second day, the accepted jurors and alternates were seated.
Judge Churchill gave her instructions to the jury and adjourned the session for lunch. At 1:30, Greg Banks would give his opening remarks, and the trial itself would begin.
* * *
AS JIM HUDEN’S TRIAL began in earnest on Wednesday, July 11, 2012, there was room for many court watchers to sit. Russel Douglas’s family and friends sat in the front row of the gallery, and many of Huden’s longtime friends were there to support him. Doris Matz, Peggy Sue’s mother, was there—but not Peggy Sue herself. Doris sat far back in the corner of the gallery, well out of camera range.
Shirley Hickman, whom I’ve known for almost fifty years and who lives on Whidbey Island, was there to help me and would be there every day to take notes and observe the body language of the defendant, the attorneys, witnesses—and the jury.
The South Whidbey Record would be there each day, too, but they were no longer represented by Brian Kelly. Reporters Jessie Stensland and Ben Watanabe would spell each other, covering what was probably the most newsworthy trial Island County had seen in a decade or more.
Every time the door opened, heads craned, mostly to see if Peggy Sue might walk in.
Anyone who was listed as a possible witness waited in the hall outside the courtroom so they could not hear others’ testimony. Once they finished and were excused, they could come in and observe—if they wanted to.
Prosecuting attorney Greg Banks began his opening remarks by saying that Russel Douglas’s death was not just murder; it was “an assassination.” He told the jury that the evidence would show that Jim Huden and his “accomplice” had deliberately lured Douglas to the cottage driveway off Wahl Road.
“The defendant didn’t know the deceased,” he said. “Yet Jim Huden opened the victim’s car door, looked him in the face, and shot him.”
Banks promised that he would provide jurors with a “framework” to help them in their deliberations.
He gave them an overview of the whole case, and told them who the players were and what was happening in their lives over Christmas 2003.
As the prosecutor referred to lead detective Mark Plumberg—who sat beside him every day at the prosecution table, and was available to testify or assist Banks throughout the trial—he said that as hard as the investigators worked, the case remained fallow from December 26, 2003, to July 2004, when Detective Sergeant Mike Beech began to receive phone calls from a man in Port Charlotte, Florida, who eventually revealed he was Bill Hill, a former member of Buck Naked and the X-hibitionists.
“Mr. Hill will testify, and he will tell you that the defendant confessed a killing in this county. He told Mr. Hill that when he pulled the trigger, it gave him a rush.”
Banks offered a possible motive for murder. Jim had detested his stepfather for the domestic violence with which he ruled his family when Huden was just a boy. Jim might well have carried a need for revenge most of his life. A witness for the state would explain that when he testified.
Banks explained how a dissemination of facts about the search for the murder gun had led the detectives to retired Oregon law officer Keith Ogden, who had been holding on to it for Huden.
(When I interviewed Greg Banks and Mark Plumberg later, they said that finding that gun and linking it to Jim Huden had turned a probable cold case into a winner. If Huden hadn’t wanted to someday sell that gun and get his money back—if he’d simply thrown it off a ferry that first day—he might have walked away fr
But, of course, the .380 Bersa had become a vital piece of physical evidence that eventually trapped Jim Huden. They had almost enough to arrest him in late August 2004, but by then Huden had disappeared in the midst of a hurricane.
Matt Montoya, whose brevity became familiar to the gallery, spent only two or three minutes in his opening remarks. He asked the jurors to view the “facts” critically, repeated that two or three times, and reminded them to be sure that the prosecuting attorney met the burden of proof.
* * *
BRENNA DOUGLAS WAS THE first witness for the state. Brenna had remained on Whidbey Island until about 2011 when she moved to Ellensburg on the promise of a job there. That hadn’t worked out, and she now lived in Ferndale, Washington—not far from Bellingham.
Brenna was a large woman, but attractive. Her body was stiff as she took the witness chair, and she seemed nervous.
Greg Banks asked her easy questions first. Her address and her profession.
“How do you know Russel Douglas?”
“When did he die?”
“Where did you meet him?”
“Coupeville High School.”
“When were you married?”
“Do you have children?”
“Two. Jack and Hannah.”
“What was your marital status in December 2003?”
Banks moved closer to the more interesting facts. Brenna explained that she had been doing hair since 1989, and she and Russ bought Just B’s and opened their salon in January 2003. It had four chairs and three were rented to other stylists.