On June 15, 1994, Bonnie Dryfuse, her two daughters (ages 7 and 4), and her niece (age 5) were brutally murdered at their mobile home in Pulaski Township, Pennsylvania. At 3:00 p.m. that day, police received a call from Bonnie Dryfuse’s husband, Tom “Jake” Dryfuse, reporting that he’d just arrived at home and found the bodies. Each had been stabbed numerous times, and their throats had been slashed.
Thomas Kimbell, a former cocaine addict, quickly became a suspect. Several eyewitnesses said they had seen him hitchhiking near the Dryfuse trailer on the day of the murders. That day, Kimbell stole a bicycle from a fruit stand near the trailer. After being arrested for the theft, he was questioned about the killings, but maintained his innocence. While Kimbell spent a month in jail for the bicycle theft, police took DNA samples from him and questioned witnesses about the murders, but without enough evidence to build a case, he was released.
Two and a half years later, on December 23, 1996, Thomas Kimbell was arrested and charged with the murders. By this time, police had found several witnesses who claimed that Kimbell had boasted to them about the murders. Kimbell’s trial did not begin until April, 1998, due to various procedural delays. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence connected Kimbell to the murder. A man who had lived with Kimbell for a few months testified that Kimbell once pointed to the Dryfuse trailer and said, “That’s where I killed all those people.” A jailhouse informant who was serving time for murder also claimed that Kimbell had admitted to him that he committed the crimes, saying the killings occurred during a drug deal gone wrong.
Kimbell’s mother and sister testified for the defense, providing an alibi for the time of the murders. The defense also called Mary Herko, Bonnie Dryfuse’s sister-in-law. Herko had been on the phone with Mrs. Dryfuse just before the murders, and according to Herko’s testimony at trial, the phone call ended when Mrs. Dryfuse said, “I got to go. Somebody just pulled up in the driveway.” However, at a deposition one year after the murders, Herko had quoted Dryfuse as saying, “Jake [Tom Dryfuse] is pulling into the driveway.” The defense attempted to question Herko on this crucial discrepancy, but the prosecutors objected on the grounds that the defense could not impeach its own witness, and the judge sustained the objection. The jury found Kimbell guilty, and he was sentenced to death on May 8, 1998. In October 2000, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that Herko’s testimony could have raised a reasonable doubt about Kimbell’s guilt, and had been wrongly excluded.
Kimbell’s second trial began in April, 2002. The defense focused on evidence linking Tom “Jake” Dryfuse to the murders. This time, the jury heard both versions of the statements given by Mary Herko after the murders. Dryfuse’s alibi was called into question when the defense called a car mechanic to the stand. Dryfuse’s father had testified that he and his son had dropped off an alternator for repair on the day of the murders, but the mechanic’s shop had no record that they had been there. The jailhouse informant who had testified against Kimbell in the first trial was called as a witness, but refused to answer questions about the subject of his prior testimony on the grounds that forcing him to testify would violate his privilege against self-incrimination by exposing him to possible charges of perjury. Kimbell’s former roommate had died since the first trial; thus he was unable to testify.
On May 3, 2002, a jury found Kimbell not guilty and he was released. Tom Dryfuse disappeared immediately afterwards.
– Alexandra Gross