On New Year’s Day, 1991, 27-year-old Rickey Dale Thomas was stopped by police in Chula Vista, California for a traffic violation. A records check showed he had violated parole by leaving his home state of Arkansas where he had been convicted of two burglaries.
Police also said there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. He was wanted for the strong-armed robbery of an 89-year-old woman in Sulphur Springs, Texas.
Thomas had moved to in Chula Vista in April 1989 and soon was hired as a cook at a Fuddruckers restaurant. He was still employed there on the day he was stopped.
On October 20, 1989, Pauline Kirkland told police that three men came up behind them as she and her 89-year-old mother, Ina LeMaster, were getting out of their car. One robber grabbed the older woman’s purse containing $27 and all three fled.
At the time of the robbery, the victims were unable to identify the robbers, but said all three were black men.
Not long after the robbery occurred, a highway patrol officer pulled over a Ford Bronco for speeding outside of Sulphur Springs. Inside were three black men—two of whom had identification showing their names as Darrell and Anthony Carter. The third man had no identification and said his name was Richard Thomas.
Two months later, the trooper was helping out with the purse snatching case because police suspected the men he had stopped might have been the robbers. In researching the criminal records of the Carter brothers, police learned that Anthony Carter had been convicted of a burglary in Arkansas with Rickey Dale Thomas.
The trooper looked at a photo lineup and identified Rickey Dale Thomas as the man in the Bronco who said his name was Richard Thomas. A warrant was issued for the arrests of Thomas and the Carter brothers.
After his arrest, Thomas returned to Arkansas to finish serving his time there and gathered payroll sheets from the Fuddruckers to show that he was at work, more than 1,000 miles from Sulphur Springs at the time of the robbery. He then agreed to extradition and pushed for a speedy trial.
By that time, Anthony Carter had already been convicted of taking part in the robbery in Sulphur Springs and had been sentenced to 80 years in prison. Darrell Carter had been extradited to Arkansas where he was facing a federal cocaine distribution indictment. In 1992, he was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In October 1992, Thomas went on trial on a charge of robbery in Hopkins County Criminal District Court. The trooper identified Thomas as the man in the Bronco. Witnesses said the robbers were black men.
On October 24, 1992, despite his payroll records, a jury convicted Thomas. Jurors later said the records were unconvincing because the computer printout showed Thomas working 6.2 hours on October 19, 1991—leaving enough time for him to be in Sulphur Springs on the evening of October 20.
Because of his criminal record, he was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole in 2015.
After Thomas was sentenced, friends and family members began a campaign to expose the case as a wrongful conviction, writing letters to the media and to Gov. Anne Richards and other Texas officials.
They pointed to numerous employees at Fuddruckers who were never called as witnesses, but could have verified that Thomas was at work on the day of the crime.
In February 1993, Thomas appeared via satellite television on the “Donahue” talk show and new evidence began to surface. A woman who owned a dry cleaning business in Chula Vista produced a record from October 20 showing that Thomas brought in a sweater to be cleaned that day. The woman said she recalled Thomas coming in because he mentioned that he had been up until 3 a.m. that morning after going to a Rolling Stones concert in Los Angeles on the night of October 19.
A Fuddruckers employee came forward to explain that the payroll record showing Thomas worked 6.2 hours was incorrectly recorded as being on October 19 when in fact the hours were worked on October 20. The employee produced a handwritten record that was also kept at the time verifying Thomas’s presence on October 20.
Not long after, Thomas asked the CBS News program “Street Stories” to feature his case. At the request of CBS, Thomas took and passed a polygraph examination.
Clinton “Scrappy” Holmes, a Texas defense lawyer, offered to represent Thomas without pay. A review of the trial evidence turned up a photograph of Darrell Carter that was taken by the FBI on the day of the robbery. The FBI had Carter under surveillance that day, but lost contact with him prior to the robbery.
Evidence showed that on October 19, 1989, the day before the robbery, Dallas police began following Carter’s Ford Bronco because they suspected he was involved in a series of robberies in Dallas, about 80 miles east of Sulphur Springs. The police were joined by the FBI, which also was investigating Carter for narcotics trafficking. However, they lost track of the Bronco before Carter and his two companions arrived in Sulphur Springs, although the FBI managed to take a surveillance photograph of Carter and the two other men.
When CBS aired its story on Thomas, the photograph was shown and CBS suggested that one of the men in the photograph with Carter was one of the robbers.
A viewer recognized the man with Carter as Ricky L. Knox and called police to report that Knox was Salt Lake City, Utah. Knox was arrested on April 18, 1993 and during questioning admitted that he was involved in the robbery with Darrell and Anthony Carter and that he had given the name of Richard Thomas to the officer who stopped the speeding car the night of the crime.
When the new evidence was brought to the Hopkins County District Attorney’s office, District Attorney Frank Long, who had prosecuted Thomas, dismissed the charges on April 29, 1993, and Thomas was released.
– Maurice Possley