A depressing farewell note that led coroner’s officials to conclude that the death of an El Toro Marine’s wife was a suicide rather than a homicide was not written by the victim, a friend of Marine Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas testified at his murder court-martial Wednesday.
The testimony of Sgt. Ronnie Fairley contradicts the defense’s position that Thomas’ 24-year-old wife, Melinda, wrote the note after becoming extremely upset on Dec. 9, 1987. Thomas contends she left the apartment, headed for her parents’ home in Ventura County and that that was the last time he saw her.
Early the next morning, Melinda Thomas’ charred body was discovered at the bottom of a 60-foot embankment along Ortega Highway, just inside Riverside County. The body, according to government prosecutors, appeared to have been strapped into the burned-out wreckage of her 1987 Suzuki Samurai.
But defense attorney Maj. Renee Renner attempted to defuse Fairley’s testimony by asking another government witness if Melinda Thomas had penned the note that her 28-year-old husband produced the day his wife’s body was found.
“It could be,” said Patricia Good, a friend of Melinda Thomas. “I’m not sure.”
The unsigned note to Joseph Thomas said in part:
“Dear Joe, I know why you hate me. What’s to love. . . . I don’t keep house and I don’t give you what you want all the time. I just don’t know why you got to continue hurting me. . . . I sat here all day long on the brink of a nervous breakdown. So I think I am going to my mom’s and get things straightened out. You care more about your friends than you do me. So I’m going to my mom’s so I can have a stress free pregnancy. You’re causing me stress and I know its affecting my baby.”
The Riverside County coroner’s office said the note led to an initial determination that the death was a suicide. The autopsy showed Melinda Thomas was four months pregnant when she died.
It wasn’t until months later that the coroner’s office changed its cause of death from suicide to homicide, after Navy investigators persuaded a friend of Thomas to testify against him. The friend said he watched Thomas beat his wife to death with a tire iron in the couple’s bedroom. He testified during a preliminary hearing that the two of them loaded the body into the trunk of a rental car and drove up the Ortega Highway, strapped it into the Suzuki, pushed it over the embankment and set the vehicle afire.
Fairley, who lived nearby in the military housing project in Tustin, said he was familiar with Melinda Thomas’ handwriting because she had left a “seductive” love letter in his front door just months before her death. It said she had been “checking him out” and wanted to make love to him. It was signed “secret lover.”
Fairley said he did not know who wrote the note. “I was going crazy trying to figure it out,” he testified.
Fairley showed the note to his friend Joseph Thomas, who immediately spotted his wife’s handwriting. He took the letter with him, Fairley said. “If he (Thomas) was upset he wasn’t showing it.”
Sometime later, Fairley said, he ran into Melinda Thomas at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, where Fairley worked. He said both he and Melinda Thomas “laughed off” the note.
But, Fairley testified, the handwriting on the seductive note and the note that Joseph Thomas gave to coroner’s officials and other authorities was not the same. “This is not Melinda’s handwriting,” Fairley said when shown the note Thomas says his wife wrote.
On Dec. 10, the day that Melinda Thomas’ body was found, Thomas appeared at Fairley’s house. Fairley said Thomas had tears in his eyes and was visibly upset. Thomas said his wife had been in an accident and had died.
Three days later, Fairley testified, Thomas showed him a note that he said his wife had left before her death. Fairley told the nine-man military jury that the note Thomas showed him then was not the same note that Thomas had given to authorities. The note Thomas showed him, Fairley said, did not mention anything about Melinda Thomas going to her mother’s house.
The court-martial at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is in its second week. If convicted of the murder charge, Thomas could face a death sentence.
Government prosecutor Marine Capt. Bradley N. Garber said he expects to call more than 40 witnesses.