Inside the chill of the county coroner’s office, the detective and the forensic anthropologist stood over soot-covered bones arrayed on a metal table.
Over two hours, Elizabeth Miller provided a running dialogue for each bone. She picked up one rib after another, studying them for knife scrapes.
The bones were those of a boy, perhaps 12 to 15 years old, found in the chimney of an abandoned building in South Los Angeles. The boy wore faded and stained tan jeans and a white shirt, but no shoes.
“I’m sure if we had a photograph, we’d be able to recognize him,” Miller said.
More than once, Los Angeles Police Det. Chris Barling asked: Was he killed?
There was no sign of trauma, Miller said. No self-defense wounds on the finger bones, no scrapes or damage to other bones. The jaw suggested major dental work to repair an injury, but that was it.
That was March 28, 2005, and the homicide detective and the anthropologist had hunches, nothing more.
Miller said she thought the boy sneaked into the chimney and died either of starvation or positional asphyxiation. Perhaps the clay pipe of the chimney muted his calls for help. Maybe the same pipe carried the smell of decay up and out. The remains still gave out a waxy, organic odor, which led Miller to believe that he had probably been dead less than five years. The boy’s two front teeth protruded, and his skull had strong African American features.
“I tend to go with weird accidents more,” she said. “I prefer to think weird things happen as opposed to somebody killing and dumping a boy into a chimney.”
Barling felt differently.
“Maybe I’m just morbid,” he said. “I just had a hunch that it didn’t make sense it was accidental.... My gut is that we’re dealing with a murder.”
The discovery of the skeletal remains at 89th and Main streets in South Los Angeles had been a fluke. On March 24, 2005, an 11-year-old girl had climbed on the roof of the abandoned halfway house to retrieve a soccer ball.
The girl peered down into the chimney. She ran to her father and told him she had seen a skull.
In the following days, stories about the discovery ran in local newspapers and on the TV news. They focused on Miller’s theory: The boy was probably a runaway, there a few years.
No one came forward to identify the remains. No grieving parents called or showed up to dare to ask: Could this be my child?
Barling started pulling missing person’s reports going back about five years but came up empty.
That July, forensic artist Marilyn Droz used the boy’s skull to draw a composite portrait. By then, nearly four months had gone by.
The sketch prompted another flurry of news reports.
Donna Theus was sitting in her living room watching the TV news when she saw the drawing. She screamed. The boy, Theus said, looked like her cousin. She picked up the phone.
On the other line, 78-year-old Clelia Thompson answered.
“Babe, did you see that little boy’s picture on the TV?” Theus asked her aunt. “The little boy they found in the chimney? You know, that could be Robert.”
Her boy, Robert Thompson, 14, had been missing since Christmas Eve.
The investigators could not believe the body had been in the chimney 28 years. The building, a low-slung, fenced-in wreck, for years served as a halfway house and had only closed a few years ago. How could a corpse be there for so long without anyone noticing?
Still, the Los Angeles Police Department’s missing persons unit sent someone to take a DNA swab from Clelia Thompson’s mouth.
Miller, the Los Angeles County coroner’s anthropologist, began to rethink the circumstances that would have preserved the bones for so long, and still retained the smell of decomposition. When she talked to other anthropologists and forensic experts, they were befuddled. Their best guess was that a combination of odd conditions may have preserved the remains.
The bones showed signs of superficial charring, suggesting that the chimney had been used just enough to stain the remains. This may have helped preserve them.
Months passed. Then, on Dec. 28, 2005, a lab in Sacramento came back with the DNA test results. The boy in the chimney was Robert Thompson.
Det. Barling now had a name, and identities tell stories.
Barling, 44, a 20-year LAPD veteran, had been the lead detective on 150 cases since becoming a homicide investigator in 1993. His mind raced with questions. Who was last with this boy? Was he trying to burglarize the building or playing a game of hide-and-seek? Could he have been trying to recover a ball, much like the little girl who had found his remains?
The abandoned building was only blocks from Robert Thompson’s home. Where were the shoes? Did the boy walk there in his bare feet? Or was he carried there?
Barling drew up a basic profile of the boy in the chimney.
Loved ones described Robert Thompson as sweet tempered though occasionally mischievous. He liked to run barefoot around the house. He especially enjoyed playing with his other two young brothers, Clinton and Smith. Though Robert was the third-youngest of Clelia Thompson’s children, in many ways he demanded the most attention.
Robert was 14, but social workers had diagnosed his IQ as that of a 6-year-old.
From at least age 4, according to hospital records, Robert suffered from grand mal seizures. If he did not take his medication, he could have as many as three a day. In 1974, a seizure caused him to black out and fall into a swimming pool. He almost drowned before a sister pulled him out.
One year later, Robert fell on his face after suffering another seizure, necessitating dental surgery. It was this work that anthropologist Miller would observe nearly three decades later.
Barling remained doubtful that Robert died accidentally. As he delved into the boy’s family history, he found it was heaped with tales of trauma, tragedy and bad luck that were excessive even by the standards of a tough South Los Angeles neighborhood.
Barling decided it was time for a longer conversation with the boy’s mother.
Barling sat down with Clelia Thompson at her cramped home in the back of a duplex on East 94th Street. It was clear to him that she had harbored a dark conviction for decades about what had happened to her son. She was certain that he had not run away, that someone had taken and killed him. The only thing she didn’t seem to know in her heart was where her boy’s remains were.
“You don’t want to ever face none of your children are dead,” Thompson said in an interview. “But it’s worse when they’re just gone. You can’t even face it.”
Thompson is thin with toned arms despite her age. She sometimes keeps a pack of Kool cigarettes in her well-worn white and green apron, and during the summer, a jar of buttermilk nearby to fend off the heat.
Her recollection of exact dates is fuzzy, she admits. She keeps death certificates stored away in a trunk. All seven, for all the children she lost.
She lost one daughter when the girl was only a baby. Then she lost six of her nine remaining children. Only one, Shirley, died of natural causes.
Rose, 30, and Benny, 34, were stabbed to death by former partners. Clinton, 20, and Smith, 19, the two youngest, each committed suicide.
“It was one right after another. Every year there was a death,” Thompson said. “But it began with Robert.”
It was a rainy Christmas Eve. The whole family had gathered at home for the holiday -- along with an outsider.
His name was Theodore Van Smith. Theodoric, as he was often called, was the former boyfriend of Robert’s sister, Rose Ann.
They had a boy together, but the relationship had soured.
Theodoric Smith was not especially welcomed. But he had a way with the youngest children, Thompson said. He would offer them hamburgers and drinks, and sometimes take them away for short spells.
Some family members said they always heard that Robert stormed off in a fit of anger because he thought he wasn’t getting a bicycle for Christmas.
Clelia Thompson said that wasn’t right.
Robert disappeared in the morning, and the family assumed he would return. His shoes were left behind. By the afternoon, they had started searching the neighborhood. They even searched the building where Robert’s remains would be found 28 years later. It didn’t occur to them to look in the chimney. “We looked for him all Christmas Day,” Thompson said. “No Robert.”
The LAPD searched an extensive area door to door. TV newscasts aired reports about the missing boy.
Almost unnoticed that day, Thompson said, was that after Robert disappeared, so did Theodoric. He was not seen the rest of the day.
“But nobody hardly noticed because everybody was concerned for Robert,” Clelia Thompson said.
Barling reviewed the LAPD’s old missing person’s case on Robert. It showed that for the first eight years after his disappearance, the trail was cold.
But that changed Feb. 23, 1985.
In the darkness of the early morning, Clelia Thompson walked briskly down a hallway of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. Before she got to his room, she could hear the peel of her youngest child’s screams.
“All I could hear was my child hollering, ‘Momma, Theodoric killed Robert! Momma, Theodoric killed Robert! He told me he killed Robert!’”
Laying on the bed was the bloody form of 12-year-old Smith Thompson. Tire marks streaked across his chest and his forehead. He was in intense pain.
According to police, Theodoric Smith had driven Smith Thompson to a dark alley and raped him in the car. A subsequent police report quoted Smith as saying Theodoric told him: “If you don’t make me feel good, I am going to kill you just like I killed your brother Robert.”
Theodoric eventually threw the boy out of the car and ran over him.
Two months later, Theodoric Smith pleaded guilty to five felony counts, including the rape of a child and attempted murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in state prison.
Before he was convicted, LAPD Det. Ramiro Argamaniz asked him about Robert’s disappearance. “Suspect did not cop out to the crime, but he did hint at possibility of his involvement and he did mention his backyard,” his report said.
Police dug up the backyard of Theodoric Smith’s parent’s home but found only dog remains.
The case of Robert Thompson again grew cold until 1997, when Det. Debra Kane of the department’s missing person’s unit took an interest.
Barling, reading the old case files, found Kane to be something of a kindred spirit. Like him, Kane felt in her gut that she was dealing with a homicide case. “Even juvenile runaways turn up eventually. They make phone calls home,” Kane said in an interview, explaining her suspicions. “Somewhere, someone has seen this person or that person.
“This kid just disappeared.”
Kane asked Dr. Kris Mohandie, then head of the LAPD’s behavioral science unit, if he could go to Calipatria State Prison, about 150 miles east of San Diego, to interview Theodoric Smith. “What we really wanted to know,” Kane said, “is where the bones were buried.”
Aided by a prison psychiatrist, Mohandie interviewed Theodoric Smith for several hours. Mohandie reported that Smith was manipulative and obsessed with “sexual matters, body parts, and missing body parts.”
“The inmate clearly fits the profile of a sexual predator whose preferential target is minor males,” Mohandie wrote. He and the prison psychiatrist concluded that Smith “would be capable of the probable murder and disappearance of Robert Thompson.”
But they didn’t get a confession from Theodoric Smith.
Barling found himself in the same place where Kane left off nine years earlier, no closer to proving Robert Thompson had been murdered.
Theodoric Smith was paroled from prison in 2000 but shortly after that was committed to the Atascadero State Hospital in Central California.
In an phone interview with The Times from the hospital, Smith, now 47, said he remembered Robert going missing but denied he had any involvement.
“No, I had nothing to do with it, sir,” he said. “If they had anything on me, I’m pretty sure they would come and read me my Miranda rights.”
Barling said he plans to make the trip up north to the mental hospital sometime in the fall to talk to Smith.
“Even if I got a full-blown confession from him, I have to compare that to his mental state,” Barling said. “Am I just getting a confession from someone who is completely insane?”
For now, Barling said, he plans to make it a goal to keep Theodoric Smith in the mental institution.
“I think this is a homicide,” he said. “My problem is, can I prove it?”
On Feb. 8, Clelia Thompson finally laid her son Robert to rest. She could not afford to bury his remains, so she had them cremated. The family had a small ceremony at the House of Winston Mortuary.
Two pictures of Robert greeted well-wishers. One showed him sitting at a bus stop, a large textbook on his lap as the boy stared away. It was the photograph that was circulated 28 years ago after he was reported missing.
The other was the forensic drawing done for the coroner -- the only close-up rendering they had for the ceremony.
Clelia Thompson calls the funeral of her boy “the day of the closure.”
“You have to deal with what you have to deal with, ain’t no other way,” she said. “And I just try to put it behind me. I did put it behind me, for a little while.”