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ONE WOMAN ­— TWO STORIES: Thomas goes from devoted mom to accused murderer

Peggy Sue Thomas stares at Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock as her attorney, Craig Platt, prepares to surrender her passport during a bail hearing Tuesday. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Peggy Sue Thomas stares at Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock as her attorney, Craig Platt, prepares to surrender her passport during a bail hearing Tuesday.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

Devoted mom. Caring community member. Exemplary employee.

Or calculating chameleon, and accomplice to first-degree murder.

Two starkly different pictures of Peggy Sue Thomas began to emerge this week as Island County authorities prepare to arraign the former hairdresser and beauty queen in the Christmastime murder of Russel Douglas.

Douglas was found dead in the front seat of his 2002 Chevrolet Tracker next to a wooded driveway on Wahl Road; the door to his car open, the window down about six inches, and Douglas, buckled in his seat. He had been shot once, in the head.

Police claim that James “Jim” Huden killed Douglas, a Langley resident and father of two, after he was lured to his death by Thomas, Huden’s mistress at the time.

Huden was arrested in June in Mexico, and Thomas was taken into custody in Navajo Lake, N.M., where she had been living on her half-million dollar houseboat called “Off the Hook.”

One woman, two stories

At a bail hearing earlier this week, Craig Platt, an attorney for Thomas, described Thomas as a law-abiding citizen with a good reputation in the community, and a mother devoted to her children.

Platt recalled how Thomas had served in the Navy — her father was retired Navy, and her stepmom, a former police officer — and said she was a highly skilled aircraft mechanic before getting an honorable discharge after her four-year stint ended in 1992.

She later found work at BF Goodrich in Everett, he added.

“She was the first female at BF Goodrich to be promoted to lead mechanic,” Platt said, but gave up the job to be more active in the lives of her children.

Back on Whidbey, she worked as a hairstylist in Langley; at Atellier, then Studio A, before opening her own place, called Baker Street Hair Theater.

She later moved to Nevada and was a driver for Presidential Limo in Las Vegas from 2003 to 2006, but quit after getting married to Mark Allen.

Platt recalled how Thomas had coached girls basketball for the South Whidbey School District, and was the vice president of the booster and scholarship fund at the high school in Roswell, N.M., where her teens went to school after her marriage.

She was also a beauty queen, Platt added, a former Mrs. Washington.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks painted a different picture at Tuesday’s hearing.

He called her a chameleon; someone who was good at reinventing herself.

Banks said there were other opinions of Thomas, and ones that weren’t so glowing.

He recalled a conversation with Allen, her former husband who still lives in New Mexico.

“Mr. Allen opined that he had been duped by Ms. Thomas, that she quote ‘played him for a fool,’ and after about two years of marriage to him, he said she took him for over $700,000 in cash as well as the six-figure houseboat that’s mentioned in the probable cause affidavit.”

Allen called Thomas “a mean-hearted woman,” Banks said.

“I think the evidence of such a large financial settlement after such a short marriage is indicative that there may be other motives to the things that Ms. Thomas has done with her life,” Banks said.

Public records, interviews with those who knew Thomas during her time on Whidbey and family members (who did not wish to be named in this article), paint a more complex picture of Thomas — of a woman who grew up in a family marked by great personal tragedy, and one with devastating financial troubles before she married Allen, a cherished son in the Alaskan oil family at the center of the public corruption scandal involving U.S. Senator Ted Stevens in 2007. Allen is the owner of Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, N.M. where his wife worked as a horse breeder and trainer, and the horse Mine That Bird, the thoroughbred that won the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Linked to murder

Thomas was born and raised on Whidbey, and lived here for 17 years. Island County investigators began exploring her connection to the death of Douglas five months after his murder.

Detective Mark Plumberg contacted Thomas on May 12, 2004 after finding her cell phone number in the murder victim’s cell phone list of incoming and outgoing calls on Dec. 23, 2003.

Thomas — who had worked for the murder victim’s wife, Brenna Douglas, at her Langley hair salon called Just B and was friends with the couple — said she had called Russel Douglas to give him a Christmas gift for Brenna.

Thomas claimed she met Douglas at his apartment in Renton to give him the gift at about 9 p.m. Dec. 23, four days before his murder.

Banks said earlier this week that Thomas became a “person of interest” in the case when a link was discovered to James “Jim” Huden.

Police continued to investigate the murder, and Thomas hired Gerald Werksman, an attorney in Newport Beach, Calif., less than two months after the police first called.

The big break in the case came on July 26, 2004, when Jim Hill, an Air Force retiree in Punta Gorda, Fla., called the Island County Sheriff’s Office and told them Huden, his friend, had confessed to shooting a man in the head during a Christmas visit to Whidbey Island in 2003.

Hill had details of the crime; that Huden had used a .380-caliber handgun and was unable to find the bullet casing after the murder. Hill also told police he knew that Thomas was having an extra-marital affair with a woman named “Peggy” who lived in the Las Vegas, Nev. area.

Hill also said he went to Las Vegas once with Huden, and met Peggy but didn’t know her last name. He did add, though, that he knew she once worked at a hair salon owned by Brenna Douglas. He also told detectives that Huden had told him Peggy lured Douglas to the scene of the murder by saying there was a gift they wanted to pass along for Brenna Douglas.

Another revelation

Hill had other information, too. He said Huden was worried that the police were “nosin’ around” and getting too close, and that he needed to speak to Peggy again because he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say, and wanted to talk about the stories they would give detectives.

Detectives flew to Florida and by the following Saturday, they were on the doorstep of Huden’s home.

Huden admitted to traveling from Las Vegas to Whidbey Island with Peggy Thomas at Christmastime 2003, and said they stayed at a friend’s vacation home in Freeland the week before the holiday.

He said they left Whidbey on Dec. 22 or 23, but his story soon conflicted with Thomas’ version of events.

Huden said he was the one who had met Douglas at his Renton apartment — he’d never met the guy before — to pass along the gift to Douglas’ estranged wife, and that he was alone. Thomas had earlier told police Huden was with her when she went to the murder victim’s Renton home to drop off the gift.

On the same day that investigators were interviewing Huden, other detectives were at Thomas’ home in Henderson, Nev. They handed her a search warrant, and for three hours, searched her home and car.

Thomas told police she had worked with Brenna Douglas, and also said the couple moved into her Langley home in February 2003, before the couple broke up.

She also said she flew to Washington for the visit, while Huden drove her Lexus and got to Seattle the next day, on Dec. 19.

The couple stayed at the friend’s home in Freeland from Dec. 19 through Dec. 23, but came back to Whidbey on Dec. 26 to drop off the keys to the home. Thomas also said she discovered that bed linens had been left in the washing machine, so she put the linens in the clothes dryer while Huden left in her Lexus for 30 to 40 minutes to go buy cigarettes.

She also denied knowing that Huden had murdered Douglas.

They left Whidbey on the noon ferry from Keystone on Dec. 26.

Another break

Less than two weeks later, police had the murder weapon in their hands: a two-tone Bersa “Thunder” .380-caliber pistol. An investigator with the sheriff’s office in Dona Ana County, N.M., called and said a man named Keith Ogden had dropped it off, adding that he thought it was used in the murder of Douglas.

Island County investigators went to pick up the weapon from authorities in Las Cruces, N.M., then went to talk to the man in Radium Springs who had turned the weapon over.

Ogden said he met the couple when he lived in Las Vegas through his cousin, Scott Mickelson.

Ogden, a retired police officer, said Huden had asked him in the fall of 2003 if he had any guns he wanted to sell, because he was looking to buy one.

He didn’t, but Huden showed up a few days later with the Bersa handgun, which he had found through a newspaper ad. Ogden showed him how to clean and use the pistol.

A few months later, right after Huden and Thomas had visited Whidbey for Christmas, Ogden was over at the Thomas home for a visit. Huden brought out the pistol, and asked Ogden if he would take the gun for safekeeping; he didn’t want to keep it in the house because his girlfriend’s young daughters were living there.

Ogden said OK, and took the handgun and the manual for the pistol.

That summer, Ogden got a call from his cousin. He said his wife had read a story on the website for the South Whidbey Record, and the news article mentioned that Huden and Thomas might be involved in the murder of Douglas. Ogden took the handgun to police the next day, and the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab later determined the pistol was the one that matched the bullet found in Douglas, and the shell casing that police found in his car.

Thomas gave police a written statement a week later, saying that Huden had confessed to her during a phone call the day before that he had killed Douglas when he had gone out for smokes during the last day of their visit to Whidbey.

Six months later, the WSP Crime Lab found a fingerprint from Thomas’ right index finger on page 14 of the operating manual for the handgun. She had earlier told detectives she didn’t even know Huden owned a gun.

Huden fled to Mexico after police talked to him in Florida, and remained a fugitive for nearly

seven years until he was arrested on June 9 in Veracruz, where he was giving guitar lessons under the name “Maestro Jim.”

Though authorities knew Huden was in Mexico, they had tried without success to find him. “America’s Most Wanted” repeatedly aired segments featuring Huden, but his arrest came after his wife, Jean Huden, tipped off police in Punta Gorda and told them where to find her husband.

The missing piece

Jean Huden — who admitted to financially supporting her husband while he was on the run from the law — said she had talked to Thomas repeatedly about the crime.

Her husband had told her that he had plotted with Thomas to murder Douglas, and Jean Huden also said that Thomas told her about luring Douglas to the scene of his death with the ruse of handing over a Christmas present for Brenna Douglas.

Jean Huden also said Thomas went to go buy cigarettes at the time of the murder, so they would have a store receipt as an alibi.

Banks has told the press that the investigation is still ongoing in Douglas’ murder.

Investigators were recently given an OK from a judge to get a DNA sample from Huden, and police indicated earlier that they believe DNA evidence is on the handle of the murder weapon.

A horrific past

Members of Thomas’ immediate family who were contacted by the Record did not want to comment on the case, but they acknowledged that the family has faced major tragedies before.

Thomas, whose maiden name is Stackhouse, was one of 12 children in a blended family.

Before the family lived on Whidbey, they lived in San Jose, Calif. in the early 1960s.

Mary Ellen Stackhouse, the mother of six children from 1 to 8 years old, sat down late one June night in 1963, after putting the kids to bed, to enjoy a cup of coffee and a bowl of ice cream.

A 16-year-old boy who lived a block away snuck into the house, grabbed a hammer from the work bench, and began beating her on the head. When she wouldn’t die, he got a knife from the kitchen and cut her throat. After she was dead, he raped her.

The kids came downstairs in the morning and found their mother on the floor.

Her husband, who was in Tennessee at a Navy flight school, never set foot in the house again. An aunt came down from Whidbey — Mary Ellen had grown up in Greenbank — and packed their suitcases.

Thomas’ father sold the house for a dollar, and the Navy transferred him to Whidbey, and he built the home on Edgecliff where Thomas grew up. A concrete slab near the back deck is still imprinted with the handprints of the kids.

The family would be hit by murder a second time 20 years later, when Thomas’ brother, Robert Stackhouse, was shot during a party in Fairbanks, Alaska.

He had won an arm-wrestling contest earlier in the evening, but the loser in the game went to his car and got a gun and started waving it around. Stackhouse took the gun away from the teenager.

The teen pulled another gun out of his pants and shot him. He died in the hospital emergency room the next day.

Leaving Whidbey

Peggy Thomas lived on Whidbey until 1980, when she moved to Bellingham. She graduated from Bellingham High School, and then beauty school, before landing a job as a hairdresser.

She joined the Navy in 1988, and later married Kelvin Thomas, who she met in the service.

The couple had their share of financial difficulties during their time together, and court records indicate they filed for bankruptcy in 1994.

Henry Pope, the boys basketball coach at South Whidbey High School, knew the couple when they lived on the South End.

They were also an interracial couple, and also had young daughters — one with the same name.

Pope, who was mentioned in court Tuesday as a character reference to Thomas, was surprised when told that he and his wife had been named for their ties to Thomas.

He said they knew the couple until they divorced, and that Peggy Thomas had helped him coach a select basketball team when they both had a daughter in the fifth, then sixth grade. She never coached in local schools, he added.

He recalled that Thomas was on the selection committee when he got his first coaching job at the high school. She knew the game of basketball well, and she was good at coaching kids.

He added that he didn’t know her very well, however, and he lost track of Thomas after she moved away from Whidbey.

“We didn’t too much hanging out together. She seemed to be a decent person to me, a decent mother,” he said.

Pope said he also had met Huden a few times over the years, someone he said was a good guitar player who was “quite mellow.”

That they will both stand trial for first-degree murder is a shock, he said.

“I’m floored,” Pope said. “It sounds really uncharacteristic of both of them.”

“When this all came down, I was shocked,” he said.

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