By Marc Perrusquia
Source: Commercial Appeal
July 20, 2014
It was still dark when the call came to 911 that chilly morning late last fall.
The caller, a 38-year-old Bartlett woman, told a bizarre story: She’d gone to a man’s East Memphis home, had a drink, passed out and woke up four hours later naked in a closet. With a gun in his hand, the man ushered her out of his house as she wore only a coat, she said.
“I was so scared,’’ she later told an investigator. “I thought maybe, you know, is this man going to shoot me with his gun? Because he still had his gun in his hand when I got in my car.’’
The alleged suspect was Lonnie Thompson, a two-term Shelby County General Sessions Court judge.
Prosecutors declined to pursue charges, noting inconsistencies in the woman’s statement and the fact she went to Thompson’s house that November night dressed in lingerie; they had been in a months-long consensual relationship.
Thompson, 52, says the woman fabricated “a fantabulous story’’ because he wouldn’t marry her.
“The authorities looked into it. Of course, they didn’t find any evidence of anything because nothing happened,’’ he said. “It was just a story that she concocted in retaliation to, you know, her desires and wishes not being met.’’
The Nov. 30, 2013 incident is the latest in Thompson’s stormy personal life. During his 16 years on the bench two women have alleged violent or threatening treatment and a third made similar allegations four years earlier, an investigation by The Commercial Appeal found.
Early in his current eight-year term, Thompson was arrested with his then-girlfriend for alleged domestic violence. Prosecutors later dismissed charges against Thompson, who allegedly slapped the woman, ripped her shirt and yanked her hair; they also dropped the case against the woman, whom Thompson said struck him and came at him with a sharp object.
In 1994, Thompson’s second wife accused him in a divorce pleading of threatening her and of placing a severe bruise on her side days before she sued for divorce. Records show the woman obtained an injunction barring Thompson from bothering or harming her, though he denied the allegations and wasn’t charged criminally.
“(There’s) not an iota of truth to me being physically violent against any woman,’’ said Thompson, who called the 1994, 2006 and 2013 allegations “isolated incidents’’ that involved separate false accusations.
“People concoct all types of stories regarding elected officials,’’ Thompson said, emphasizing he’s never been convicted of anything.
Yet Thompson, seeking re-election next month to a post that pays $167,700 a year, conceded some voters may not approve of the turmoil in his personal life.
“The voters will ultimately have to make that choice. I think it may matter to some and it may not matter to others,’’ said Thompson, who said if voters weigh his character they should consider, too, that he’s a single parent raising two children, his volunteerism at soup kitchens and service as minister of music at a local church.
Deborah Clubb, a local activist working to prevent violence against women, said Thompson’s history is concerning despite the absence of criminal charges.
“To have that many people going on record at the various times about behavior that is alarming to all of us who work on the issue of battering, yes the public should know that,’’ said Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council. “And as the judge even says, let us all then make our own decisions about how much we are concerned about those details.’’
Joanne Archambault, a former San Diego police sergeant and a nationally recognized expert in sexual assault investigation, had her own concerns about the women in Thompson’s past. Archambault, who reviewed records from the latest incident for the newspaper, said Memphis police erred in failing to interview all three accusers before presenting the case to the District Attorney’s Office. Such an analysis would have helped determine if there is a pattern to Thompson’s conduct, she said.
“You know how we make these cases, right? You don’t make cases like this based off of confessions. You’re never going to get a confession. Never,’’ said Archambault, executive director of End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit that provides sexual assault investigation training and consultation.
“You make cases like this off of inconsistencies. And I have this burning question about that. I want to find these other women. I want to see if there’s a pattern. That’s how these cases are made. You go back out there with the bigger picture.’’
Officially, no records on the case are available and police declined interview requests. Although an assistant DA signed a form on Dec. 10 declining to prosecute, police contend the matter is still under investigation and that, legally, records are closed to inspection. Citing an open investigation, the City Attorney’s Office declined a reporter’s request to release a copy of the woman’s 911 tape and police won’t release as much as an incident report, a basic summary officers write when responding to alleged crimes. Such reports have long been considered public record in Tennessee, even amid ongoing investigations.
Instead, the newspaper obtained records on the case from sources.
Those records show police responded to Thompson’s East Memphis home after receiving a 911 call at 4:17 a.m. from the cellphone of a woman who said she’d just been tossed out of the judge’s house. When police knocked at Thompson’s door, he didn’t answer.
According to reports, Thompson called his attorney, Ted Hansom, at 3:57 a.m., before he spoke with police and even before the woman called 911. Thompson then opened the door when Hansom arrived, accompanied by MPD Lt. Col. Queen McMahon as well as a major and lieutenant.
Hansom said in a phone interview last week that Thompson called him because his female visitor was acting irrationally. Hansom said his client feared calling the police directly because he had done that during a dispute with another woman in 2006 and wound up getting arrested.
“This time when he had a problem he was just a little hesitant to pick up the phone and call the police,’’ said Hansom, noting his client was cleared in the earlier incident as well.
Reports of the 2006 incident show Thompson called 911 and told police his then-girlfriend Rachel Hart had come at him with a sharp object. “No sharp object was located,’’ a report said. Hart countered that she was slapped, her “hair was yanked out,’’ and that Thompson, 230 pounds, held her down with a knee on her throat and another on her stomach, causing her to vomit. Officers observed Hart with a ripped shirt and where “she had gotten sick on herself’’ and observed hair on a bed. Police said they couldn’t determine the primary aggressor and charges were dismissed against both.
In a written statement to authorities regarding the Nov. 30 incident, Thompson said his female visitor had told him she had anywhere from two glasses to two bottles of wine before coming over to his house wearing a bustier, garters and little else. He said they had sex and that before the woman fell asleep she had told him, “I’m ready to be your wife.’’ Thompson said he went into another room to watch the Andy Griffith show on TV and later went to bed. His visitor later got up and appeared in his bedroom with “this glazed over look in her eyes,’’ he said.
The woman said she had been in his closet, began crying and said she was “tired of dealing with men’’ before leaving, he said.
The newspaper is not naming the woman because police investigated the incident as a possible sex crime. She says has no memory of four hours from that night, doesn’t remember having sexual relations and believes she might have been assaulted.
Police presented the case to the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office on Dec. 10, when then-Special Victims Unit chief prosecutor Jennifer Nichols declined to prosecute. “Clearly they planned to have consensual sex. She came to his house dressed in provocative clothing,’’ Nichols wrote on a declination form, noting the woman had no memory of an assault and that her statement on the 911 tape about what she drank that night was different from what she later told police. The woman reportedly said initially she had vodka but later said Thompson gave her a glass of wine and that she passed out for four hours.
In a statement last week Nichols said she can’t discuss particulars but said she thoroughly reviewed information MPD presented and found insufficient evidence. “As with any investigation, if the MPD presents additional evidence to the DA’s office, we will review it at that time and make a decision,” she said.
Thompson maintains the woman made up the story in retaliation for him not committing to marry her.
“I was like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa … That’s not the kind of relationship that we’re going to have, ’’ Thompson told a reporter. “And of course she got pretty, you know, upset about it.’’
On Dec. 9, nine days after the incident, Officer J.A. Garey took 28 digital photographs inside of the home and collected several items of clothing including two black stockings, a pair of lace panties, a black bustier and a pair of high heels with silver spikes. The items weren’t taken to the crime lab, a report says.
Archambault, the sex crimes investigation expert, questioned the delay and wondered, too, if police had done a toxicology report on the woman. No such report appeared among records obtained by the newspaper.
“This case could never be prosecuted unless I could show she was drugged,’’ she said.
A thorough investigation protects all parties: the suspect, the victim and the police, Achambault said, noting it is all the more vital in a case with a high-profile suspect.
“It’s very concerning that this person who serves on the bench and represents the people of Memphis has had three different incidents involving women that made allegations,’’ she said. “That’s pretty concerning.’’