"It is certainly the most brutal murder I have ever seen."
-Police Chief Elmer Briscoe
It was the 4th of April 1963. A Thursday. Twenty four year old Sonja McCaskie had a rare free night to herself. As a mother of two, her life was busy but that night, the 4th of April, the father of one of Sonja's children was looking after the child for the night and the other child was being cared for by a child minder.
Sonja was divorced and lived with her children in a duplex in Yori Avenue. She was from Elgin in Scotland, United Kingdom but moved to Reno, Nevada in the United States for work. In 1960, Sonja was selected as an Olympic Skier for Team Great Britain and that was what initially brought her to Reno. It was an amazing achievement for her and she was the only woman on the team.
In 1960, the US hosted the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California. Sonja got a job in Reno which was around an hour or so drive from Squaw Valley. Sonja loved it there. She got on really well with her neighbors. A lot of them really liked her and found her to be unique, quiet and intelligent. During the week, Sonja worked as a secretary at a meat company and at weekends, she worked as a ski instructor, a job she loved, at the Slide Mountain ski resort. When she had some free time, Sonja loved to take photographs and her duplex was full of photographs she had taken.
That evening, the Thursday evening, Sonja invited a few friends over to her duplex. Sonja loved to dress up when meeting friends. She loved pearls and pretty dresses. When her friends left, Sonja did some laundry, put her washing on the line in her back yard and did a bit of cleaning around the house. After that, she went to bed. She had work the next day.
The next day, Sonja was due to collect her ten month old son from the child minder. But she didn't. The child minder was concerned. Sonja would never not show up to collect him so she rang Sonja's duplex. When she couldn't reach Sonja, she asked the police to send an officer over to Sonja's duplex to check on her.
Police Officer Mort Ammerman went to Sonja's home for a routine call. Mort said:
“I was just there to deliver a message from her babysitter.”
But it was far from a routine call. Mort described what he saw when he got there as:
"like being hit between the eyes with an axe.”
It took Mort several seconds to even begin to comprehend what he saw. Other police at Sonja's house were seen visibly shaking and gagging when they opened the door of her duplex. The smell was so strong that they could barely breathe and they had to try to compose themselves on the lawn and try to catch their breath before they could enter Sonja's home.
Sonja's home, a home that was filled with memories, Sonja's photographs, her pretty dresses, children's toys and skiing trophies and awards was now a crime scene. Sonja had been brutally murdered.
Sonja's murder shocked the police officers. It was more depraved than they could have imagined. There was an eerie silence as they walked through the duplex. Lying just beside the front door, there was a human heart. A blanket was on the floor in the middle of the living room. There was a foot inside.
Police found a cedar chest.The rest of Sonja’s naked body was found inside it. There were three knives in her torso. She had been decapitated and her head was wrapped in undergarments and a tablecloth and left under her body in the box.
Due to how Sonja's body was dismembered, police believed they were looking for a suspect with butchering or surgical skills. Bloodstained rags and blankets were scattered on the living room floor. Police believed that some sort of attempt had been made to clean up but the clean up was abandoned. They believed that Sonja was murdered in her bed as the mattress was drenched in blood. Police found a bloody footprint at the murder scene.
The cause of death was strangulation. Sonja had been raped and the strangled with a garrote. She was also stabbed multiple times.
Initially, police believed that whoever killed Sonja was known to her. There was no forced entry and none of the neighbors heard any noise or saw any unusual activity. Friends and previous boyfriends were questioned and some even took lie detector tests but all passed. Nothing seemed to be missing from Sonja's home except for a camera lens. Police found the instruction manual for the camera but could not find the camera lens. That camera lens would give them the break they needed a few days later.
The camera lens was found at a Reno pawn shop. An eighteen year old man, Thomas Lee Bean, sold it to the pawn shop for $10.
Thomas was questioned by police. He was a High School student at the local Wooster High School and when first questioned, he was cooperative. Thomas was distant, aloof and a bit of a loner. He liked to keep to himself and spent a lot of time alone. He liked to walk at nights alone around different neighborhoods.
When Thomas was brought in for questioning, he managed to run away. The police fired a few warning shots and were able to catch up with him and bring him back to the station. Thomas asked them why they didn't shoot to kill. Thomas told the police that he was willing to talk and he confessed to Sonja's murder.
Thomas Lee Bean
Police took him to Sonja's duplex and he told police what happened that night.
According to Thomas, he couldn't sleep that night, the night of the 4th of April. He noticed Sonja's car in her driveway. It was a Triumph sports car and Thomas walked up to the car so that he could take a closer look. As he was looking at the car and the duplex, he noticed Sonja's laundry on her washing line. That was something that had interested Thomas for some time. He liked women's clothes. He stole some before from different washing lines to use for his own sexual gratification.
Thomas told police that he went to the back of the duplex with the intention of stealing Sonja's clothes. He admitted that he was open to the possibility of rape. Thomas saw that the back door was open. He removed his shoes. He wasn't wearing any socks. Thomas crept into the duplex and walked around the entire duplex to see who was inside. He discovered that only Sonja was inside and she was asleep in her bedroom.
Thomas did not know Sonja. He had never seen her before.
Thomas spent a bit of time just watching Sonja while she slept. He told police he climbed on top of her, taking great care not to wake her. He had a homemade garrotte in his hand and twisted it around her neck. When Thomas began to rape Sonja, she woke up. He told police that she pleaded with him to stop and told him she had a baby to look after. He tightened the garrotte around her neck and stabbed her several times with a knife.
Thomas Lee Bean
It was the garrotte that killed Sonja. She was choked to death. Sonja was raped before and after death. Thomas dragged Sonja’s body from the bedroom and into the living room. He cut her heart out and threw it on the floor beside the front door. Sonja was then decapitated and Thomas tried to skin her. He slit her from her crotch to her neck. Thomas stuffed her body in the cedar chest and as her foot was hanging from the chest, he cut it off at the ankle and wrapped it in a blanket.
Thomas threw her head into the chest "like a basketball." Despite the depravity of the murder, there were little signs of a struggle. As the garrotte was tied around Sonja's neck before she woke up, Thomas was in control the entire time. After the brutal murder, Thomas listened to Sonja's records and took her car for a joyride. Police believe he was in the duplex for around five hours and left between 5 am and 5.30 am the morning of the 5th of April.
Thomas told police:
"I don't know why I cut her up. I don't .I just shoved the knife in and started to cut, that's all."
Thomas said that it was a childhood dream of his to rape a woman. He thought of rape when he was just six years old.
It wasn’t the first time Thomas had come to police attention. In 1961, he served eight months in the Nevada Training Centre for trying to strangle a fifteen year old girl. She was just sleeping on a porch when he walked past and decided to strangle her. She managed to fight him off and escape.
Thomas was charged with first degree murder. He faced the death penalty.
Despite his full confession, Thomas pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. The Defense called psychiatrist, Dr David Wilson, to testify. He opined that Thomas was insane under the M'Naghten test. In rebuttal, the Prosecution called two psychiatrists to testify, Dr Rappaport and Dr Toller, and they believed that Thomas was not insane under the M'Naghten standard when he killed Sonja McCaskie.
The Jury agreed with the Prosecution and Thomas was found guilty of first degree murder. He received the death penalty by way of gas chamber. But in 1972, the US Supreme Court overturned all pending death sentences after the case of Furman v. Georgia. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. As a result, Thomas is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He remains in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.
Thomas has never given a motive as to why he murdered Sonja.
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