book reviews, law, true crime, Virginia

Reviewing Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas, by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson…

Recently, I mentioned that I would be reviewing an honest to God book, rather than a Kindle download. Thanks to a snowstorm and concerted effort, I’ve just finished reading that book, Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas. It wasn’t easy to read this well-researched 2009 book, written by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson. Not only was the subject matter difficult and depressing, but the print was also very small for my 50 year old eyes. I ended up investing in a book light to help me with the process. Even with multifocal contact lenses, I still have some trouble with fine print!

In any case, I did finish the book this afternoon, and I’ve been very eager to review it. Based on hits on previous true crime blog posts about Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas, I know people are still interested in reading about this 1990 murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. On December 17, 2022, this blog received a huge influx of hits. Someone linked an earlier blog post mentioning Jessica Wiseman on Reddit. The post in question wasn’t even just about Jessica Wiseman. It only mentioned her case in relation to another true crime case out of Wisconsin.

I decided to seek out more information about the murders and, sure enough, discovered Peppers’ and Anderson’s book. Anatomy of an Execution is not available on Kindle, although the printed version is available through Amazon Prime for $29.95. I don’t often read actual books anymore. Kindle makes reading after lights out easier, plus the print is larger and more adjustable. I also like Kindle books because it’s easy to share passages and make notes. Nevertheless, I was so intrigued by this murder case that I decided to order the physical book, even though it meant temporarily being a Luddite. It arrived a few days ago and I quickly devoured it.

Who are Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas? Why is there a book about them?

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Gloucester County, in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Gloucester is adjacent to rural Middlesex County, which is just north. On November 10, 1990, I was a freshman at Longwood College (now Longwood University). It was just before Thanksgiving break. On that night, a horrific murder took place in Middlesex. A 14 year old girl named Jessica Wiseman, and her 17 year old boyfriend, Chris Thomas, murdered Jessica’s parents, James Baxter and Kathy Wiseman. The two thought they were in love, and Jessica’s parents– specifically her father– had forbidden them to be together. Chris took a shotgun from his uncle’s house and snuck over to Jessica’s house in the middle of the night. Then, together, the two made the worst decision of their lives.

Jessica had greased the window in her bedroom, to make sure it didn’t squeak as Chris climbed through it on that fateful November night. Even as he entered Jessica’s bedroom, Chris didn’t think he’d actually go through with the plan to commit murder. Jessica was determined. She had spread drug paraphernalia on the floor, to make it look like a drug deal gone bad.

As Chris stood by, Jessica warned him to shoot her daddy before he woke up, lest he kill Chris. Chris fired, and J.B. Wiseman died instantly. Then he shot Kathy Wiseman, but she got out of bed and staggered into Jessica’s bedroom. That time, Jessica fired, and Kathy Wiseman died. In a tragic display of misguided chivalry, Chris Thomas confessed to killing both parents. Because he confessed to firing the shot that killed Kathy Wiseman, Chris Thomas was charged with capital murder, which made him eligible for the death penalty.

I’m not sure if I was aware of the Wiseman murders when they happened. That was before everyone was online, and I was busy with college. I read the local newspapers a lot in those days, and I do remember that Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas were frequently reported about in the newspapers. The case had caused quite a scandal because, at that time in Virginia, no one under the age of 15 could be tried as an adult, regardless of how serious their crimes were. Jessica Wiseman was fourteen years old when she convinced Chris Thomas to murder her parents. She spent just under seven years in juvenile hall, and was released on July 26, 1997, which was her 21st birthday. Chris Thomas, by contrast, was tried as an adult. He was executed on January 10, 2000. He was 26 years old when he died.

Who are Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson?

At this writing, author Todd C. Peppers is a lawyer and a visiting professor of law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He is also on the faculty of the Department of Public Affairs at Roanoke College, in Salem, Virginia. He’s written several books besides Anatomy of an Execution, and specializes in the Death Penalty, Judicial Behavior, Supreme Court History, and Torts.

Co-author Laura Trevvett Anderson taught special education at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Virginia, part of Chesterfield County. For two years, Chris Thomas was one of her students. Anderson formed a special bond with her former student. She served as his spiritual advisor before he was executed on January 10, 2000.

Chris’s tragic story…

Chris was born to Margaret and Billy Thomas, a couple who met in 1972 at Donk’s, a pool hall and concert venue in nearby Mathews County. Donk’s is another name that everyone living near Gloucester knew of, back in the day. Sadly, although the two got married, they were not a love match. Billy was abusive to Margaret. She was also a lesbian. The two got divorced in the months following Chris’s May 29, 1973 birth.

Because of Margaret’s lesbian lifestyle, and the fact that she worked as a prison guard, she decided to have her parents adopt Chris. Then, she moved to Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. Consequently, for the earliest years of his life, Chris Thomas was raised by his grandparents, Herbert and Virginia Marshall. Peppers writes that Margaret was jealous of her son, because her parents provided better for him that they had her when she was coming of age. Margaret also had siblings nearby who helped raise Chris in his early years.

In 1985, when Chris Thomas was about eleven years old, he experienced a trifecta of tragedies. His grandfather, Herbert, died of a brain tumor. A few months after that, his grandmother died of ovarian cancer. He also lost his favorite uncle, Winfrey. Chris went to live with Margaret and her lover, and her lover’s children, in Chesterfield. He hated Chesterfield because it was too urban for him. Chris loved to hunt and take solitary walks. He couldn’t do that in Chesterfield, which is much more populated. Chris also resented his mother’s lifestyle, and the fact that she helped raise her lover’s children, but hadn’t been raising him. Chris found a friend in Laura Anderson, a very dedicated special education teacher. With her help, his grades in school improved. But he was still miserable in Chesterfield, and eventually went back to Middlesex.

Chris went to live with his Uncle Herbert and Aunt Brenda Marshall. Herbert had been abusive to Chris when he was younger. He’d even told Chris that he was the reason his parents had died. Nevertheless, Herbert and Brenda provided him with a home in Piankatank Shores, a housing subdivision in Middlesex. Jessica Wiseman also lived there with her parents, along with her grandparents and great-grandparents. Jessica was reportedly a spoiled girl, whose grandparents and great grandparents provided her with everything she could want. She even had her own golf cart for getting around the subdivision. When she wrecked it, they bought her a new one. She had her own bedroom in each of their homes, too.

Chris was a good looking kid, who’d had a number of “girlfriends” younger than he was. Jessica caught his eye, and it wasn’t long before they were spending all of their time together. Chris was also getting in trouble with the law– committing petty, non-violent crimes. Without Laura Anderson’s committed mentorship, Chris’s school performance plummeted. He didn’t care. Neither did Jessica, whose family members didn’t seem interested in instilling a sense of responsibility within her. She and Chris were sexually active, and Jessica worried about pregnancy. She wanted Chris to marry her, but her father, who worked as a truck driver, forbade it. That was when she came up with her plan to murder her parents. Sadly, Chris Thomas let her talk him into helping her with her plan. He paid for that mistake with his life.

My thoughts on the book

I found Anatomy of an Execution a fascinating read on so many levels. Again, I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, and some of the judges and lawyers involved in the Wiseman murders were from my hometown. Although I was never unfortunate enough to meet any judges or lawyers from Gloucester in an official capacity, it was impossible to read our local newspaper in the 80s and 90s and not see the names of the people who worked on this case. Peppers does a great job of telling Chris Thomas’s story, starting from the tragic beginning.

This book is extremely well-written and researched. There are some typos in the book, as well as a few very minor fractured facts. Peppers refers to Clover Hill as being in Richmond, for instance, when it’s not. I used to drive past Clover Hill on my way to Longwood and had a roommate who graduated from there. Richmond is its own city. However, this is a very minor quibble, in my view. Peppers has jam packed Anatomy of an Execution with information, as well as notes for further research. Chris Thomas’s case is also very poignant. Peppers and Anderson do a fine job of humanizing Chris Thomas and other people on death row.

There was a time when I was in favor of the death penalty. Gloucester County and its environs are chock full of political conservatives, so it’s hard not to go with the locals, especially when you’re a teenager. I have since become more of a (GASP) liberal, and for the most part, I disagree with capital punishment. It was amazing to me when Virginia abolished capital punishment in 2021. I never thought I would see the day.

Anatomy of an Execution was published in 2009, when the death penalty was still legal in Virginia. I’m sure Peppers was as surprised as I was when it was outlawed, as Peppers makes it very clear how very eager Virginia politicians and lawmakers were to maintain it. Peppers is very thorough as he explains the history of capital punishment in Virginia and the many injustices defendants faced in capital murder cases. I found it all fascinating and even wound up looking up a lot of the people involved in this case. Many of the main players are now deceased.

Thomas’s defense lawyer, Damian T. Horne, and his now wife and then co-counsel, Sydney West, are still living and have moved to New Mexico. Peppers doesn’t seem to think much of Horne or West, neither of whom were experienced enough for the case. But he also points out that back in the early 90s, Virginia only paid $600 total to criminal defense lawyers who represented indigent clients.

Chris Thomas’s original lawyer, the late Benton Pollok, was very experienced and had a passion for criminal law, but he had to be replaced due to a conflicting case he was handling involving a private client willing to pay him for his time. The late Judge John Folkes (from Gloucester) apparently didn’t like Pollok, and would not work with him to reschedule the court appointments. Consequently, Pollok was forced to withdraw from the case. Ironically, Pollok had to sue the his “paying client”, who wasn’t so eager to pay him, after all. If Chris had been able to keep Pollok as his lawyer, it’s likely he’d still be alive today.

I also shook my head as I read some of the letters exchanged between Chris Thomas and Jessica Wiseman. It’s pretty plain that Jessica manipulated the hell out of Chris. No, he shouldn’t have committed murder and he absolutely deserved punishment. But he was just a kid when he committed his crimes, and he did not have good counsel. His story is tragic and poignant. It’s a good reminder of how young people can get caught up in terrible situations that lead to their destruction. It’s crazy to me that Jessica spent less than seven years locked up in juvenile hall. She’s out now, has changed her name, and is free to live her life. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend is long dead, and people are haunted by his memory.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend Anatomy of an Execution to anyone who wants to know the whole story behind the Wiseman murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. I only wish the type in this book were a bit larger and/or it could be downloaded on Kindle. I’m definitely not sorry I took the time to read this book. I especially enjoyed reading about the former Virginia State Penitentiary. He also writes about the former death row in Mecklenburg, where Chris spent most of his years on death row (and where a different former college roommate’s father used to work). Chris was later moved to Sussex I Prison in Waverly, Virginia, where death row was moved in 1998 and remained until the death penalty in Virginia was abolished in 2021.

Peppers writes about how local eighth graders were allowed to visit the Virginia State Penitentiary when it was empty in 1991. I wonder if Peppers knows that other schools took students there to visit it before it closed. I have mentioned before that my government teacher took our class to the Virginia State Penitentiary in the spring of 1990, before all of the inmates were moved. We saw one of the cell blocks, as well as the death house. The electric chair was still in use at the time. Some of my classmates even sat on it! I think that’s when I started to change my mind about capital punishment. I’m glad I changed my mind.

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book reviews

Repost: Red Horizons, a book about the fall of the Ceausescus…

This as/is book review of Red Horizons was first written for Epinions.com on October 3, 2010. It was reposted on my original blog on June 16, 2014. It goes well with Ken Alibek’s book, Biohazard, which I also reposted today.

Comments from 2014

I’m reposting this review of Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Red Horizons because I found it as interesting as I did Ken Alibek’s Biohazard.  Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were the extremely corrupt leaders of Romania until they were publicly executed on Christmas Day in 1989.  Of course, in Romania, it might not have been Christmas.  Maybe they celebrate on a different day‚Ķ  I might be persuaded to look it up if I weren’t feeling so icky today.  Anyway, if you like reading about kooky, paranoid, and tyrannical leaders, you might find General Pacepa’s book as much of a page turner as I did.  I love reading about former Communist nations.

Review from 2010

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books about totalitarian regimes. A few months ago, I was on a North Korea kick, but soon found my attention turning to Europe. Somehow, I was alerted to Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa’s fascinating 1987 book, Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption. I ordered the 1990 reprint of this book in July and just now got around to reading it. Now that I’m finished with it, I’m left feeling somewhat stunned. It’s not so much that I’m surprised by the level of corruption and crimes committed by the Ceausescus. It’s more that General Pacepa has provided such a detailed, fascinating, and ultimately revealing image of the dictator and his wife and the tragedies they committed against their country and its people.

Who is Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa?

Ion Mihai Pacepa was born October 28, 1928 in Bucharest, Romania. Currently 81 years old, his father once worked in General Motors’ Bucharest factory and, through his work, developed a great love for America. According to Red Horizons, Pacepa grew up instilled with respect for the United States, yet he ended up becoming one of the highest ranking members of the Securitate, the secret service of Communist era Romania. At the time of his defection to the United States on July 28, 1978, Pacepa was a two-star Romanian general who held both the rank of advisor to former President Nicolae Ceausescu, acting chief of Romania’s foreign intelligence service, and state secretary of Romania’s Ministry of the Interior.

What qualifies Pacepa to write this expose of Communist era Romania?

Because Pacepa held so many roles in Ceausescu’s regime, he was in a rare position to observe the president and his wife, Elena. And in his book, Red Horizons, Pacepa doesn’t hold back. In captivating prose, Pacepa vividly describes what it was like to be Nicolae Ceausescu’s right hand man. He also offers an unflattering look at Elena Ceausescu, a selfish, contemptible, disdainful woman who fancied herself a scientist, but never quite delivered the goods to be a legitimate scholar.

What’s in the book…

With the literary grace of a novelist, Pacepa writes a lot about the Ceausescus’ oppressive leadership style, but he also reveals a lot about their limitations as people. The mighty former president, who demanded absolute loyalty from his people and had absolutely no qualms about executing anyone who dared to speak out about him (even if they were living abroad), was an unusually short man who stuttered whenever he got upset or nervous. He was so crippled with paranoia that whenever he traveled, he brought an entourage of staff and trunks of linens, towels, dishes, and food with him. He never ate any food that wasn’t prepared and seved by his own trusted personal chef and waiter.  Even when he stayed at fancy hotels in Washington, DC or New York, Ceausescu never relied on the services of hotel employees.  It was too risky.

Ceausescu’s clothes were made by a special Romanian staff. He wore a set of clothes exactly once, then had the whole set burned.  Every year, he wore and then destroyed 365 sets of clothes and shoes.   Elena occasionally cheated with the clothing rule; occasionally, she found clothes in Paris or London that she liked and would wear repeatedly.  These measures were taken in an effort to avoid being poisoned by anyone who would, quite understandably, want to see him dead.

Pacepa writes about how much the Ceausescus especially hated Jews and Hungarians and worked especially hard to see that they were especially oppressed in Romanian society.  His hatred for Jews extended to every Jew, according to Pacepa, who writes an almost comical account of a meeting Ceausescu had in New York City with former Mayor Ed Koch.  I won’t spoil the story by revealing it in this review; suffice it to say that by Pacepa’s account, if hard feelings could kill, Koch would have been a dead man.  In fact, any Romanian who threatened or angered Ceausescu was liable to end up the victim of an “unfortunate accident” or a severe beating, even if they no longer lived in Romania.  By Pacepa’s account in Red Horizons, it was not at all hard to make Ceausescu angry.

While the Romanian people suffered long lines for basic necessities, had one black and white television for every fifty houses, and were at one time legally required to have at least four children, the Ceausescus were demanding Rolls Royces, expensive jewelry, private jets and yachts, and even their own private hospital.  The Ceausescus were relentless in their attempts to suppress any dissent whatsoever within Romania.  At one point, typewriters were outlawed and anyone who had a typewriter had to register it.  Every citizen, even children, had to submit handwriting samples to the secret police.  And forget about privacy.  While the Ceausescus shamelessly bugged the homes of private citizens, even going so far as to listen in on one hapless couple’s late morning lovemaking session, Nicolae Ceausescu was famously paranoid about his own homes and offices being bugged and zealously guarded his privacy. The Ceausescus demanded accountability from every citizen, yet until they were tried for their crimes against Romania, refused to ever be held accountable themselves.

Pacepa’s account of all of this is written in shades of several different emotions.  He alternately writes with airs of disbelief, anger, sarcasm, derision, and even humor.  I don’t know if General Pacepa had any help from a ghostwriter. None are credited in my edition of this book. He writes as though he spent his whole life in America, with astonishing fluency. And while it’s impossible to know how much influence, if any at all, the Central Intelligence Agency had in the making of this book, I think this book will be very revealing to the average American reader, many of whom likely know next to nothing about the Ceausescus.

Pacepa includes a brief photo section. Pictures are in black and white and a few are a bit grainy. They’re still fascinating to look at. In the 1990 edition, there’s also a new preface as well as a transcript of the closed court hearings of the Ceausescus’ trial.

One possible drawback…

Although Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on December 25, 1989, this book doesn’t really have much information about that event. In fact, since Pacepa defected in 1978, there’s not much information about the society beyond that time. From what I understand, the 1980s are when things really went south in Romanian society. Those who want to know about that portion of Romanian history will need to consult a different source.

On the other hand, the day after the Ceausescus were executed, Truth, the Romanian daily newspaper, began printing excerpts from Red Horizons for all Romanians to read. I can only imagine how the Romanian people must have felt to have this sudden truth illuminated for them after so many years of oppression.  This is one book in which the truth may well be stranger and scarier than fiction.

Overall

I found Red Horizons enormously interesting reading. After finishing the book this morning, I found myself wanting to learn more about this particular chapter in history and read more of Pacepa’s writing. Fortunately, over the years, he has contributed a number of articles to The Wall Street JournalNational Review Online, and The Washington Times.

The very last speech.

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