Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic
April 3, 2019
The man who tried and failed to convince jurors that his upbringing as a Scientologist helped rationalize why he bludgeoned two people to death and set their bodies on fire was sentenced Wednesday to death by a Prescott jury.
The jury announced its verdict of death shortly after noon, according to a public information officer for the Yavapai County Superior Court.
Kenneth Wayne Thompson, 35, used a hatchet and knife to kill his sister-in-law, Penelope Edwards, and her boyfriend, Troy Dunn, in March 2012, according to court testimony. He then poured acid over the bodies and set the house on fire before fleeing the scene.
A jury convicted him of the killings Feb. 20. Jurors began deliberating on March 30 whether Thompson should spend his life in prison or die by lethal injection.
Prosecutors with the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office painted the crime as a deliberate plan, hatched in Thompson’s mind days before and carried out unbeknownst to anyone, including his wife, Gloria.
As evidence, prosecutors told jurors how Thompson bought a gun and a temporary cellphone in the days before. He then told his wife he was leaving their home in the Ozarks region of Missouri to travel to Memphis to deal with a legal issue involving his parents’ estate.
Instead, Thompson drove to Arizona, making the journey in just over a day with minimal stops, according to court testimony.
Thompson’s attorneys didn’t dispute the bare facts. But they offered a different motivation and rationale, rooted in Thompson’s being raised as a Scientologist.
A mission to ‘rescue’ two children
Thompson, in his attorney’s version, saw himself on a mission to rescue two children who were in his sister-in-law’s care. Thompson’s wife, Gloria, had cared for the children temporarily while her sister, Penelope, had served a prison sentence. After the children were returned to their mother, Gloria still fretted about the kids’ well-being, testimony showed.
Thompson and his wife had just discovered that one of the children was being treated in the psychiatric ward of a children’s hospital. And for Thompson, who was raised as a Scientologist, that was akin to killing the child spiritually.
“(Scientologists) think psychology is evil and a scam,” defense attorney Robert Gundacker told jurors in his opening statement.
Thompson, according to his attorneys, came to a junction of Interstate 40 and made an impulsive decision to head west to Arizona rather than east to Tennessee.
Thompson’s wife sent increasingly frantic text messages to his phone, imploring him to contact her. But Thompson didn’t take his phone on the trip, testimony showed. He had a temporary phone; his usual phone was found at his Missouri home weeks later, his wife testified.
The trip was not evidence of premeditation, his attorney said, but showed how seriously Thompson took his religious belief that the child receiving mental treatment was in spiritual peril and needed rescuing.
Once at the home, his attorneys argued, a discussion about the children went badly and Thompson killed the couple in the heat of passion.
The jury deliberated less then two hours before returning the verdict that Thompson was guilty of first-degree murder. That same jury then began deciding whether the crime merited the death penalty.
Lessons in Scientology
Though the state objected to the defense, the judge allowed Thompson’s attorneys to spend the better part of a day at trial walking jurors through the beliefs of Scientology.
An expert in the religion, flown in from Canada, gave sworn testimony about the origins of the religion, which included a warlord named Xenu who buried beings in a volcano on what is now Planet Earth.
Jurors also heard about the use of introspective counseling called “auditing” that Scientology adherents believe can rid the body of unwanted thetans, leaving a person in the desired state of “clear.”
Thompson’s ex-wife, Gloria, testified that Thompson had stopped being a practicing Scientologist, partly because of the expense.
Other testimony suggested that Thompson was a so-called “free zone” Scientologist. That schism of the faith adheres to what it says are the original teachings of the church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and does not follow the church’s current leader, David Miscavige.
The Church of Scientology was not pleased to see its religious beliefs become entangled in a brutal murder trial.
A Church of Scientology spokesperson, Karin Pouw, in a statement sent to The Republic in February, said the testimony about Scientology was distorted and incorrect, contributing to “hate, intolerance and bigotry.”
Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Steve Young echoed that sentiment during his closing arguments to jurors before they decided whether Thompson was guilty.
“Why is Scientology even injected into this trial?” he asked. “Scientology is not on trial; the defendant is. Scientology did not kill (the victims); the defendant did.”
The crime and the getaway
The prosecution described the killings as methodical.
After arriving in Arizona following his marathon drive, Thompson checked into a motel for a brief rest. Early the next morning, he visited a Walmart where he bought a hatchet and a change of clothes. His attorneys had suggested the hatchet was bought for a planned camping trip, not for the double murder he would commit hours later.
Thompson took a taxi to his sister-in-law’s home in Prescott Valley and was allowed inside. From there, it is not clear what happened.
Evidence showed that Edwards made a phone call after Thompson entered the home. Thompson apparently brought food for the couple. And drugs were found in the victims’ systems, though it is not clear when those drugs were taken.
But hours later, neighbors reported a house fire. Crews discovered the charred, hacked and bludgeoned bodies of the victims.
Thompson drove east on Interstate 40, but was stopped by a trooper who thought something was suspicious about the man driving past with his arms locked straight.
It was disputed in court testimony whether Thompson consented to the search. But that search turned up the hatchet that had human hair and blood on the blade. The trooper called in to dispatch and asked if there were any murders in the area and was told of the house fire and double homicide just discovered in Prescott Valley.
Handcuffed on the side of the freeway, Thompson, according to the police report, asked if Arizona allowed conjugal visits.