Auburn Police: Daughter says she saw mom drowning sister in 1970 tub death

Search warrant statement alleges Patricia Thomas admitted leaving 4-year-old Cindy to drown
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Auburn Police say they watched from an adjoining room as 66-year-old Patricia Lee Thomas stated to a family member that she left her 4-year-old daughter to drown in a bathtub 42 years ago. Thomas made the alleged admission during a visit to another daughter’s home to confront what authorities believe are dark family secrets that have been covered up for more than four decades. Auburn Police investigators began to unravel what they and the Placer County District Attorney’s Office allege is a murder “cold case” that heated up again after 47-year-old Wendy Howell Peck took a long-held secret to psychiatric and medical professionals. According to information filed with Placer County Superior Court in support of search warrants that were granted and served Jan. 17 and 18, Howell Peck told investigators that she walked into the bathroom of her family’s Auburn home the evening of May 25, 1970, and saw her sister lying on her back in the tub while their mother stood in the tub holding 4-year-old Cindy Howell’s legs up. Patricia Thomas, who has since divorced and remarried, was legally known as Patricia Howell at the time. “She described Cindy as being bent at the waist with her mother holding her down, and holding her legs up by the calf area,” stated Auburn Police investigator Jerry Johnson in a statement of probable cause. “Cindy was not making any noise. When her mother saw Wendy she yelled at her to get out of the bathroom and go tend to her brother.” Howell Peck didn’t tell police investigators at the time but told her grandmother and other relatives that she saw her mother drown Cindy, court documents state. “Each time she said anything to someone she was later beaten by her mother,” the search warrant request states. “Wendy said her mother told her that she – Wendy – was responsible for Cindy’s death. Her mother told her the family knew she did it and not to talk with them. Wendy said she soon learned not to talk about Cindy.” This past Jan. 13, Thomas and her daughter met at Wendy’s Grass Valley home. Unbeknownst to Thomas, police had wired the house with video and audio recording equipment. Initially, Thomas repeated a statement she had told investigators – that Wendy had come out of the bathroom and told her that Cindy was “sleeping” and that she discovered her daughter in the tub. “At this point, she said it was too late to save Cindy and that she never blamed Wendy,” the police reported. “Wendy continued to stay strong and finally told her mother that she was going to take her story to the police if she did not tell her the truth. She promised the truth would stay between them.” Reassured by the daughter’s claim, Thomas eventually told a revised version. “After several more denials, Patricia finally broke down, telling Wendy that she bumped Cindy’s head on the faucet,” Johnson stated in the report. “Cindy became unconscious and she left her there to drown and walked out of the bathroom.” The meeting between mother and daughter ended a short time later “with Patricia moving right back into general conversation like nothing ever happened,” Johnson wrote. Cold case probe continuing Patricia Lee Thomas was arrested Jan. 19 at her Grass Valley home for the murder of her 4-year-old daughter. She entered a not guilty plea at her Jan. 24 arraignment. The 1970 death was reported then as a bathtub drowning but Auburn Police investigators never closed the case. Police Chief John Ruffcorn said the investigation into the girl’s death was continuing while the court process moves forward. Thomas is behind bars at North Auburn’s Placer County Jail on a no-bail hold. Her attorney – Thomas Leupp of Auburn – could not be reached for comment Wednesday but has said he’ll be asking the court for a bail reduction because his client is not a flight risk. The next court appearance for Thomas is scheduled for Feb. 28 and a bail hearing could take place at that time. The Journal is providing the full text of the Auburn Police statement of probable cause online. It forms the foundation for search warrants being issued by Judge James Garbolino on Jan. 18. The warrants were served on the former Thomas home in the 300-block of Placer Street in Auburn, Thomas’ Grass Valley home, and the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley. Allegations of molestation are part of the public-record document obtained from the court. That document is available at as an attachment to this report. The Journal’s policy is to not identify possible sex-crime victims in its published report. The Journal has redacted that portion of the warrant because those accused of the molestation have not been charged or arrested for the alleged crime as of Wednesday. It’s stated in the document that those allegations of molestation are being investigated. Ruffcorn said that the allegations are part of the ongoing investigation as police unravel the facts of the case. Court documents reveal more information While no charges were filed against Patricia Lee Thomas in 1970, authorities were suspicious. In the second part of this report, to be published in a coming edition of the Journal and at, parts of the 42-year-old investigation and e-mails sent by Thomas denying any culpability will be reported on.