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Auburn Police had murder suspicions in 1970 about bathtub drowning

4-year-old victim's mother now charged with murder in resurrected cold case
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Even in 1970, Auburn Police were suspicious enough to keep the bathtub drowning case involving 4-year-old Cindy Howell an open one. Reports by then-Police Chief Herschel Young obtained from court records and made public for the first time show investigators questioning family members who called into question the version of the events the night of May 25, 1970, given by the dead girl’s mother. Forty-two years later, police arrested Cindy’s mother – 66-year-old Patricia Lee Thomas – on a single murder charge. She has pleaded not guilty and is currently being held at Placer County Jail awaiting her next court date on Tuesday. The typewritten report by Young stated that James Howell – father of Cindy and separated from Patricia at the time of the drowning – told investigators that he thought his wife played a role in the death of his daughter. “Mr. Howell remarked, off the record so to speak, that he felt that his wife was responsible for the death of the child, but at this time, he was not certain in his own mind if the death was accidental or deliberate,” Young’s report stated. James Howell told police that he and his wife’s past separations were primarily based on what he considered her “deliberate and unjust mistreatment, both physically and mentally, toward the deceased Cindy,” according to the report. “His wife is always accusing him of affairs with other women, is a very jealous woman and then takes out her anger on the deceased child Cindy,” the report quoted James Howell as saying. “Mr. Howell feels that the reason for the mistreatment of Cindy was due only to the fact that Cindy and her father’s likeness (is similar) in appearance,” Young said. As far as James Howell knew, the other daughter, Wendy, or the couple’s infant boy had never been mistreated by Patricia Howell, the report said. Patricia Howell’s arrest came after Wendy, now 47, was referred to law enforcement by medical and psychiatric personnel after stating that she had seen her mother drowning Cindy in the family home’s bathtub, according to court documents filed with a search warrant request. Wendy Howell Peck questioned her mother at her Grass Valley home last month while investigators secretly audiotaped and videorecorded the meeting. At that time, according to court documents filed by Auburn Police investigators, Patricia Howell stated that she bumped Cindy’s head on the faucet and she left her unconscious daughter to drown in the bathtub. Patricia Howell has remarried and was charged shortly afterward under her new legal name of Patricia Lee Thomas. Police Chief John Ruffcorn said the investigation into the case is ongoing as the legal case proceeds. Thomas Leupp, attorney for Thomas, hadn’t returned a Journal phone call Thursday but has said that he will be attempting to reduce a no-bail hold on his client because she shouldn’t be considered a flight risk. E-mail correspondence before arrest Before Thomas was charged, she and her daughter exchanged e-mails over what Wendy contended she saw that night. “Crazy stuff,” Thomas stated. “Yes, there was an investigation, twice. The second time I took a lie detector test. Enough!!” The police report also quoted from a 1970 interview with Patricia Howell’s sister, Judy. Her husband was the brother of Thomas Howell. The sisters had married the two brothers at about the same time. “When asked if at any time she had personally observed or had heard of any mistreatment to any of the children by either parent, James or Patricia, she (Judy Howell) replied, ‘I would prefer not to answer that question at this time,’” the report stated. “She went on further, that she could not see how Cindy could have drowned in the bathtub, but that she could not see how her sister could possibly be involved criminally.” Judy Howell told police that Cindy did not have a sleeping disorder although she seemed to get tired more easily than other children her age. The report said Judy Howell and other family members had talked about the incident but were not satisfied in their own minds with the explanation given by Patricia Howell. Police were told by Patricia Howell that she had left her daughter in the bathroom and the dead girl was found by Wendy. Also included in the court documents filed last month was a Placer Coroner’s report stating Cindy Howell had a “circular abrasion above the right eye and a slight blue discoloration at the outer right eye and right temple.” 1970 Auburn Police report online You can see a copy of the Auburn Police report on the death of Cindy Howell in 1970 attached to this story. This is the second of two stories based on newly released information from the 1970 and 2012 investigations into the drowning death of 4-year-old Cindy Howell.