Woman accused of murder in 1970 Auburn death of daughter, 4, to remain in jail

Bail request for Patricia Lee Thomas slated for Feb. 14
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A 66-year-old woman who Placer County authorities allege murdered her 4-year-old in 1970 made her initial court appearance Monday in Auburn. Grass Valley resident Patricia Lee Thomas, 66, made the standard “not guilty” plea that takes place early in proceedings and will remain in North Auburn’s Placer County Jail on a no-bail hold until at least Feb. 14. Thomas was arrested Thursday by Auburn Police in connection with the May 25, 1970, death of her daughter, Cynthia Howell. Thomas, who was then known as Patricia Howell, told officers at the time of the death that the girl was alone when she drowned in the family home’s bathtub in the 300-block of Placer Street in Auburn. An autopsy determined the death was due to asphyxiation caused by drowning. Forty-two years later, Auburn Police worked with the Placer County District Attorney’s Cold Case Unit to renew the investigation into Cynthia Howell’s death. That investigation led to the single murder charge filed against the girl’s mother last week. Defense attorney Thomas Leupp said after the short arraignment hearing at the Placer County Superior Court jail courtroom before Judge Larry Gaddis that Thomas was shaking and sobbing. “Anyone who is accused of anything like this is going through horrific emotional trauma,” Leupp said. Thomas will return to the same courtroom at 1 p.m. Valentine’s Day. Leupp said he’ll be seeking his client’s release on bail. “She’s not a flight risk,” Leupp said. “She has had a lung transplant, there are problems with her kidneys and she has macular degeneration.” Wearing the standard red uniform women inmates are issued, the bespectacled, graying Thomas was asked no direct questions by Gaddis. Leupp said prosecutors will be turning over police reports and other investigation information to him before the February court date. “All I know is that there was an investigation 42 years ago and no charges were filed – it was determined that the death was an accidental drowning,” Leupp said. Prosecutor Garen Horst agreed to the Feb. 14 court date but left via a side door from the courthouse, missing a phalanx of Sacramento TV station cameras stationed outside the main public entrance at the jail courtroom. Leupp said Thomas, who once worked as a gas station manager, split her time living between Grass Valley and Auburn over the past four decades. She has been known for the past 13 years as Patricia Lee Thomas. Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said Monday that a search warrant was served on the Thomas home in Grass Valley before the arrest. The investigation also involved contacting witnesses in Arizona as well as California, he said. Going back to the initial investigation by Auburn Police in 1970, Ruffcorn said that there was no information at that time indicating a criminal act had occurred. The Auburn department worked with the FBI and Placer County authorities to build a case from a single tip. “We don’t want to say how we got the tip but it’s from a single source and credible,” Ruffcorn said. “This is a fine piece of law-enforcement between our staff and the D.A. and I’m proud of them.”