"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Fatal Obsession of Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson


In Turkey shortly after the end of World War I, a British military officer named Louis Thompson met a pretty young woman named Lydia Shevchenko, a nurse who had fled her native Russia during the Revolution. The two fell in love, and married in 1922. Little did they know it at the time, but this would prove to be far more disastrous to both of them than war or revolution.

In 1928, the couple emigrated to the United States, settling in Orchard Lake, a swanky area just outside of Detroit, Michigan. They opened a laundry, which expanded into a highly profitable chain. Louis also found success as an auto dealer. These businesses soon made them very rich. And very unhappy. Although Louis relished their new-found fortune and the luxuries it could bring, Lydia was evidently one of those people for whom wealth is more of a burden than a joy. While Louis happily spent his money on the high life, Lydia continued to work in their laundry and castigate her husband for his extravagance. A deep estrangement developed between these two basically incompatible people, a fissure that widened beyond repair when Lydia found out that Louis was having an affair with his married secretary, Helen Budnik. In 1944, Louis asked his wife for a divorce. Lydia, with her old-school, ultra-conservative values, fiercely refused to even consider the idea. She still claimed to love her husband, and in any case, marriage, for her, was truly a case of “till death do you part.”

Someone was to take those words far too literally.

Louis Thompson


In 1945, the Thompson marriage took a shockingly ugly turn. Lydia had not only hired no less than three detective agencies to shadow her husband, she had fallen into the habit of snooping on her husband’s every move herself. On March 31, she tailed Louis to a Detroit nightclub where he was having dinner with some friends—including female friends. As it happened, the socializing was of an innocent variety, but to Lydia it had all the appearance of a Roman orgy. She stormed up to Louis’ table and began hurling invective at the women. Then, she pulled a vial of acid out of her purse and threw it at them, burning their faces and legs.

Unsurprisingly, this ended for good any chance of the Thompsons ever reconciling. Louis—probably harboring worries for his own skin—fled to Miami, where Helen Budnik was vacationing. Lydia was hot on his trail.  She confronted the pair, telling Budnik that if the secretary did not give Louis up, “I’ll haunt you all my life. I’ll kill myself.”

Lydia was, if nothing else, a woman who meant what she said. She swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, and, when those did nothing worse than make her sick, she climbed onto a ledge outside the hotel and swore she would jump. Budnik, aghast, frantically promised Lydia that she would never see Louis again.

Those were mere empty words, of course. After the trio returned to Michigan, Louis and Helen took up exactly where they had left off. Louis moved out of the Thompson home. Lydia again threatened suicide, but this time, Budnik called her bluff. She flatly refused to end the affair. Lydia retorted by threatening to have Helen disfigured for life—and with her track record, that was no empty threat. She continued stalking her husband, but she confided to friends that she was becoming terrified that someone was spying on her during these outings. She began talking of her death--either by her own hand, or someone else's. She bought a gun.

This uneasy situation had a grim resolution on October 11, 1945. That morning, Lydia breakfasted with two female friends. The two women later said that Mrs. Thompson expressed fears that she might be murdered, but in such a “vague way” that they didn’t take her words seriously.

Around 1 pm, Mrs. Thompson entered a grocery store where she was a regular customer. She went up to the owner, clutching a small piece of paper. She asked him, "Will you look up the man whose name is on the paper?" Unfortunately, the owner did not even bother to see what the name was. He merely waved her off, saying he was too busy at the moment. The frantic woman protested, "But you've got to do it. I'm scared to death. I've got to know this--you've got to find this man for me." As he continued to show disinterest in her curious request, she finally gave up and left.

Mrs. Thompson then went to the apartment of a friend, Harriet Steele. By this point, she was practically in hysterics, crying and saying she feared for her life. "Everything that causes the trouble," she wailed, "is on this slip of paper." She added that if she didn't find out who this man was, "maybe I will not see you tomorrow." Mrs. Steele did not see what this name was. She just tried consoling her friend as best as she could until Lydia set out again on her strange perigrinations.

Later that day, Lydia sent a telegram, purportedly to her sister in Russia. The message read, “Send your address. Am mailing package soon. Wire immediately.” The exact meaning of this message remains a mystery.

This cryptic telegram was Lydia Thompson’s last known action. The following day, her car was found in a downtown parking lot in Pontiac, Michigan. It had evidently been left there sometime between 10 and 11:30 pm the previous night. It was unknown who had driven the car. On October 13, mushroom pickers found her body in some woods a few miles outside of Pontiac.

Lydia’s death had not been an easy one. She had been knocked unconscious, and then stabbed many times with both a knife and an ice pick. Then, her murderer took a hatchet and nearly decapitated her. The doctor who performed the autopsy believed there was a lapse of four or five days between her first wounds and the death blow to her neck, adding an additional layer of strangeness to the mystery.

Authorities believed she had not been killed where she was found, but the site of her death is unknown. Her home showed no sign of robbery, or a struggle of any sort. However, Lydia’s gun, ration book, driver’s license and keys had all disappeared. Found on her desk was a letter she had written, which said, “If after this day you don’t see me and you don’t hear anything of me, then go on Jefferson and find a man by the name of Perrone and ask him where I am. This is the doings of my husband. He is tired of me and wants to marry her. Everything that belongs to me I leave to you.”

The letter was addressed to her father, Andrew Shevchenko, who was living in Detroit. For whatever reason, Lydia had kept secret from everyone, including her husband, the information that Shevchenko had emigrated from Russia. Andrew told investigators that he knew nothing of the meaning of this letter, or anything else about Lydia’s recent doings. Police found three men named Perrone who lived on Jefferson Avenue. However, they all denied knowing Lydia, and as far as anyone could tell, they were all being truthful. Also found in the house was Lydia’s diary, which was full of her despair over her shattered marriage and sinister hints of doom. “I shall drag two people into my death with me,” she wrote on one page.

She very nearly did. Louis, of course, became the prime suspect in her gruesome murder. A carpenter who did work for Lydia told investigators that three weeks before her death, she confided to him that Louis had attacked her with an ice pick. The man quoted her as saying, “Don’t be surprised if they find me in the country with an ice pick through me.” However, no evidence other than this hearsay was found tying Louis to the killing. Although both Louis and Helen Budnik had alibis for the time of Lydia’s death, they both remained under a dark cloud of suspicion.

Two weeks after Lydia died, her father suddenly left Detroit, saying that he was going "someplace where it was more pleasant." (As if the story was not confusing enough already, shortly after Shevchenko fled from view, police reportedly received a cable from a woman believed to be Lydia's sister in Russia. This message said that their father had been dead for many years.)

The puzzle only deepened when investigators learned that in the last months of her life, the normally tight-fisted Lydia had been spending money at an astounding rate. In her final weeks, she took well over $6,000 from her bank account and borrowed from a friend an additional $1,500. No one ever determined where all this money went. Police heard stories claiming that Lydia had been paying gang members to beat up her husband's lady friends, but even this would not account for all her expenditures. (The police found no evidence these hired thugs ever carried out Lydia's orders.)

In February 1946, four months after Lydia’s murder, Louis married Helen Budnik. She gave birth to a son that November. The newlyweds prepared to settle down in Thompson’s luxurious Orchard Park house. While the house was being cleaned up, a package was found behind the refrigerator. It contained Lydia’s missing keys, license, and ration book. Several months later, her gun was found behind some pipes in one of the closets. Police claimed they had searched those same places immediately after Lydia’s death and had found nothing.

Louis told the police he was becoming increasingly convinced that Lydia had paid to have herself killed, in the hope of framing him for her murder. At other times, he declared that his estranged wife had been the victim of a “sex maniac.” Helen, on the other hand, asserted, “Lydia was arranging to have us killed,” only to be murdered by her own hit man.

In 1947, a Wayne County judge investigating the local organized crime racket heard some very curious things about the Thompson case. A woman named Laura Riddle said her boyfriend, Stanley Anculewicz, an ex-con with mob ties, told her that Louis had hired him to “compromise” Lydia. Later, Louis offered him $10,000 “to dispose of her entirely.” Riddle added that Anculewicz and an unnamed Italian had also been involved in some murky plot to blackmail Mrs. Thompson.

This story was enough for the judge to issue indictments against Anculewicz and the Thompsons. When he was arrested, Anculewicz claimed that he had invented the whole account, in order to scare Riddle off so he could return to his wife and three children. Whether this was the truth or not, the judge at their preliminary hearing dismissed the charges against the trio on technical grounds: There was no proof the murder took place in Wayne County. (Lydia’s body was found in nearby Oakland County.) Thompson and his wife were released, but the police made it clear to the press that they were far from exonerated.

Louis and Helen Thompson


The investigation into Lydia Thompson’s murder essentially ended on that very unsatisfactory note. There has been no end of theorizing about the mystery: Was Lydia murdered by an assassin hired by her husband? By a hit man she herself had hired to murder Louis and Helen? By a hit man she herself had hired to slay her, in the hopes that her now-hated husband would get the blame? By the Russian secret police? By some random, unknown lunatic?

Where was Lydia spending all that money? Who was Perrone? Who was the man named in the paper Lydia was waving about just before her death? Why was she so secretive about her father moving to the United States? Was he her father? If not, who was he?

Who knows?

3 comments:

  1. What a case. Another one of those that it would be brilliant to see solved and yet is so tantalising unsolved. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. The cases you describe show how many unsolved crimes there are in the world. For everyone filled with mystery, there must be dozens which simply don't have enough evidence. The 'fake' father in this case interests me most - if he was a fake.

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  3. ...Jeeez Louise..., My gawd.., we get spooky with each other...!!!

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