Darkness enveloped the Old Bend-Redmond Highway this moonless March night.
The beams from Tim Hernandez’s police cruiser cast the only glow as he drove south. The High Desert road climbs and dips, winding by small irrigated farms, scattered rural homes and expanses of juniper and sage.
The Deschutes County sheriff’s deputy finally spotted the correct green rural address post. He followed the dirt driveway about 400 feet away from the road to a home perched on a hillside. At the top, he found what he was looking for — a maroon Cadillac El Dorado.
Hernandez parked behind it, blocking it in. He didn’t want anyone to jump in the car and flee. If the Cadillac is here, he thought, Vicki Koch’s 15-year-old runaway son must not be far behind.
Hernandez had promised the increasingly frightened mother that he would find her son, Seth, who had stolen his parents’ Cadillac. They hadn’t seen him now in nearly two days.
Colleagues say Hernandez works runaway cases with a special zeal. Some had even wondered why he spends so much time on them. But to Hernandez, a teenager not at home in the thick of night is in danger of assault, rape or worse. “You do everything you can,” the deputy said. “That’s how you live with yourself.”
Seth had never done anything like this before, his mother said. The most defiant thing he ever did was slam his bedroom door after an argument. But he had made new friends recently, ones that concerned his mother.
Hernandez knew one friend the mother worried about, 17-year-old Justin Link. The deputy had been to his parents’ home a few times.
Five months earlier, Hernandez had waited outside the home to make sure other officers were safe as they executed a search warrant. The warrant implicated Justin in two burglaries.
From his connections with kids, the deputy also knew who spent time with Justin. That afternoon, Hernandez had gone to their homes and asked questions.
He finally started getting somewhere. At one house, three teenagers said a group that included Seth and Justin had stopped by the day before. They were driving around in a Cadillac, trying to sell booze and talking about going to Canada. The officer told the teens to call if they heard from them again.
At 6:08 p.m., one teenager called him back. He had heard from a friend earlier that afternoon that Seth was likely with a group at the house on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway.
Fifteen minutes later, Hernandez started driving from Terrebonne.
On the way, another call came in. A domestic dispute. The runaway call dropped on the priority list.
After handling the dispute, the deputy reached the house by 7:30 p.m.
The home appeared still and dark. Deschutes County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Johnston arrived shortly afterward. Hernandez would need the help. If his information was correct, Seth might be with four or five other teenagers in the house. The officers didn’t want them to run.
Hernandez would go to the front of the house, they decided. Johnston would approach the back.
Hernandez’s flashlight sliced the black. He swept a beam across the door, the stairs, the family room window.
Then he saw it.
Blood on the window blinds. One hole in the glass.
Deschutes County District Attorney's Office submitted photo The bullet that killed Barbara Thomas exited through the front window of the residence.
Hernandez immediately turned the flashlight off.
Oh no, he thought. One of the teenagers committed suicide. Is someone in there alive and needing help?
He radioed Johnston. Come around to the front and take a look at this.
The officers agreed. They had to get in the house.
Hernandez grabbed the knob with a gloved hand. Locked.
They tried the back door. Locked.
They returned to the front. Johnston drew his gun. “Sheriff’s office! Sheriff’s office!”
Hernandez kicked in the door. What the lawmen saw left the community stunned for years to come.
The floor, covered.
Craft paper, newspaper, paper cards, playing cards, couch cushions, cardboard boxes. Clothes, coats, pop cans, cigarette butts, green glass bottle fragments. A golf club. A stethoscope. A red bull’s-eye drawn on the wall. Chunks of wall gone. An electric guitar covered with white dust lying next to a drywall gash. Broken dishes and Ramen noodles clogging the sink. A couch overturned. And everywhere blood. On the vaulted ceiling, the cream walls, the blinds, the furniture, the light gray carpet.
Amid the sinister murk, a woman, dead on the floor.
The deputy later learned that had he arrived an hour earlier, he might have confronted the killers.
Deschutes County District Attorney's Office submitted photo The first deputies to arrive at Barbara Thomas' home after the murder found the residence a shambles. The teens later said they destroyed the house in the search for a missing set of car keys..
Few Central Oregonians remain untouched by the murder of Barbara Ann Thomas.
A widow, a mother, a member of Redmond’s St. Thomas Catholic Church and an employee at the Prime Outlets of Bend, the 52-year-old Oregon native was slain on March 26, 2001, by her own son and four of his friends.
And they didn’t just kill her. They plotted death by bleach injection or by electrocution in the bathtub. In the end, two of the boys smacked her head more than a dozen times with empty champagne bottles. One of them then shot her.
The teens themselves admit that Barbara saw it all. She knew her own son wanted her dead.
The limp justifications that dribbled out during the next two-and-a-half years of court jousting shocked as much as the brutality of the crime: Five teenagers killed a woman for a car. They killed her for a joyride to Canada. They killed her for a warped sense of freedom.
For all five, freedom is but a memory.
Names now entwined forever. All still in the prime of life, and as of September, all sentenced to prison.
The two girls participated in the planning and will spend 25 years behind bars. The three boys were sentenced to life in prison.
They have all expressed regret in court for their choices. “I would gladly give my life right now if I could give hers back,” Seth said at his sentencing.
Perhaps the most startling part of the murder was the contrast between their horrific crime and baby-faced youth. Their braces, lanky limbs and scruffy mops reflected Every Teenager.
Who were these five adolescents who in the relative blink of an eye went from toddlers playing in the sandbox to killers playing with guns? What took them from teenage antics to unspeakable violence?
Even for Deschutes County Sheriff Les Stiles, a veteran detective, the questions still haunt.
“I’ve seen kids kill other people. This one is clearly the most brutal,” he said. “This one bothered me in ways the others didn’t.”
Adam Thomas, Ashley Summers, Lucretia Karle, Justin LInk, Seth Koch
There may be no answers.
But there are lessons in the stories of teenage rebelliousness gone haywire and family connections short-circuited. “When something like this happens, we have to sit down and address what’s going on in this community,” said Jenny Scanlon, director of Deschutes County Juvenile Community Justice, the agency that deals with troubled youths. “We can’t just point fingers.”
The house on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway had not always been a dark place.
Barbara Thomas filled her home with family photos, homemade cross-stitch wall hangings and the laughter of friends.
She moved into the gray manufactured home with teal trim in 1997. It sits on 5 acres of grass and juniper trees that she and her husband bought years before with the intent to build.
From her front deck, Barbara could look down at the green, irrigated horse farm across the road. Neighbors lived within eyesight but far enough away that they would have to bellow to get her attention.
One of Barbara’s favorite aspects of the property was the view. The front deck gave a stunning look at the Three Sisters. She and friend Deborah Palmberg spent hours sitting on a swing in front of the house, chatting, giggling and watching the sun set.
Wherever Barbara lived, her home had always been filled with people.
She grew up as Barbara Jones, the oldest child in a family of five in The Dalles. Her father, Gene Jones, was one of 10 children. She grew up there with her two brothers, graduated from high school and moved to Bend to attend Central Oregon Community College.
In 1974 in Roseburg, she married Clair Richard Thomas, or “Tom” Thomas as everyone called him.
The Thomases soon became a unit of four. Eleven months after their wedding, the couple gave birth to Jason Eugene in 1975 in Roseburg. Then in 1982 while living in Eugene, the couple welcomed Adam Squires, choosing his middle name in honor of his paternal grandmother.
The family lived throughout Oregon, largely following Tom’s job as a telephone company repairman. They moved from Roseburg to Eugene to Bend and then to Coos Bay before returning to Central Oregon in 1986.
Both Tom and Barbara grew up in Oregon, with siblings and cousins scattered across the state.
On holidays, when joined by Tom’s two children from a previous marriage, their spouses and other relatives, Barbara’s home buzzed with activity.
The family, however, began shrinking before Barbara moved to the Old Bend-Redmond Highway.
Deschutes Country District Attorney's Office submitted photo A sheriff's deputy surveys the property the day after the murder in this image taken from the crime scene video. This is the back side of the house.
Barbara’s mother, Betty Jones, came to live with them as she struggled through her final days with cancer. She died in 1987.
Jason Thomas, the eldest son, graduated from high school when Adam was 11. Jason left home after several years to join the Army.
“We were close growing up,” Jason said, “but seven years was almost another generation. He would be in watching cartoons while I was out working on the pickup.”
Then Barbara’s husband, Tom, 20 years her senior, also died of cancer. He beat esophageal cancer, but about a year later he was diagnosed with bone cancer. It had spread through his body.
Barbara and her son Jason, then 21, nursed him through his second bout. Tom’s pain by the end made death seem merciful, Barbara later told friends.
Jason had left the Army to help the family. He returned to military life shortly after his father’s death in June 1997 and now serves in Iraq.
Barbara moved into the new home on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway several months after her husband’s death with her youngest son, Adam, then 14.
Even as a child, Adam shared his mother’s features. They had the same dark eyes, long nose and pale skin.
Relatives remember Adam as a normal, affable child who rode bikes and collected large buttons, pinning them to a blanket.
“Adam was a cute little guy. He was always smiling,” said Wendi Aguiar, Adam’s half-sister and 26 years his senior.
In terms of personality, everyone said Jason, not Adam, took after Barbara. Jason had the charm, the twinkle in his eye, like his mother.
Adam told jokes and could be animated, but he was more reserved. He fibbed constantly, which drove his relatives batty.
“He’s a compulsive liar,” Jason said. “I know he’s not going to like to hear that, but he is. He’s always been.”
At times, Adam’s quiet became anger.
Anger in the Thomas family, Jason said, is like a genetic trait. His father, Tom, had a tendency to get mad, and Jason said he is the same way.
Adam was the worst.
“Adam always had a problem with his temper from very early on,” Jason recalled. “He’d go into just a rage. He’d scream and break things.”
Adam felt puzzled by his anger, he later told Dr. William Sack, an Oregon Health & Science University psychiatry professor emeritus who analyzed him for the criminal case.
Adam also revealed that he felt awkward in childhood. He said people teased him because he wore glasses and he didn’t have many friends.
He suffered from asthma, as well. Some relatives believed his asthma attacks struck at convenient moments, while other family members recalled them being quite severe. Adam’s father took care of him when he suffered an attack or needed medicine.
The family enjoyed trips camping, fishing or clamming on the coast. Childhood photos show Adam in waders joining in the fun. Later, the outings didn’t excite Adam. On one camping trip, relatives remembered him spending most of the time in the tent.
Despite Adam’s difficulties, family members described the Thomas family as a happy one.
Adam recalled to Dr. Sack a childhood of love. He felt particular closeness to his brother and father.
Frends remember Barbara Thomas as a woman with a huge smile and a devotion to church and family. The 52-year-old Oregon native was slain on March 28, 2001, by her 18-year-old son and four of his friends.
His mother never rejected him, but Adam told Dr. Sack he never felt emotionally connected in the same way with Barbara.
Looking back, Jason said that when their father died, Adam lost a man who treated him as a benevolent grandfather would. He comforted and coddled him.
Jason said he grew up with a traditionally structured family of mom the nurturing homemaker and dad the working rule enforcer.
By the time Adam was of an age to toss the football around, Tom Thomas’ health started failing. Tom retired, while Barbara went to work.
“It wasn’t quite the same relationship I had with my dad,” Jason said.
“When I was younger, my father was real healthy and vital,” he added.
Despite Tom Thomas’ two rounds with cancer, the final one lasting eight months, Adam described his father’s death to Dr. Sack as sudden.
The 14-year-old boy felt lost. But he didn’t express that to anyone at the time.
“I’m not really sure to this day how he took Dad dying,” Jason said.
Barbara grieved deeply after her husband’s death, friends said.
But she also reached out to a new life. During that first year on the Old Bend-Redmond Highway, Barbara decorated her home with her collections of antique bottles and art. She landed a new job, administrative assistant at Prime Outlets of Bend, that she adored.
And she made close friends. They made dinners, went to country music shows or Sisters Starry Nights concerts and created homemade cards.
Each one would later say she considered Barbara a sister. She talked with them almost every day.
“Looking back, how she managed, I don’t know, because none of us ever felt left out,” Cathy McDaniel said.
Adam, on the other hand, began spending more and more time in his bedroom.
In the darkness. Alone.
Read Part 2 in the series.