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Did Scientology Drive Kenneth Wayne Thompson to Commit Bloody Murder?

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 19/02/2019 By (Tarpley Hitt)
a drawing of a man: Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In March of 2012, according to court testimony, a 28-year-old man named Kenneth Wayne Thompson told his wife and two kids he was taking a quick trip away from their home in Doniphan, Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee. Thompson’s mother and stepfather had died in a motorcycle accident eight months prior, leaving him with a small sum of money. The trip, he allegedly told his wife, had something to do with their estate. But after Thompson left his family, he didn’t go to Memphis. Instead, he drove 1,400 miles west to the small mountain town of Prescott Valley, Arizona, where he bludgeoned Penelope Edwards and Troy Dunn—his wife’s sister and her fiancé—to death with a hatchet, poured acid over their bodies, and set the house on fire. 

This month, in the opening arguments for a major, lengthy trial which could send Thompson to death row, defense attorneys laid out a daytime-soap subplot of an argument for Thompson’s detour: the Church of Scientology. Alongside the legalese of standard court documents, Thompson’s defense includes the Scientology “tone scale,” a diagram which purports to sketch the full spectrum of human emotion, multiple mentions of the phrase “eternal soul,” and the name Tom Cruise.

The lawyers’ thesis hinged on the fact that the female victim’s son was receiving psychiatric treatment. Scientology, a religion the practice of which involves regular one-on-one meetings with a counselor to talk through emotional and mental problems (a ritual they call “auditing”), has a long, bitter opposition to psychiatry—a church spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the industry is “brutal” and rife with “human rights violations.” Thompson’s lawyers claim their client is a practicing member of the faith (the church denies any affiliation), whose opposition to mental health treatment led him to intervene on his nephew-in-law’s behalf.

a man with his mouth open: Kenneth Wayne Thompson sits in the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, Arizona, on January 30, 2019. Pool Photo via the Arizona Republic © Provided by The Daily Beast Kenneth Wayne Thompson sits in the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, Arizona, on January 30, 2019. Pool Photo via the Arizona Republic

The argument immediately made headlines, first in the Arizona Republic and then in tabloids across the globe, from the New York Post to the U.K.’s Daily Mail. But while the media landscape is regularly populated with stories about faith-based violence from fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, it’s relatively rare to see followers of Scientology, infamous for their insularity and secrecy, wage holy war on the cult’s behalf.

The church’s myriad alleged schemes and misdeeds, which The Daily Beast has covered extensively, tend to operate institutionally and involve those within its own ranks. Thompson acted solo and, if true, his bizarre defense would make him a Dianetic outlier, an apparent example of writer Jon Krakauer’s observation on extremist violence: “In any human endeavor,” he wrote in Under the Banner of Heaven, “some fraction of its practitioners will be motivated to pursue that activity with such concentrated focus and unalloyed passion that it will consume them utterly.”

It’s unclear, however, just how consumed by Scientology Thompson was. Friends and family gave The Daily Beast conflicting accounts of the defendant’s commitment to the cult. One brother boasted that “there is also a lot of family history in the Church of Scientology that played a factor in his mental state” [sic], although he would not elaborate without compensation. Thompson’s grandmother, on the other hand, just snickered (“He’s Baptist,” she said). And Devynn Rhoads, the daughter of the woman Thompson allegedly murdered, who has never spoken to media, broke her silence to cast doubt on the defendant’s interest in saving her brother. She told The Daily Beast that neither sibling had known their legal uncle particularly well. Both Rhoads and her brother had lived with their aunt for four years, but in that time, “Kenny was only in the picture for the last two months,” she said.

Memphis, Tennessee, USA downtown skyline. © Getty Memphis, Tennessee, USA downtown skyline.

In 2012, a grand jury indicted Thompson on 12 charges, including burglary, wrongful possession of a deadly weapon, arson, and two counts of homicide. If convicted of the latter, prosecutors have said they will ask for the death penalty—which is legal in Arizona, if controversial. In other words, the Scientology defense, absurd as it may sound, could be the only thing keeping Thompson from lethal injection.

Before Thompson started driving to Arizona, he bought a hatchet and a knife. He withdrew $10,000 in cash. Then, the 28-year-old drove for 25 hours, arriving at Edwards and Dunn’s Prescott Valley home sometime that Friday morning. Very little is known about what took place on the morning of March 16, 2012, but by one o’clock that afternoon, the house was on fire. The smoke plumes were high enough that a neighbor from down the road could see the house burning. She called her son, Patrick Ivett, an electrical contractor and Troy Dunn’s best friend.

a man sitting on a rock: The late Penelope Edwards Handout © Provided by The Daily Beast The late Penelope Edwards Handout

“My mom and her husband were heading back home from lunch,” Ivett said. “That’s when she called me and said, ‘Do you know Troy’s house is on fire?’And I’m like, ‘No.’ She was like, ‘Have you heard from Troy today?’ And I was like ‘No,’ which is actually really weird. So, I started freaking out.” Ivett’s boss wouldn’t let him leave work until his shift ended at 4 p.m. By the time he made it over to the crime scene, the street was barricaded off, police were everywhere, and the couple had been dead for hours.

Around the same time Ivett arrived at the scene, some 90 miles east, an Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer named Matt Bratz noticed a white Ford Taurus with Missouri plates on the I-40 near Flagstaff, Arizona. As Bratz saw it, the driver was acting visibly weird. He was, as the trooper later wrote in his report, “staring straight ahead with both arms locked out and gripping the steering wheel.” In court testimony, the trooper explained that he began following the vehicle from a distance, and eventually pulled them over. The man behind the wheel was Thompson.

From the window of the Taurus, the trooper saw a red gas can and smelled solvent. His K-9 unit caught wind of a substance and began barking, although the trooper would not find any evidence of drugs. As Bratz spoke to Thompson, he would later tell jurors, the defendant’s behavior grew increasingly anxious. His hands shook and his chest heaved, according to Arizona Republic accounts of court testimony. Apropos of nothing, Thompson launched into an anecdote about visiting a wildlife park and observing an employee feed the wild animals raw meat. Some blood from the meat had splashed onto his pants, Thompson reportedly said, forcing him to change clothes.

Kenneth Wayne Thompson, 35, claims he should be spared the death penalty for the alleged double murder due to his beliefs in Scientology Kenneth Wayne Thompson, 35, claims he should be spared the death penalty for the alleged double murder due to his beliefs in Scientology

When Bratz searched Thompson’s car, he turned up the bloody pants, a bloodier hatchet, a sample of human hair, and a handgun. Bratz handcuffed him. As they waited by the side of the road, Thompson asked the trooper if prisoners in Arizona could get conjugal visits.

The victims, 35-year-old Penelope Edwards (née Rhoads) and her fiancé, 38-year-old Troy Dunn, had been trying to start over. For more than a decade, Edwards had struggled with drug addiction, abusive partners, and managing both while parenting two young kids, Devynn and Ben (The Daily Beast has changed his name because he is a minor). In 2003, when her 5-year-old daughter confessed she had been molested by her stepfather, Edwards did not take any action. “She just hit him and cried,” Devynn said. Later, relatives reported the incident to the local sheriff, ultimately sending the stepfather to prison, and landing Edwards with a charge for failure to report.

Around that time, Edwards also lost custody of her kids. In 2004, after a period in state foster care, Devynn and Ben went to live with their mother’s sister, Gloria Rhoads, first in Arizona, and then in Alaska, where Gloria would meet her future husband, Kenneth Wayne Thompson.

Stock image © Getty Stock image The kids’ time with their aunt, now known as Gloria Thompson, was fraught, Devynn recalled, in part because both siblings were traumatized by their unstable early years. Ben, who would later get diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a condition which develops when children have no secure parental bond, was prone to angry, violent episodes. (“For a while, people were concerned about whether [he] was going to be the next Ted Bundy,” Devynn said). But the 20-year-old also said problems stemmed from Gloria and Edwards, who had a “terrible relationship” and whose childhood rivalry had grown into “pure sibling hatred.” (“Gloria was the only sibling that my mom never talked to or about, really,” Devynn said. “And every time Gloria talked about my mom it was mean, hateful, angry.”) Gloria did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Just before Edwards regained custody of her kids, Gloria met a man on an online dating site.  Thompson, a boxy white man with reddish hair and a soul patch, took the kids’ aunt out several times before they met him. “She told us about him a lot, how she wanted us to meet him,” Devynn said. “One time, it was a full weekend that he came over to meet us, and he spent most of the time in the bedroom with Gloria with the door closed. We weren’t really getting to know him.”

a statue of a man wearing a suit and tie: Scientology leader David Miscavige at the Church of Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Scientology leader David Miscavige at the Church of Scientology's spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. Getty

Not long after, Edwards regained custody of the kids, and they returned to Prescott Valley, Arizona. The young mother had gotten clean, rented an apartment, and started seeing a man she’d met online, Troy Dunn. Life wasn’t exactly easy; there was still some shuffling around—Devynn said she spent her seventh grade year living with family in a nearby town. But when she returned, Edwards had moved into a house with Dunn. “For the first time in our whole entire lives,” Devynn said, “we had our own rooms, had our own bed that we got to pick out. We got to pick out all of our own furniture. We had dinner like a family pretty much every night that we were all together—me, Troy, Mom and [Ben].”

Edwards started taking parenting classes at a local clinic. She starting going to therapy with each of her kids, and sought treatment for Ben, who still suffered from behavioral problems. “She got better at learning how to—I won’t say subdue him because that sounds dramatic,” Devynn said, “but how to just slow him down safely so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or anyone else.” Ben’s treatment involved medication, periodic stays at a local respite home, and occasional trips to the mental health clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, which is where he was on March 16, 2012, when Thompson is alleged to have arrived and beaten his mother and her boyfriend to death. When police examined the body, Edwards had 22 bodily wounds, some showing “signs of chopping,” according to the Arizona Republic, and a severed jugular vein.

Thompson grew up between Missouri and Alaska with his mother, who worked as the bookkeeper for a construction firm, and a series of unreliable fathers. The first, according to relatives, abandoned the family when Thompson was a toddler. The second, a mean and abusive man, went to jail for a drive-by shooting in Alaska, and then for sending a mail bomb to the man who ratted him out, according to the Scientology watchdog website The Underground Bunker. Before Thompson had turned 10 years old, he was onto his third father figure, a biker and practicing Scientologist named Bill Tillery.

David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board Religious Technology Center and ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion, at the Churchs global media center on Sunset Boulevard December 14, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Church of Scientology via Getty Images) © Getty David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board Religious Technology Center and ecclesiastical leader of the Scientology religion, at the Churchs global media center on Sunset Boulevard December 14, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Church of Scientology via Getty Images)

After they married, Thompson’s mother converted to Scientology. “I wasn’t too happy about it,” Thompson’s grandmother, Eva Harvey, told The Daily Beast. “But there wasn’t too much I could do about it.” His mother went to regular auditing, according to Harvey, and took Scientology courses. The last time Harvey saw her daughter before she died in a motorcycle accident, the middle-aged mother had been on her way back from the Scientology Mecca—Clearwater, Florida.

According to his defense attorneys, Thompson began Scientology “auditing” at the same time as his mother, watching videos she assigned him and performing training exercises. Defense attorneys claimed that this training laid the groundwork for the murders he would commit some two decades later. To help illustrate their case, the defense subpoenaed court records from the church, and invited expert witnesses like Leah Remini, Scientology blogger Tony Ortega, and a Canadian professor named Susan Raine, although only Raine agreed to testify.

Unsurprisingly, the Church of Scientology disagreed with the defense’s characterization: “The answer to whether Kenneth Thompson was concerned about the welfare of his nephew and niece and how that may have eventually manifested itself in murder is in no way related to Scientology beliefs,” spokesperson Karin Pouw wrote. “There is no connection. No Scientology principles would have influenced those actions to occur. Nothing could be more opposed to our moral code.”

Witnesses say the jury will deliberate their verdict on Wednesday. “They could come back with their decision quickly, or it could take weeks,” one witness offered.

And Harvey, Thompson’s grandmother, has also found the attorney’s case hard to swallow. She remembered her grandson’s experience of Scientology differently. “I don’t think he was really into it at all. We were Baptist when he was little. He always went to church with us, and he was a Baptist. He had the belief in God, but I’m not sure about all the Scientology stuff they teach him.” Only one of the friends or family who spoke to The Daily Beast had heard of Thompson’s Scientology affiliations before the murder.

Harvey remembered Thompson as “the best little kid,” if awkward, due to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. “We loved him dearly. He was good. Always good. Never had any problems with him. I would come home from work and he would be sitting there playing with Legos, stuff like that. He liked to go swimming. After we came down [to Missouri from Alaska], he would come down in the summertime. I took him swimming.”

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