Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Letting go of a child’s unsolved murder

- By Gordon Glantz

This May 10 will mark 75 years since the brutal murder-rape of 5-year-old Carol Ann Thompson.

There is really no way to sugar-coat the heinous, and officially unsolved crime that was committed in central Montgomery County.

When you think that the victim could very well be 80 years old today, baking cookies with grandchild­ren and playing mahjong with friends, the thought of what was leaves a bone-chilling effect.

Don Lewis, 74, is a retired litigation attorney who grew up in Hatfield Township and now resides in Wyndmoor. He has taken on the role of Columbo and jumped headfirst into tying up the loose ends of the mystery.

Lewis was, in 1961, the champion of The Times Herald Spelling Bee after correcting the runner-up on the word “meringue” and then spelling “salinity.” He placed 25th in the national competitio­n in Washington, D.C. after misspellin­g “soricine.”

“The words were easier then, when the world was simpler,” he said.

And so was the legal system.

This was a time before advanced forensics and the use of DNA.

In the intervenin­g years, serial killers — a term not even used until the 1970s — have begun to leverage overwhelmi­ng evidence against them to confess to other crimes in exchange for having their death sentences commuted.

In the case of Thompson, who was murdered two years after the end of World War II, not so much.

Basic Facts

What is known is that Thompson, the daughter of a Purple Heart honoree who survived the Battle of the Bulge, was playing with a wagon with her 6-yearold brother, Billy, in Upper Gwynedd Township (the children were from Philadelph­ia but visiting family).

The driver of a vehicle that had reportedly been watching the siblings play volunteere­d to give the wagon a push with his car and then drove off with Carol Ann.

“Your sister is going for a ride,” her brother, Billy, recalled the driver saying.

The car was then gone in a “cloud of dust.”

Upper Gwynedd did not have a police force at the time, so the State Police were summoned. The barracks were in Collegevil­le and had a 14-man staff.

An hour later, a 13-yearold boy in Worcester came upon a gruesome scene in an old ornamental well. It was the lifeless body of Thompson.

A physician working for the county coroner determined that, in addition to being raped, the young girl had been killed by a “very hard blow to the head.”

A milk bottle had been found in the well.

The initial investigat­or concluded that the location of slaying, known then as “lover’s lane,” was located between Skippack Pike and Bean Road.

The Investigat­ion

There were several serious suspects — from as close as Lansdale to as far away as Wisconsin — and there was even a confession that was ultimately labeled a “dud.”

It was soon believed that the likely perpetrato­r was Elmo Smith, who was put to death on April 2, 1962 for a 1959 murder with similar earmarks.

But neither Billy Thompson or a teenage neighbor, Gerald Derstine, were willing to positively identify Smith as the abductor. And very soon Smith was sent to prison for a 10-20 year term for a brutal assault on an Upper Merion teen, and prosecutor­s did not pursue him further.

Smith, an ex-con with a long rap sheet, was released from prison in 1959 after serving about half of his sentence. It was not long before he was charged with and then convicted and sentenced to death in the brutal slaying of Manayunk teenager Maryann Mitchell. who disappeare­d December 28 and was found two days later in a muddy gully. Like Thompson, she had been raped.

Had Smith served his full prison term for the beating of the Upper Merion teen, Mitchell’s murder could have been averted.

Smith was the last man to be electrocut­ed (before a Supreme Court ruling suspended the death penalty) in Pennsylvan­ia on April 2, 1962 after several appeals fell on deaf ears.

The Deep Dive

As for Lewis, he did not set out to be a local true crime expert, but that’s where his trail inevitably led him.

Lewis has successful­ly researched family genealogy and local history. In recent years, he has written a number of articles for the Bulletin of the Historical Society of Montgomery County about county history and historians. He also generated quite a bit of unpublishe­d research about local matters for various local historical societies.

“In 2020, with time on my hands thanks to the pandemic and looking for something different, I researched the unsolved 1960 murder of Harry Wallace, which took place in my native Hatfield Township,” he explained. “This motivated me to do some looking into the 1959 murder of Maryann Mitchell, quite a celebrated case in my youth. In the course of doing that, I happened unexpected­ly across an account of the murder of Carol Ann Thompson.”

Lewis graduated from North Penn High and spent his formative years in the North Penn area, but confessed to being shocked that he had “never heard a word” about the Thompson murder.

“I tried to capture the full story and see where it led,” said Lewis. “I was very surprised to discover that Carol Ann’s brother had identified Smith as her killer in 1960 (in the wake of the Mitchell murder) and to learn that Gerald Derstine, a witness in the case, was not only still alive but had become something of a religious celebrity.”

Confirmati­on and More Questions

Lewis sent Rev. Derstine his draft of the research and some photograph­s of Elmo Smith, asking for his thoughts and any correction­s he felt necessary.

Aside from Derstine’s input, all the rest of Lewis’ research was drawn from news accounts published in the wide range of newspapers that covered the story.

When Lewis heard back from Derstine, who confirmed enough of his research, there was an overwhelmi­ng sense of satisfacti­on.

“I was delighted when he called me, and surprised once again when he expressed confidence that Smith’s was the face he had seen looking out of a black car just before Carol Ann was abducted,” said Lewis. “I’m very glad that I reached out to Rev.

Derstine when I did because he passed away early this year (Feb. 12, 2022 in Bradenton, Florida.) Rev. Derstine explained that in 1948 he and Billy both thought Smith was the abductor and killer, but because of their youth were reluctant to offer positive identifica­tion in a murder case.”

Smith was a handyman living in Bridgeport with his mother, and was already back to committing petty crimes prior to the Mitchell murder.

Once charged for murdering Mitchell, and with solid evidence to lock him away, tacking on charges for killing Thompson 12 ½ years earlier might not have fit the puzzle against the suspect described by one his own defense lawyers as “a sexual psychopath with caveman-like tendencies.”

Said Lewis, who added that authoritie­s initially dropped Smith as a suspect in the Thompson case in 1948 when he went to jail for the vicious assault of the Upper Merion teen.

Lewis believes that the authoritie­s dropped Smith as a suspect in the Thompson case in the late 1940’s after the witnesses failed to positively ID Smith and Smith was convicted of another crime that could have kept him off the streets for 20 years.

Letting Go

From the diligent research of Lewis, it appears from news reports that the murder of Mitchell prompted the former Montgomery County District Attorney Bernard E. Di Joseph to reopen the case at the request of Thompson’s father.

As fate would have it, Di Joseph died suddenly of a fatal heart attack and his successor, Vincent Cirillo, did not pursue it.

“I wonder if reopening the case before Smith’s 1962 conviction would have complicate­d the Mitchell prosecutio­n, especially if the case was reopened but could not be satisfacto­rily proven,” said Lewis.

Lewis researched the surviving members of Thompson’s family, and found that all had passed away (older brother, Billy, as recently as 2020). Carol Ann, as a daughter and a sister, was mentioned in all of their obituaries.

As for Lewis, while thinking through the DNA possibilit­ies of today’s criminal

science, is willing to let the blonde-haired child rest in peace.

He concluded: “After taking everything into account,

I believe that I will take (Derstine’s) advice — ‘let it go’ — and consider this sad case closed with a just ending.”

 ?? MEDIANEWS GROUP ILLUSTRATI­ON BY CHERYL KEHOE RODGERS ?? All images courtesy of Historical Society of Montgomery County.
MEDIANEWS GROUP ILLUSTRATI­ON BY CHERYL KEHOE RODGERS All images courtesy of Historical Society of Montgomery County.

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