AUBURN – In a conversation with her therapist last summer, Wendy Howell Peck described a dark secret she said had haunted her since childhood.
More than four decades before, she said, her mother, Patricia, had deliberately drowned her little sister Cindy in the bathtub of their home near downtown Auburn. Peck was 5 at the time, and Cindy just 4.
Now, following a whirlwind investigation of a nearly forgotten case, Peck's mother – who is 66 and remarried with the last name of Thomas – stands accused of murder, and her family is indelibly fractured.
Forty-two years after Cynthia Louise Howell died, the remarkable drama is playing out in Placer Superior Court, pitting a sickly Patricia Lee Thomas against her daughter, with whom she once lived and whose children she once helped care for.
Thomas' fate depends largely on a young child's memories of a long-ago traumatic day, and a more recent conversation between Peck and her mother that police documented with hidden video and audio equipment.
Peck has told investigators that she had to come forward with her secret for the sake of her mental health and justice for her sister. Thomas has challenged her daughter's statements and motives and maintains her innocence.
"I want Wendy to know that I forgive her for all of this, and I will always love her," a tearful Thomas told a reporter following a recent court date. "But I did not drown my daughter. I did not."
Thomas, who was locked up in the Placer County jail for a month after her arrest, has been released to home confinement with a GPS monitoring device. She is allowed to leave only for doctor and attorney appointments, and to see her probation officer. She has been ordered to stay away from Peck.
A jury may ultimately have to decide whether Thomas is a woman who almost got away with murder, or a falsely accused mother who is having to grieve all over again for the young daughter she lost.
Police report gives insight
Investigative records, including a 1970 police report, paint a partial picture of what happened inside the family's Placer Street home in this rugged Sierra foothills town on the evening Cindy drowned.
Thomas, then named Patricia Howell, was 24 at the time.
On May 25 of that year, she and her three children – Wendy, Cindy and 9-month-old Jimmy – were winding down from a day in which they had played outside in the sunshine, according to the investigative reports. Dinner was SpaghettiOs.
Patricia had plenty on her mind. She was separated from her husband, James Howell, and struggling financially. That night, James was spending time at Gordo's bar after dropping by the house with $75 for child support.
After dinner that evening, Patricia later would tell investigators, she drew a few inches of water in the tub, and told Cindy and Wendy to take their baths.
Cindy finished her meal first.
Minutes later, Patricia would tell police, she walked in to find the girl dead, lying on her side in the tub as water trickled from the faucet onto her head.
She called 911 and paramedics converged on the house, but they were unable to revive Cindy. Patricia phoned her husband and asked him to come home.
At the hospital, where a doctor pronounced Cindy dead, her mother became hysterical, showing "disbelief and extreme sorrow," according to the coroner's report. "Oh my God. Is she dead?" she asked over and over.
The family moved around frequently after that, never returning to their Placer Street home.
In the days after Cindy's death, detectives asked James, Patricia and young Wendy questions about the family and what happened that night.
James told police that Patricia had been abusive toward Cindy in the past, kicking her, whipping her and knocking her to the ground. Other relatives said they had never witnessed any abuse, according to police reports at the time.
The investigation included an autopsy and the coroner's report, which described Cindy as 42 inches tall and 38 pounds, with brown curly hair and green eyes. The report noted a bump on Cindy's forehead along with swelling and a bruise above her right eye, but said the injuries were not inconsistent with those a typical 4-year-old might exhibit.
In the end, investigators concluded that Cindy died from "asphyxia due to drowning." They put the case on the shelf and declined to pursue criminal charges.
Thomas went on to raise a family in the Auburn area, remarry and, for a time, run a gas station.
Things changed in 2011
Everything changed in the summer of 2011.
That's when Wendy Peck, who had been getting care for an undisclosed psychological problem, began telling a therapist about the day that Cindy drowned.
"My doctors tell me that I can't be scared of the truth, and face it head on or I will die," Peck wrote in a Facebook message to Thomas' granddaughter, Heather Chirigotis, in December 2011, according to an investigative report in the public file.
She said that talking about "the family secret" would help her heal her psychological wounds, but did not reveal any details about that secret to Chirigotis.
Shortly after the Facebook post, on the advice of her therapist, she went to Auburn police and told a very different story from the one her mother had told decades earlier.
Peck said she recalled walking into the bathroom after dinner on the evening of her sister's death to see her mother standing in the tub, holding down Cindy's face. When her mother saw her, she told investigators, "she yelled at her to get out" and tend to her baby brother Jimmy, who was crying.
"Wendy did as told," according to an investigator's report.
Later, the document says, she went into the bathroom to find Cindy "sleeping" on her side in the tub. She said she called for her mother, who grabbed the girl, wrapped her in a blanket and took her into the bedroom before calling paramedics.
Peck told investigators that she and her mother never spoke again in detail about that day until a January 2012 meeting coordinated by detectives at Peck's home in Grass Valley.
At the meeting, which police recorded with video and audio equipment, Thomas defiantly denied drowning Cindy, according to records. But after about 90 minutes, following a discussion about Peck's mental health and a promise that the information would never be reported to police, "Patricia finally broke down, telling Wendy that she bumped Cindy's head on the faucet," according to the investigative report supporting search warrants of Thomas' home. "Cindy became unconscious and she left her there to drown."
A few days later, police arrested Thomas and charged her with murder.
Family members shocked
The developments have stunned family members, including Thomas' current husband, Harry, who has attended hearings at the dilapidated jail courthouse in Auburn, along with many other family members who have come to show support.
Peck, now 47, still lives near her mother in Grass Valley. She has stayed away from most court sessions, and could not be reached for comment.
Patricia Thomas, who years ago underwent a lung transplant and suffers from various health problems, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, which could put her in prison for life. Her lawyer, defense attorney Thomas Leupp, said the case amounts to a witch hunt without any evidence of a crime.
At the meeting arranged by police, Leupp said, his client was "under relentless pressure" to cure her daughter's mental ailments "by admitting to a crime she did not commit."
Leupp said the meeting between Thomas and her daughter was designed to trap Thomas rather than free Peck from her psychological trauma.
"The prosecution is relying primarily on the revamped statement of a witness who was 5 years old at the time of the incident, and now suffers from dementia," he said in an early motion requesting that his client's bail be reduced.
"The physical evidence has never supported the contention that Patricia Thomas or anyone else murdered Cynthia Howell," Leupp said.
In recent interviews with investigators, Thomas has steadfastly maintained her innocence in her daughter's death. She told police she left Cindy in the bathroom, and went into the living room to tend to a fussy baby, Jimmy.
She recalled twice telling Wendy to take off her clothes and get into the tub with Cindy.
After a few minutes passed, she said, Wendy "ran out saying that Cindy was sleeping in the bathtub," according to the records filed in support of search warrants of her home.
Only after Wendy called to her mother a second time, Thomas told police, did she walk into the bathroom and find a lifeless Cindy.
Prosecutors have declined to comment on the case. In court, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Wood said Peck suffers not from dementia but post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of witnessing her little sister's death so long ago.
Police maintain their case is solid, despite the challenges of solving a cold case.
"In my career, there have been very few opportunities to solve something that goes back this far," said Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn. Better interviewing techniques, electronic trails created by cellphones and the Internet, and forensic tools such as DNA collection have made it easier to delve into such cases, he said.
"It's like putting a puzzle together," Ruffcorn said. "There's a lot of good evidence and information out there, and in the end, we felt we had enough to arrest someone."
"I look at Patricia Thomas and I see a picture of a frail, elderly lady," Ruffcorn said. "But I can't focus on that. This was the taking of someone else's life. Whether it happened today or 42 years ago, we take that seriously."