LAWYERS, GOONS & MONEY
A TALE OF THE CIA, COP-KILLERS, A BEAUTIFUL (DEAD) WANNABE ACTRESS, & WANGANUI’S MILLIONAIRE MURDERER
You wouldn’t read about it, except perhaps in the book or movie that someone will inevitably pen about this story. IAN WISHART has the world exclusive on how a gun-runner, bank robber and murder suspect with links to a CIA black op has ended up building a new life for himself in sleepy, provincial New Zealand, while a worldwide manhunt spanning three decades had failed to find him
In Hollywood, they say, every waitress is a movie star in the wings. Oregon-born Valerie McDonald was one of those waitresses, albeit she’d only made it as far south as a seedy, $3-a-night North Beach apartment building overlooking San Francisco Bay. It was a neighbourhood yet to be revitalised, but it danced to a student and arts beat, a bohemian rhapsody of sorts. Valerie, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, initially enjoyed her time at the Tower Apartments. That was, until she crossed paths with the new building managers and her rhapsody hit some discordant notes.
Phillip Thompson, Michael Hennessey and John Gordon Abbott were ex-cons. Abbott, in fact, was on work release from a five years to life sentence at San Quentin prison, and he’d met his mates on the inside. Thompson, at 35 the oldest of the men, had been born at the tail end of World War II, and cut his teeth shipping drugs and intrigue for CIA black operations during the Vietnam War era. He’s listed as a driver on the Nixon presidential re-election team for 1972.
Thompson, however, had demons. Plenty of them. On June 18, 1971, then aged in his 20s, Thompson took a 21 year old mother named Betty Cloer into a field east of Sacramento, beat her, raped her then shot her three times before “bludgeoning her face beyond recognition”. Cloer’s nude corpse was found by two young girls horseriding the next day. She left behind a five year old son who was so traumatised that for the next five years he lived in denial that his mum was dead, telling his grandparents that his mum was only “hiding from bad men” and that she’d come back to look after him.
It wasn’t to be.
Nobody had connected Phillip Thompson to this unspeakable crime, and so he continued doing spook work for the CIA and sometimes the FBI, interspersed with prison time for armed robberies and violence. Just in passing, he was finally caught for this 1971 murder in 2003 after a DNA check on cold-cases located his DNA on Betty Cloer’s underwear. He was tried and convicted of murder in 2008 in a history-making California court case, 37 years after the killing.
Detective Rick Fitzgerald told jurors in the trial that Thompson had indeed been a CIA covert operative in the 70s and 80s:
“There is in fact some information that suggests he was an operative who was given a lot of leeway,” the police officer testified. Newspaper reports also confirmed Thompson was associated with terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who’d blown up a Cuban passenger jet in 1976 killing 73 people on board.
But if young mother Betty Cloer was Thompson’s first known victim, she wasn’t the last. “There are at least eight to ten others that we know of,” Det. Rick Fitzgerald said outside the court.
Which brings us back to that bohemian North Beach apartment building in San Francisco, November 1980. When Thompson, Hennessey and Abbott took over management, they began evicting some of the tenants and re-arranging rooms. Valerie McDonald feared for her safety. She told her friends she’d seen the men organise parties where “bowls of cocaine” were available, and that “Satanistic” activities had taken place.
“Val called me and told me she was frightened,” her mum Dee Dee Kouns told reporters later. But Valerie didn’t make it out. As Valerie and a couple of girlfriends were shifting furniture on 9 November 1980, they ran into Michael Hennessey.
Hennessey, the youngest of the three criminals at only 23, came from a good family by all accounts, but his world collapsed when he rushed his ill father to hospital one day, only to be told it was nothing serious and to go home. A short time later his beloved dad dropped dead from a heart attack in front of him, and Hennessey blamed himself, going to pieces. A drift into crime followed, and incarceration at San Quentin prison. Those who’ve met his family describe Hennessey as a basically good kid who fell in with a bad crowd, and who became Thompson and Abbott’s “flunky”.
Half Japanese and half Irish, Hennessey was big and muscular, and when on his own he had relatively good social skills. Valerie liked him, but she didn’t like his mates. Still, she was prepared to give him a couple of minutes.
The con eyed the strawberry-blonde up and down, and explained he was helping shoot a Dustin Hoffman movie that night. He told the girls he was supplying cocaine to the movie’s director, Dino de Laurentis, and that they wanted a blonde woman to play the part of a serial-killer’s victim in a couple of scenes.
The girls thought it sounded dodgy, but Hennessey offered Valerie $200, and the struggling young waitress and film student – based on her earlier friendship with the man – made what turned out to be a fatal choice. She was never seen alive again.
At some point, somehow, Valerie McDonald had made some kind of contact with a 23 year old German woman named Inez Sailer who’d also fallen into the orbit of Abbott, Thompson and Hennessey. We know this because police found a scrap of paper with Valerie’s name and phone number on it, in Sailer’s wallet. We don’t know why it was there because when police found it on New Year’s Day 1981, six weeks after Valerie had gone missing, the wallet was in Inez Sailer’s cold, dead hands. Whatever had happened, she was in no condition to tell.
Two women, one vanished, one shot five times, both connected. Police now believe Sailer had been drawn into a criminal operation being run by Thompson, Abbott and Hennessey out of their apartment block.
When dawn of November 10 broke and Valerie hadn’t returned home, her friends became worried but police brushed them off. By the time the San Francisco Police Department stopped chewing on doughnuts and turned to the task at hand, about six days after her disappearance, the trail had gone cold. Valerie was missing , and so were Phillip Thompson, John Gordon Abbott and Michael Hennessey.
Which brings us to John Gordon Abbott.
Born in England in the mid 1950s, his mother Ursula was an American university professor in Davis, California and his father a British diplomat working for the United Nations. The parents separated when Abbott was a teenager, and the boys, John and Michael, started to slip off the rails. His first major offence was robbery with violence at the age of 15, in Canada, while living with his grandparents.
He was sent back to live with his mother in the early 1970s, and studied Oriental Languages at UC Davis. Police files record he was a “straight-A student” with an “IQ of 180” – genius level – who by 1974 could fluently speak and write Japanese, and in 1975 he “travelled extensively throughout Japan”, the files note.
That file, a police intelligence briefing from June 1978, obtained by Investigate HIS/HERS from US authorities, pre-dates the 1980 disappearance of Valerie McDonald, but it eerily foreshadows how events were to pan out. It was sent to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by police in Davis, California, just after Abbott escaped from prison.
“I feel you should be aware of Mr Abbott” wrote Det. Sergeant John Persons. “It is my belief that Mr Abbott very likely will flee to British Columbia, Canada, and possibly attempt either to stay there or make arrangements to go to Japan.
“Secondly, it is my belief that Mr Abbott should be considered as very dangerous, and would kill without hesitation.”
John Gordon Abbott and his brother Michael, he said, had attempted to burgle a Davis City jewellery store in May 1976, but they triggered a silent alarm in the process. “Patrol units responded,” says the police file. “The first unit approaching to the front was immediately fired upon with a .22 rifle, the bullets going through the windshield narrowly missing the officers.
“A second unit responding to the rear of the business was fired upon with a .357 magnum. During the exchange of gunfire, Michael Abbott was killed, and John Abbott escaped. During the ensuing search for John Abbott, the police department [itself] was fired upon and a dispatcher and police officer were narrowly missed (slugs recovered were .38 calibre). A police helicopter was also fired upon. WOULD YOU LIKE TO READ MORE OF THIS STORY?
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