Either/Or

Sixteen years after the body of Kim Thomas was found in her Cotswold home, her brutal murder remains Charlotte’s best-known unsolved homicide. The district attorney thinks her husband killed her; her husband thinks another man did it. In this exclusive story, which is the first of a two-part series and includes information never before published, we re-examine the often contradicting and confounding evidence


Published:

(page 1 of 4)

Part One

Late in the evening on July 27, 1990, Edward Friedland returned to his Wendover Hills home to find his wife, Kim Thomas, lying on her stomach, her face turned to one side, on the floor of the dark dining room. Staying fifteen to twenty feet away from the body, he told a 911 operator that, as a doctor, he knew his wife was dead and that she appeared "handcuffed and it looks like someone blew her brains out."

In fact, Thomas, a thirty-two-year-old National Organization of Women activist who had recently adopted a ten-month-old baby with Friedland, had died of blood lost from more than twenty stab wounds to her neck, some of which penetrated to her spinal cord. Her nightgown was hiked up around her waist, exposing bare buttocks, and her legs were widely splayed. The baby, Elliot, was unhurt, but distressed, in the crib in his room. Rags, the family's small terrier, was shut inside the master bedroom.    

The case captivated the city for weeks after it occurred and again in 1995 when The Charlotte Observer ran a four-part series on the crime and its investigation. Although the case remains open, legal proceedings assert that the killer is almost surely one of two men: Marion Gales, one of several African-American handymen who at the time wound their way from the nearby low-income neighborhood of Grier Heights to Thomas’s primarily white, middle-class subdivision, or her husband, Friedland.

In photographs of Kim Thomas with her baby, her joy is palpable. Thomas and Friedland were the first couple in North Carolina to seek an independent adoption—that is, adoption without the mediation of an agency. Thomas had not only headed Southern Piedmont Ours, a support group for independent adoption, but had also co-authored a guide for pregnant women called A Charlotte Child. “When she was passionate about something,” says her friend Sally Gordon, “she just dove right into it.” Another friend, Margie Storch, admired Thomas’s energy and remembers her love of “fashion and dressing up.” Her plaid beret or knickers always stood out. And NOW meetings at her home were more than business meetings; they were social events with delicious appetizers and desserts.

But the adoption was her peak experience, representing everything she wanted. Gordon, who became friendly with Thomas after she evaluated the couple for adoption, recalls that Thomas “thought that little boy was beautiful.” Gordon remembers a follow-up home visit at Thomas’s house when Thomas, speaking to Gordon, noticed a splotch of grape jelly on Elliot’s mouth. She picked up Elliot, and, without missing a beat of her conversation, licked the jelly off his lip.

That image of a devoted mother is far removed from the brutal scene that Friedland reported to 911 on the night of Thomas’s death. Friedland, forty-nine, is a kidney specialist, now remarried and living in Pensacola, Florida. He and Thomas met in Rochester, married in 1984, and moved from Miami to Charlotte in 1986 when he was named medical director of a Matthews dialysis clinic. Gales, in his mid-forties, has been in and out of prison, mainly for theft, since his teens. Four years ago, he was released from prison after serving five years as a habitual offender. He is currently back on the streets of Charlotte.

Gales was initially a suspect in the crime, but police attention shifted to Friedland when a call to Crime Stoppers revealed his extramarital affair and alleged drug use. The affair—with Bridgette David, a nurse with whom Friedland worked—was later confirmed to have been ongoing at the time of the murder, although it ceased soon after. Friedland was charged with the crime four years later, but the charges were dropped after a judge ruled that key testimony about the time of death was inadmissible. A year later, Friedland filed a wrongful death suit in civil court against Gales and won. (The standard of proof for a civil suit is less stringent than that for a criminal case—a preponderance of evidence in the first instance, beyond a reasonable doubt in the second.) Although the trial judge initially overturned the verdict on the technicality that the suit was brought outside the statute of limitations, the North Carolina Court of Appeals subsequently upheld it. In 1997, Friedland sued the City of Charlotte and four individual police investigators for malicious prosecution. The case, which the city’s lawyers convinced the court to dismiss before it went to trial, consumed four years and cost the city $4 million.

Sixteen years and two civil trials later, no clear answer has surfaced as to the question of guilt. Circumstantial evidence surrounds both suspects, but not enough to convict either one.

No physical evidence links either man to the crime. Of four latent fingerprints found on the scene, only one was suitable for testing, and it didn’t match any suspects or emergency personnel. The handcuffs were free of fingerprints. A cigarette butt at the scene didn’t have enough saliva on it for DNA testing. Among the numerous hairs removed from the scene for testing, none appeared to be Negroid, but some were not suitable for testing. A stain in Friedland’s car may have been blood, but was too small to be tested accurately. Luminol testing for blood in the master bathroom sink was inconclusive.

Friedland and his lawyers contended that inexperienced detectives had botched the investigation of the crime scene. Most of the investigators assigned to the case were indeed relatively new, and they made some obvious mistakes, such as using luminol testing for blood before luma-lite testing for hair and fiber, which luminol can disperse. Still, Friedland’s own expert on crime scene processing testified during his prosecution that Charlotte police had done “a fairly good job of documenting this crime scene,” and Friedland’s attorneys conceded that the police did an “immediate and thorough” job, and that their efforts were “intensive.”

Despite a scarcity of physical evidence—or perhaps because of it—every detail of the crime scene became a point of contention. Did the victim’s blood, found in a secluded office in her home, come from her open wounds while she was still alive or from the killer’s bloody gloves, clothing, or weapon? Was the killer looking for something in particular as he riffled through papers in the office, replacing them neatly and closing the drawers, or was he deliberately misleading investigators as to his motive? Was the extreme violence of the murder—described by nearly everyone but Friedland's attorneys as “overkill”—a sign of intimacy between the victim and her attacker—or of a drug-induced frenzy? Did a single, wavy-lined shoe print—which did not match other prints—on the bloody dining room floor indicate an accomplice? Was the dog Rags passive and friendly or aggressive and likely to bark at an intruder?

Initially, the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) issued two different profiles of the killer, one based on the motive of burglary, the other on the motive of anger and revenge. Gales appeared a likely suspect in the burglar’s profile; Friedland was equally likely in the profile of a killer motivated by anger. When reports of stolen jewelry from the Thomas-Friedland home proved false, the FBI, according to a motion filed by the city’s lawyers, sent word to the police “that the ‘robbery’ profile could be disregarded.” Both profiles included this statement: “The low-risk level exhibited by the victim suggests that she was more likely a victim of selection than a victim of opportunity.”

This murder taxes the intellect as much as it wrenches the emotions. Research and interviews with family members, friends of the family, lawyers, and others reveal that the case has polarized those who know anything about it, making unbiased information difficult to obtain and leading to predictable grudges. The indeterminate evidence does little to encourage open-mindedness and much to invite bias and rumors, sometimes outrageous rumors. But to step back from the ambiguity, even if a little, is to appreciate that some questions and problems elude human understanding.

Reviewing a few of the American TV crime shows that have recently clogged the air waves, Nancy Franklin has written in The New Yorker that “by solving crimes that often seem mind-bogglingly mysterious or unsolvable,” the programs “create the comforting illusion that competence—having the right tools for the job—will conquer all; they give us a handle on our chaotic, nonsensical world.” If the murder of Kim Thomas epitomizes that chaotic, nonsensical world, explaining it bears small resemblance to a tidy screenplay.

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