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Sister's Search

[whitespace] Reward Bulletin Scene of the Crime: Police are looking for a woman known as 'Bird' who neighbors say was staying with victim Deloris Thompson at the time of the murder.

Michael Learmonth

A Santa Clara woman struggles to cope with the murder of her sister in her Oakland apartment. Six months later, Deloris Thompson's family still wants to know who strangled her and why.

By Michael Learmonth

IT WAS MIDNIGHT on a Wednesday in September, and Guanetta Haynes clung to her telephone even as her life seemed to shatter on the kitchen floor. Oakland police dispatch was on the line. Haynes asked about her sister, a 57-year-old Oakland resident, who had been missing for two days. The dispatcher paused, and without covering the receiver referred the question to the desk sergeant. His answer was cold cop-talk: "Tell her to call Homicide."

Haynes can't speak about that night without breaking down in tears. The 43-year-old registered nurse sits with her niece, Johanna Ellison, 38, in Haynes' Santa Clara apartment. Family pictures adorn the wall, including a picture over the fireplace of Haynes in a graduation gown. Ellison manages to keep her composure. She is angry now--at whoever murdered her mother and at a police investigation that she believes is frustratingly slow.

The nightmare began six months ago. Haynes had been trying to reach her sister, Deloris Marie Thompson, at her home in West Oakland, but her phone calls yielded nothing but busy signals for two days. Finally, she went to Deloris Thompson's house after visiting another sister in Richmond, the family's hometown.

She knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She walked around the four-unit wood-frame building and noticed that a window at the back of the apartment was partially open. She peered in and began calling her sister's name.

Soon, a crowd gathered across the street.

"Have you seen her?" Haynes called out. "Is she on a run [errand]?"

Haynes says that a man known in the neighborhood as "Sunnyman" replied cryptically, "Yeah, she's on a run, all right."

Sunnyman's words sent a chill down her spine. It seemed as though the whole neighborhood knew something but didn't want to tell her. She got back in her car, hurried home and called her sister in Richmond, who called the Oakland police. Six hours later, the police found Thompson dead, lying next to her front door with a telephone cord wrapped around her neck.

In the months since, Guanetta Haynes has launched her own investigation to find out who brutally murdered her sister and why. It has taken her into a foreign world ruled by the crack dealers and violent gangs that sucked her sister in and ultimately destroyed her. It has taken her into a neighborhood where the residents hide in their homes and speak in riddles, too afraid to tell their secrets.

Feeding a Need

THOMPSON MOVED TO West Oakland eight years ago after she sold a 77-seat restaurant she owned for nine years in Richmond called, simply, "Deloris' Restaurant." It was a classic Southern-cooking joint that provided chicken, fried fish and peach cobbler for the neighborhood and employment for the Thompson family, including daughter Johanna Ellison and various nieces and nephews.

Ellison says her mother raised her traditionally and that she lived at home until she was married at age 19. Ellison says her mother was also a very traditional wife, who always had a meal ready when her second husband, a long-haul trucker, came home from trips.

Deloris' Restaurant failed in 1990, not long after a McDonald's moved into the neighborhood. At the same time, Thompson's marriage also began to fail, and after 16 years the couple decided to separate.

During the upheaval in Thompson's personal life, daughter Johanna, married with a child and working in Los Angeles, offered her a place to live.

Johanna Ellison and her husband owned a four-unit Victorian in West Oakland. Thompson moved into one of the two units on the first floor. Ellison worried about her mother living in the neighborhood, which she knew wasn't very safe.

"Let's just say the people that live there aren't the same caliber that she was," Ellison says.

In the years that followed, Thompson's relatives say, she began to act strangely. Haynes remembers her sister covering the blinking lights on her appliances with masking tape for fear of being watched. Ellison says her mother started to refuse medical treatment for a heart condition because she believed the doctor would give her medication without her consent. Ultimately, she even became suspicious that Ellison, her only child, was out to get her.

Thompson began spending time with Harold Barrington, a man who lived in the neighborhood. From the start, her daughter and sisters made it clear that they did not approve of the relationship. "He would call her his 'wife,' " Ellison remembers. "She was very easily swayed, I think, especially later in life because of her mental condition."

Thompson began to spend her dwindling savings from the restaurant. Once, she traveled to Chicago and stayed a week in one of the city's most expensive hotels to try to explain to Oprah Winfrey what had happened to her "lost fortune," but did not make the show's lineup.

Haynes says her sister knew that she disapproved of her relationship with Barrington. She once overheard her tell Barrington, "My sister doesn't like you."

Barrington, who is now 52, has a criminal record that begins in the late 1960s. Records show that he was convicted of drug possession four times and once of assault with a deadly weapon between 1979 and 1985. In 1989, he was busted by undercover officers for selling crack two blocks away from Thompson's house, according to police records. Today, he is serving time in state prison in Lompoc for pulling a gun loaded with armor-piercing bullets on a police officer in 1990.

Ellison says when her mother visited her in Torrance, she begged for a ride to Lompoc, 207 miles away, to visit Barrington in prison.

"She was so frantic, I had to drive her to see that man," Ellison says. "If I hadn't, she would have told me that I was in a conspiracy to harm her."

Buys in the 'Hood

THOMPSON LIVED IN what once was a working-class Oakland neighborhood with 70-year-old wood-frame homes and mature shade trees. Across the street is an elementary school and a corner convenience store called Friendly's.

Historically, the neighborhood has been a vibrant, racially diverse community. But in the last 40 years, the neighborhood has gone downhill, says one of Thompson's neighbors, Donald Dupree.

"When we came here it was nice," Dupree says through his screen door. "I mean, Chinese people used to live here. Now it seems like every other house is full of crackheads."

The old man is afraid to come out on his porch and keeps a growling pit pull by his side for protection.

"I'm scared to leave my house. They watch you," he says, pointing to a group of boys circling their bikes ominously in the street. "They steal gas, break into cars, shoot dice, and when the police come, they just jump the fence."

Dupree says he hears gunshots in the neighborhood all the time. Once a bullet passed through his house.

Dupree's daughter, Desiree Dupree, 40, steps out onto the porch and leaves her own child inside. She says Thompson often cared for her nieces and nephews for the day and was the kind of person who "would feed anyone in the neighborhood."

"She was very generous," Desiree says. "I think that may be how she got killed."

Across the street at Friendly's market, an employee gave a different picture of Thompson. She said Thompson was indeed a friendly and giving woman, but that she had a crack problem that sometimes changed her behavior.

"It was like Jekyll and Hyde," she said.

According to court records, the Oakland police raided Thompson's apartment at 9pm on Sept. 14, 1994. Officers found a triple-beam scale, solvents and plastic sandwich bags. Thompson tried to flee out the back door, but she was apprehended trying to throw away a sock containing crack and cash.

Haynes believes that Harold Barrington brought drugs into her sister's life and that even though he was in prison, he may have played a role in her murder. Police say Barrington is a member of a gang that operates in the neighborhood known as the Black Guerrilla Family or "BGF." Haynes believes Barrington could have ordered her sister's murder from his prison cell, perhaps because she had been ferrying drugs to him and stopped. Another possibility, Haynes says, is that her sister became a target for gang rivals seeking revenge against Barrington.

A spokesman for the Oakland Police Department says that while no suspects have been ruled out, it seems unlikely that the murder was gang-related or that Barrington had anything to do with it. Though little was taken from Thompson's apartment, besides cash and jewelry on her body, police believe the motive was robbery.

Disappearing Acts

WHEN THE POLICE knocked on the front door of Thompson's house the evening of Sept. 17, they got no answer but could see a body lying near the front door through a crack in the curtains. The officers pried the bars off the open window in the back and entered the apartment.

Thompson's house was turned upside down. There was a television in the middle of the kitchen floor. A trashcan was tipped over, and trash was strewn about. A triple-beam scale sat on a table, along with a black plate with a razor blade and what police believed was a joint.

They found Deloris Thompson lying on her back near the front door, her T-shirt pulled up over her face. The state of the apartment and wounds on Thompson's body told the tale of a violent struggle, though there was no sign of forced entry.

Sgt. Jerry Aguirre, the detective on the case, speaks so softly his words are barely audible over the commotion of Oakland Homicide. He says he is looking for a woman known as "Bird," or "Birdie," who is believed to have been living with Thompson at the time of the murder.

Like her neighbors, Aguirre says Thompson was "basically a nice person" and that her generosity may have been what made her a target.

"I think what happened is she put her trust in somebody, and that person allowed [the killers] into her residence," Aguirre says.

Guanetta Haynes shares Aguirre's theory. She says her sister had enough physical strength to keep one person from strangling her.

"She will tell you, 'Yes, I'll knock your head off,' and she will do it," Haynes says. "My God, she was fighting for her life."

Thompson was a stocky, broad-shouldered woman who weighed about 180 pounds. Bird, the primary suspect identified by police, is said to be slight, weighing between 100 and 130 pounds. Witnesses say she is a light-skinned African American with short black or reddish hair. Aguirre says she may have a cursive "B" tattooed on her neck. Crimestoppers is offering up to $1,000 to anyone who provides the Oakland police with Bird's true identity.

In the weeks following Thompson's murder, sister Haynes and daughter Ellison canvassed the neighborhood, posting fliers with Thompson's picture offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and prosecution.

When they returned to clean up the apartment after the murder, Sunnyman showed up again and seemed overly eager to know how the investigation was going.

"Have you heard anything?" he asked. He, like seemingly everyone else in the neighborhood, has a theory on the identity of Bird.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, stood on her porch and answered questions in a nervous whisper. She said she knew we were "being watched," so she could only talk for a moment. She said that Bird's first name is Victoria and that her children are in the custody of Child Protective Services.

Frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation, Haynes, Ellison and Thompson's nephew Demelus Johnson, 27, have been pursuing leads on their own.

One source known on the street as "Punkin" told Johnson that if he wants to know who killed his aunt, he should talk to Sunnyman. None of Thompson's family members has been able to find Sunnyman since the week following the murder. Other sources who are said to know the identity of Bird simply vanish into thin air.

As the months go by, their frustration mounts.

To Haynes' dismay, Aguirre admits that he has not yet questioned Harold Barrington in prison.

"He is still in custody, and Deloris had not contacted him for a long time," Aguirre says. "He's peripheral, and we have other leads to exhaust."

Recently, Haynes filed a complaint with the Oakland Police Department because she believed too little was being done to solve her sister's murder.

Aguirre says he has to do more than simply identify a person, he has to gather enough evidence to make an arrest.

"We're not eliminating any suspects," Aguirre says. "I feel for the family. It was a vicious, brutal crime."

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From the April 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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