PORT ANGELES — He was in a Canadian prison 29 years ago, already serving a life sentence for murdering a Victoria, B.C. woman, when Tommy Ross Jr. confessed — in a whispered voice — to law enforcement authorities that he brutally murdered Janet Bowcutt of Port Angeles, according to testimony at a Clallam County Superior Court hearing Tuesday.
But Ross’ lawyer, Lane Wolfley of Port Angeles, said that his client had said in the same interview that he was innocent of Bowcutt’s murder.
Ross wanted to return to the U.S., get the death penalty and die, Wolfley said.
“He would do anything he could to get to the states to be near his family,” Wolfley said.
Ross’ statements “describe a man desperate to be killed at that time,” he added.
Wolfley also acknowledged that Ross’ damning statements were voluntary, as such passing a key legal test in terms of their admissibility at Ross’ March 2018 murder trial.
Judge Brian Coughenour presided over the 3.5 hearing to determine if Ross’ unrecorded confession to killing Bowcutt, the 20-year-old mother of a 6-month-infant boy, on April 24, 1978 will be allowed as part of the trial proceedings.
Coughenour said after the required hearing that he will render a decision “by next week” in the case against Ross, who remains in the Clallam County jail on $1.5 million bail.
Testifying at the hearing Tuesday, and all now retired, were then-Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney David Bruneau, then-Port Angeles Police Detective Ken Fox and then-Port Angeles Detective Sgt. Tom Riepe, who later retired as Port Angeles police chief.
Ross, who was paroled in November after serving time for murder in the death of Janice Forbes, 26, of Victoria, had told Canadian authorities prior to the May 11, 1988 interview that he wanted to talk to Clallam County law enforcement officials about the Bowcutt murder, according to testimony at the hearing.
Ross confessed at the interview to killing Bowcutt — and three other women — after learning that his trio of questioners was not recording his statements, Riepe said.
Ross sat so close to Riepe inside the Prince Albert prison that their knees were almost touched.
“He was kind of looking around,” Riepe recalled.
Then came a torrent of confessions.
“He says, ‘Yeah, I killed that girl in Port Angeles’ or words to that effect and two in Anaheim and one in LA,” Riepe said.
“It kind of blew me out of my chair.”
Bowcutt was found gagged and strangled, her body hog-tied in her West Eighth Street apartment, according to court documents. Her son was lying unharmed on her bed. Forbes’ body was found in the same condition, according to records.
“This guy admitted that he murdered,” Riepe said.
“I mean, that was huge.
“Now, I have him saying there was a body and it wasn’t found.
“He said, ‘No, I’m glad I did what I did, and I’m not sorry, which was a little bit shocking.”
But Ross would not give any further details, insisting on an arrangement whereby he could return to the U.S., face the death penalty — which by that time was not legal in Washington state — and die, Riepe said.
“He said, ‘That’s absolutely as far as I’m going until we get my attorney … and I get the deal I wanted and get to the States.”
Bruneau testified that Ross initiated the interview by saying he wanted the death penalty instead of talking about Bowcutt.
“I told him I could not make any deals with him,” Bruneau said.
“He said he denied knowledge of the murder but he wanted the death penalty.
“I said, ‘You’re about the most ignorant person I’ve spoken with.
“At that point, he got to his feet and said he was going to get me, maybe not today, but he was going to get me.”
While the interview was not recorded, Fox took notes during part of the meeting, he said.
For that part of the meeting that he didn’t take notes, Fox said he wrote out what was said the evening of the day the interview took place.
Wolfley said that while the notes reflect that Bruneau, Riepe and Fox said they could not arrange for Ross to get the death penalty, they did “promise” to put in a good word for Ross.
“We advised Ross that we would do our best to convince Bruneau and the other authorities in the U.S. that this death penalty request was reasonable, as if that was what he wanted,” according to the report, Wolfley said.
“You actually told him you were going to go back to the United States and get some assurances regarding his request.
“Why did you say that, and what was your intent?” Wolfley asked Fox.
“Probably to get a confession,” Fox responded.
“When you told him you would follow through with that, you are saying he shouldn’t have believed you?” Wolfley asked.
“It’s up to him whether he believes us or not,” Fox said.
Former Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly, arguing the case pro bono for the county against Ross, stressed that Ross made his statements voluntarily and that Ross’ interviewers at the Canadian penitentiary said multiple times that they could not make a deal to get Ross the death penalty.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].