Trial set in 1978 murder of Port Angeles woman

Tommy L. Ross Jr.

Tommy L. Ross Jr.

PORT ANGELES — A man accused of killing a 20-year-old Port Angeles woman in 1978 has pleaded not guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder.

Tommy L. Ross Jr., 58, faces a Jan. 30 trial date, accused of the April 1978 killing of Janet Bowcutt, who was found strangled to death in her Port Angeles apartment.

Clallam County Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour on Friday also set a status hearing for 9 a.m. Dec. 30.

According to authorities, Ross asked 18 years ago to be put to death for the strangulation murder and for killing two other people.

He is being held in the Clallam County jail on $1.5 million bail.

The request for the second-degree-murder charge was added Friday by retired Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly, who is prosecuting the case at the request of current Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols, Kelly’s former chief deputy prosecuting attorney.

Ross, represented by Port Angeles attorney Lane Wolfley, was arraigned Friday on the charges, which carry maximum sentences of life in prison.

Ross was serving a life sentence in Canada in the strangulation death of a Victoria woman before his parole in November.

He was arrested a week later at the border crossing in Blaine by Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies in Bowcutt’s death.

Kelly, who is obtaining documents on Ross’ criminal history from Canada and California, suggested there may not be enough time to prepare for a Jan. 30 trial.

“It is a quick trial date,” she told Coughenour. “This is a very old case. There is a lot of evidence.”

Bowcutt was found dead April 24, 1978, inside her 615 W. Eighth St. apartment.

She was fully clothed. Her hands and feet were bound.

A scarf was tightly wrapped around her neck. The scarf was wrapped around rope or cord that was binding her ankles, according to an arrest report.

Police kicked down Bowcutt’s door after her mother reported her daughter was not answering the door.

Bowcutt’s infant son could be heard crying inside.

A Nov. 16 certification for probable cause by Port Angeles Police Detective David Arand said Ross admitted to being a murderer in a May 11, 1988, interview with then-Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney David Bruneau, then-Police Detective Ken Fox and then-Detective Sgt. Tom Riepe — later Port Angeles police chief.

Here is Arand’s account:

Ross told Bruneau, Fox and Riepe that he killed Bowcutt; two women in Anaheim, Calif.; and a woman in Los Angeles.

Ross’ fingerprint from his left middle finger was found on the bathroom doorknob of Bowcutt’s apartment, and he had no known ties to her.

Bowcutt was found strangled in the same manner as Janice Forbes, the Victoria woman for whose murder he was serving a life sentence in Canada.

Forbes’ body was found in her apartment May 14, 1978, three weeks after Bowcutt’s body was found.

On May 31, 1978, Ross’ half brother, a Port Angeles resident, told police that Ross, then a Los Angeles resident, had stayed with him in Port Angeles during the period that Bowcutt’s body had been found and that he thought it was possible Ross was involved in the two murders.

A murder warrant for Ross’ arrest was issued by Clallam County Superior Court on Dec. 22, 1978.

He was a suspect in a murder of a Los Angeles-area woman who was strangled in a manner similar to Bowcutt and Forbes, according to the report.

Ross was being held by the Los Angeles Police Department on rape and burglary warrants when he was released to Canadian authorities to stand trial for murdering Forbes.

Ross’ brother said Ross “had a violent history and a hatred toward whites.”

The women in Port Angeles, Victoria and Los Angeles were all white, according to the certification for probable cause.

When interviewed May 11, 1988, by Riepe and Fox, Ross would go into depth on the murders only on one condition.

“Ross refused to disclose any details of the homicides without guarantees from Riepe and Fox that he would receive the death penalty,” according to Arand.

Ross was paroled Nov. 10 and deported by Border Services Canada on Nov. 15.

Wolfley was appointed Ross’ attorney after Port Angeles lawyer Harry Gasnick of Clallam Public Defender withdrew from representing Ross because of a conflict involving a potential witness affiliated with Gasnick’s office.

Kelly told Coughenour on Friday that she was not prepared to address a motion by Gasnick that Ross not be shackled for his first appearance.

Gasnick said later Friday that for the past few weeks, he has been filing objections on behalf of every defendant he represents asserting that defendants should be restrained only according to a judge’s ruling and not jail policy.

“It’s related to appearance of fairness and due process,” Gasnick said.

For his court appearance, Ross was wearing leg irons, a chain around his stomach and handcuffs linked to the belly chain.

Kelly said in an interview that she is prosecuting the case pro bono in her first court case since she successfully prosecuted double murderer Darold Stenson of Sequim in late 2013.

“They called me in a weak moment,” Kelly quipped of Nichols’ request.

“It seemed like the right thing to do.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.