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War veteran has a dying wish: Solve my brother's murder

A brother tries to solve his brother's murder before he dies. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

Robert "Bobby" Thompson sat at the kitchen table in his small green-and-white home in Middle River on a cold day recently and looked over the items he had carefully laid out: insurance policies, tax returns and a newspaper ad for a funeral home offering "special attention to all details."

On the ad, he had scribbled, "All paid for."

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Thompson, aging and frail, doesn't know how he's lasted this long. He survived the Korean War. His parents never saw 80. His three brothers and first and second wives are all dead. His son died years ago.

Longevity has left him leery of living. He keeps the papers on the table at all times so family members know where to find them when his time comes.

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For Thompson, a details man, just one matter remains unresolved: the killing of his brother Tommy.

Fifteen miles to the west, on a Charles Village street corner, a Baltimore homicide detective stared out from under the brim of his fedora and tried to gain a sense of what the area would have looked like 34 years ago, when police found Tommy shot to death.

The case is among the last in the long career of Albert "Mad Dog" Marcus, 65. After 40 years on the force, he's due to retire at the end of the year.

Until weeks ago, Marcus and Thompson had never met. But a case that grows colder with each passing year has brought them together — the retiring detective who is trying to solve one more homicide, and the aging war veteran whose final wish is some measure of closure.

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"This is my last chance," Thompson says. "I'm 83. All my brothers are dead. I'm the only one who can do this because I'm the only one left."

Tommy, who lived in North Baltimore, met up with his wife at the Harvey House, one of Charles Street's most popular restaurants, on July 27, 1981. They decided to get Chinese food instead. Tommy headed to nearby Jimmy Wu's New China Inn for takeout; his wife went home.

The restaurant was closed that day, and Thompson assumes that his brother headed toward home. But police believe a gunman somehow entered Tommy's van and forced him to drive in the other direction.

Witnesses told police they saw a man sitting close to Tommy in the van as he sat stiffly and drove erratically.

"Where this guy got in his van, I don't know," Thompson says. "Maybe at the Harvey House. Maybe Tommy picked him up. Maybe Tommy knew him."

Tommy was shot at least three times with a .22-caliber revolver and was wounded in the abdomen, leg and head.

The van struck a fire hydrant at 29th and St. Paul streets. Witnesses saw a man bail out and run down Lovegrove Street. They described him as thin, black, about 5 feet 10, with an oval face, mustache and sideburns nearly level with his lips. He was wearing dark pants, a red shirt and a red-and-white baseball cap.

Tommy hung on for 23 hours after surgery but died the next day. He was 51.

His brother still rolls the case around in his mind. He dwells on it.

"Lately, he's been obsessed with it," says Gladys Gobely, 59, one of his daughters. "He wants it solved before he dies. He's 83, you know. He just wants the guy caught."

Gobely says her father has always been the one in the family racked with anxiety and worry. He wants to make sure everyone is taken care of.

He has given his two daughters genealogy diagrams that he has researched and videotapes that show him telling stories as he flips through old photo albums, so the family's history will be preserved.

Thompson suspects no one else in the family will push to find Tommy's killer, and Gobely says he's probably right. The rest have children and grandkids and are looking toward the future, not the past.

"He's the only one left who can," she says.

Marge Zimmerman says her father feels the responsibility that comes with being the family's caretaker — and undertaker.

"Because he has outlasted everybody, he had to bury everybody," says Zimmerman, 60. "And since he was the youngest, he had to take charge. Bury his mother, bury his father, bury one of his kids.

"It would give him peace of mind for him to know that it's solved," she adds.

Thompson's home is filled with odds and ends: a Korea Veteran baseball cap, a 1969 Life magazine with the Apollo 11 moon landing on the cover, and a Pound Puppies stuffed animal, which was all the rage in the 1980s. Inside a footlocker is a book containing a map of the 50 states, along with the commemorative quarters created for each.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with all this," he says. "I guess the kids could have it."

The home has also become a resting place for the relics of departed loved ones. There's a medieval-style sword and crest hanging in the living room that was owned by an ex-wife. There are his mother's homemade photo albums. She used wheat paste to glue black-and-white pictures onto construction paper and bound the pages together with gold cord.

Thompson opens the fragile red cover of one of the albums to reveal a photo of a young boy, Tommy, grabbing his crotch. "Got to pee," he jokes.

In another photo, the two brothers, holding bows taller than they are, stand proudly next to a target into which they've sunk arrows. In still another, the two are dressed like little Ivy Leaguers in ties, sweaters and sport jackets.

They were the youngest of four Thompson boys. Tommy was slightly smaller but "had guts," Thompson says. "Somebody picked on me and he came after them."

They attended the same school, joined the same motorcycle gang, shared cars, served in Korea and, in a few cases, dated the same girls.

After the war, Tommy moved back to North Baltimore and Waverly, his old neighborhood, and into a house on 36th Street next to Memorial Stadium, home of the Baltimore Colts. The brothers could climb to the second floor and watch Johnny Unitas throw spirals without buying a ticket.

Tommy got married twice. He had four children — three boys and a girl. He worked as a repairman for D & H Distributing and Jimmy Wu's restaurant.

Bobby Thompson lived in Perry Hall and worked as a systems analyst for the Social Security Administration.

The brothers spoke on the phone every other week, Thompson says, and saw each other about once a month. They probably spoke a week before the shooting, he says, "just seeing how he was and all that stuff."

But he remembers clearly that night in 1981 when a cousin on the Baltimore police force summoned him to Union Memorial Hospital. He sat for hours hoping his brother would pull through.

On the night Tommy was shot, another incident hundreds of miles away — the abduction of 7-year-old Adam Walsh — would spark child-safety legislation, a center for missing kids and the "America's Most Wanted" television series, which brought national attention to hundreds of unsolved murders.

Tommy's case was not one of them. It faded from public view in about a week. Bobby Thompson tried to revive attention weeks after the crime by offering a $3,000 reward, and later raised it to $5,000 a few months later. But the effort yielded no useful information.

Last year, Thompson saw a news article about Baltimore police solving a homicide from the 1980s. He called the department, angry.

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Why aren't you investigating my brother's case, too? he asked.

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Marcus returned the call.

Known as a workaholic who led the department in overtime at least one year, Marcus has built a reputation for putting down tough murder cases. In 2010, he charged a 14-year-old with robbing and killing a prep cook for $7, cigarettes and a cellphone. He has been nominated Baltimore police officer of the year twice.

He earned the nickname "Mad Dog" for his aggressiveness in working drug cases and landed in the homicide unit in 1993. He was assigned to the department's cold case squad about four years ago.

When Thompson told him that solving his brother's case was a dying wish, Marcus — who also serves on the Baltimore police honor guard — felt a pull of duty to help the war veteran.

"Bringing closure to the families," he says. "That's the satisfaction."

Marcus is known around the department for his impeccable dress. He matches his cuff links and socks to his 152 mostly custom-made suits.

He believes first impressions go a long way toward getting people to talk. He says he never leaves home without shining his shoes, and he's rarely seen without a fedora. He buys from Hippodrome Hatters on West Baltimore Street.

He roughs up his look with a Fu Manchu mustache. He says he once asked a drug suspect if he knew who he was. The detective told him to spell his nickname backward.

What's that spell?

"Goddam," the suspect said.

"That's right," Marcus shot back. "Goddam, you're under arrest!"

Marcus didn't work on the original homicide investigation, but believes Tommy's case can be solved.

"Everyone remembers something about a murder," he says. Someone could have been peering out a window. The killer might have bragged about it to a jailhouse snitch or prison informant.

Marcus says he's seen the homicide of a woman solved 14 years later, when DNA from a suspect in a bank robbery came back as a match.

Another time, Marcus knew a witness could identify a suspect but was too scared to testify. Years later, after the suspect had died, he approached the woman again and held up the man's picture. When he told her that the man was no longer a threat, she changed her story.

Before Marcus retires, he hopes to solve three other cases that he worked years ago: the mid-1990s double murder of a strangled mother and daughter on Greenspring Avenue, the slaying of an older gay man on 34th Street and the killing of a junior high football player nicknamed "Ra Ra."

Marcus said solving Tommy's case is a long shot, with nothing but fading witness recollections to go on.

He plans to reinterview about a dozen people, including two who were at a bus stop and helped police draw a composite sketch of the suspect. He pats the case file, nearly as thick as an old White Pages, and flips through yellow papers and wrinkled interview notes taken by detectives long retired.

He says he'll use motor vehicle records to track down old witnesses.

"There's a little old lady in every neighborhood and she sees a lot," Marcus says. "You've got to find that little old lady."

Thompson doubts his brother's killer will ever be found but says he can't just do nothing.

"There's still a chance someone would know something and call in," he says. "I mean, it's hard to keep this stuff in."

Along with his tax and insurance papers, Thompson keeps another manilla folder on his coffee table. He calls it his "Dead Sea scrolls."

Inside is everything he knows about his brother's case, including newspaper clips and a sheet of lined notebook paper on which he's written all the facts he believes are pertinent.

If his memory fails, the document will not. After he's gone, it could provide a map for someone else to follow.

The folder also contains a photocopied image of his brother smoking a cigarette. Above it, Thompson has written a message, turning it into his own personal wanted poster.

"Who killed my brother Thomas Thompson at 2400 St. Paul St. on 27 July 1981," he wrote. "If found will end his life fast. I offer $5000.00 if found. You S.O.B. You killed my brother. I don't need a gun. I will beat u to death if we meet."

Unless, he realizes, death meets him first.

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