SUNDAY EDITION | Role of alcohol in arson confession brings 2010 conviction back to court

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Almost since the moment he was arrested after admitting he set multiple rooming houses on fire in 2009, U.B. Thomas III has written letters from his cell, claiming he was coerced by investigators into a false confession.

And some of the allegations he has made are not in dispute:

Investigators gave alcohol to Thomas’ girlfriend to convince her to answer questions about the fires. Thomas was also given beer by Louisville arson investigators. About 2 ½ hours of Thomas’ interrogation were not recorded.  And jurors were not told about the issues surrounding the confession by his defense attorney.

Now, six years after a jury convicted Thomas of arson, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison – based in large part on his confession -- a Jefferson Circuit Court judge has agreed to give him a hearing on what role, if any, the alcohol played.

“The power of suggestion and persuasion leading to a false confession is much greater when a suspect is under the influence,” Krista Dolan, an attorney with the Kentucky Department of Advocacy, wrote in a recent court motion. “Such a confession rises to the level of egregiousness, when the police admitted to providing alcohol to a suspect.”

Dolan also claims the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office failed to give Thomas’ original defense team evidence from a criminal investigation into the actions of arson investigators, a violation of Supreme Court rules that say defendants must be told about potentially exculpatory evidence in criminal cases.

While investigators and prosecutors disagree on how big a factor the alcohol was, everyone involved in the case acknowledges the circumstances are highly unusual.

“I’ve been a prosecutor a very long time, and I don’t remember it coming up before," Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacy Greive, who originally prosecuted the case, said in an interview about the suspect and witness being given alcohol.

Greive and arson investigators say the witnesses shouldn’t have been given beer, but they maintain the alcohol did not affect Thomas’ confession or the jury conviction.

Most importantly, they say, Thomas was not given beer until after he had already confessed and the group was eating pizza before taking him to jail. And the officers denied that Thomas had access to a bag he brought that contained narcotics -- or that anything of consequence happened in the time the interrogation wasn’t recorded.

Former Major Henry Ott, chief of investigations for the Louisville Metro Arson Squad at the time, admitted investigators bought a beer for Thomas’ girlfriend to get her to come to the police station and give a statement.

They then gave Thomas the rest of the 40-ounce beer, but Ott said it was not part of any plot to coerce Thomas to confess. Ott has said it was an act of kindness for a man who was likely going to prison.

“I gave the man a beer,” Ott said during a 2009 criminal investigation by Louisville Metro Police. “I shouldn’t have done it. I won’t do it again.”

Prosecutors are also arguing that the issue was litigated in court before the trial in 2010, and Judge Olu Stevens refused to throw out the confession. Dolan claims that the judge didn’t have all the evidence as the criminal investigation into the confession was ongoing and hadn’t been turned over to the defense.

But prosecutors say they didn’t have to share the Louisville Metro Police investigation because Thomas and his defense attorney at the time already knew about it before the trial and could have gotten the information themselves.

In coming months, several involved in the case are expected to be called to testify on exactly why and when investigators gave Thomas alcohol, and whether the defense attorney failed in not telling jurors about it. A recent court hearing on the issue was canceled, and a new date has not yet been scheduled.

In his interview for the police investigation, Thomas said investigators gave him the beer after he’d been talking with them for about an hour and before they turned the recording equipment on.

Dolan says it doesn’t matter when the beer was given to Thomas, whom she describes as an addict who would have said anything to get alcohol.

In an interview this week, Dolan said that had jurors learned about the police investigation and all of the details of the confession, it would have “helped to attack the credibility of the investigating officers” and lent credibility to Thomas’ claim that he falsely confessed.

“There were suspicious circumstances in this interrogation that need to be explored further,” she said.

Witness given alcohol for cooperation

In the early morning hours of May 3, 2009, fires were set in rooming houses on West Hill, East St. Catherine, Rowan and Duncan streets. Thomas and his then-girlfriend, Colleen “Pebbles” Compton, lived in one of the homes and were soon picked up by arson investigators.

Ott admitted investigators bought alcohol for Compton in exchange for her speaking to investigators.

“She just said … I don’t wanna come to your office, I wanna get beer,” Ott told investigators. “And then we said well we’ll get you beer. Will you come to the office? Well yeah I’ll come up there. And, and talk to ya if I can have my beer.”

After Compton left, police either put the beer in a refrigerator or left it sitting around in the office.

Thomas said police gave him the 40-ounce beer and left him alone with a bag that had pain pills and Valium, which he took.

For the first 30-45 minutes he was with arson investigators, Thomas said he denied having any involvement in the fires. After being given alcohol and taking pills – and having investigators threaten to charge Compton with the crimes – Thomas says the camera was turned on and he gave a “false” confession.

“You don’t put a steak in front of a dog and ask him not to bite at it when he’s hungry,” Thomas told police in the LMPD investigator of arson investigators. “You don’t do that to people, especially when you know the kind of situation that they’re in and the things they’re doing, the habits they have.”

While in jail, Thomas wrote to the chiefs of both the fire and police departments, complaining that he had been given alcohol and access to medications during his interrogation.

These letters initiated a criminal investigation by the police department’s Public Integrity Unit. The department interviewed everyone involved and confirmed that both Compton and Thomas were given alcohol, but recommended that no charges be filed against investigators, because they swore the alcohol was given after the confession.

Former Sgt. Todd Leonard, with the Metro Arson Unit, testified in court in that investigators offered Thomas pizza after his confession but before he was taken to jail.

“Somebody mentioned something about, ‘boy a beer would taste good with this,’” Leonard told Judge Stevens in a hearing before the trial. And investigators asked Thomas if he would like Compton’s leftover beer, according to Leonard.

“In the ten years I’ve been here, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen it,” Leonard testified.

While the LMPD criminal investigation into the beer was not finished until Jan. 12, 2011, Greive said prosecutors, Thomas’ attorney, Jane Tyler and Stevens all knew about it during the trial. The interviews police had already conducted could have been obtained by Tyler, if she had wanted them, Greive said.

Dolan said she wants to figure out whether the police investigation was withheld by prosecutors or Tyler failed to get it. Either way, Thomas’ defense suffered, she said.

Dolan also said Thomas should have attacked the confession during the trial, used the LMPD investigation to question all those involved about the alcohol and the interrogation of Compton, talked more about the unrecorded part of the interview and hired an expert to testify about false confessions.

“During this 2 ½ hours not on camera, we don’t know what happened,” Dolan told WDRB. “That really should have been explored more at trial.”

Tyler said she could not comment on the case as she didn’t remember exact details.

Thomas was convicted of multiple arson charges, and a jury recommended a 25-year-prison sentence. The sentence was later changed by the judge to 20 years in prison. He is eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of this sentence.

Dolan said the confession was the only good evidence investigators had. She said other evidence proved Thomas was not involved, including surveillance video shows Thomas leaving an apartment complex several blocks away from the fire at the time he was supposedly setting them.

Investigators say the time of the fires were approximations.

Another man was initially arrested for committing one of the fires, based on several witness interviews. But the man, Andre Sloss, identified Thomas as the culprit, and he was released with charges dismissed.

Dolan says if the prosecutors had turned over the police investigation into arson investigators – and the defense attorney at the time would have questioned witnesses about it – it would have shown how their stories differed and cast doubt on the confession.

“We think a jury might be more suspect of his confession had they known these other circumstances and had there been more information about the varying accounts of these officers,” Dolan said in an interview.

For example, Sgts. Shawn Abna and Leonard each told investigators that Sgt. John Griffith with the arson unit gave Thomas a beer. And Griffith admitted to giving Thomas a beer. Ott said he provided the beer.

Investigators also gave differing stories on where the bag with narcotics was at the time of the interrogation, Dolan said.

But all agreed the beer was given after the confession. And in his interview with PIU, Ott said Thomas was never given access to the bag with pills and Thomas was “100 percent sober” when he was taken to jail.

When he got to jail, however, Thomas was put in detox, Dolan said.

The video of the confession does not show Thomas drinking any beer or taking any pills. Ott said the beer wasn’t given to Thomas until more than an hour after he confessed.

Asked by investigators if this was common practice for him, Ott said “it was the first and last time.”

Ott declined to talk to WDRB in detail this week about the incident, but said in a statement that Thomas was a convicted felon “getting ready to spend the rest of his life in prison, where he belongs.

"I gave him two pieces of cold pizza and a warm beer, left behind from an interview with (Compton). It is a shame that he attempts to use the innocence project and other resources that could better be allocated to rehabilitate those who deserve a second chance, not a man on his third fourth or fifth chance."

Greive and Ott both said he was simply trying to do something nice for Thomas before he likely served a lengthy prison sentence.

“I’m sure they are regretting they even attempted an act of kindness because Mr. Thomas has repeatedly … tried to turn that act of kindness into something wrong,” Greive said.

This attitude is “troubling” and simply an attempt to shift the blame to Thomas, Dolan said.

“I think there is a bit of gall there to say, ‘Now look, Mr. Thomas has gone and ruined a nice thing we did,” she said this week. “They provided alcohol and then don’t seem to have any qualms about it until they are investigated, at which point they see it’s a mistake and ‘now we won’t do anyone any more favors.’”

Thomas, who is in prison in Oldham County is “excited he finally has an attorney and there is some traction,” Dolan said. “He’s been saying for seven years that he falsely confessed to something and hasn’t really been able to get anyone to hear him. That’s obviously very frustrating. … Now he is finally going to be heard.”

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