Heart On Fire: The Murder Of Marc Thompson

I only knew Marc for one evening. I didn’t even know that it was “Marc” with a “c,” or that his last name was Thompson. Not until I read his name in the paper this past week.

But maybe six weeks ago we played in a poker tournament together, over at Casino 99. For most of the tournament, we were the two “big stacks,” meaning we had the most chips. We were fucking with each other; joking; trying to get in each other’s heads.

At one point the conversation at the table turned to race and President Obama. This is not your usual poker table conversation material, which is customarily kept on safe subjects like Football statistics or the terribleness of ex-wives.

This evening, though, someone at the table was complaining about President Obama issuing the most executive orders of any president in history. Someone else (a former ambassador, nonetheless) then pointed out that that is in no way true, googling it for proof and forcing some very entertaining eating of words.

“Yes, but you forgot to multiply that number times black,” I joked, perhaps unfairly.

Which made Marc crack up. And a short time later he leaned in toward me and said, “I see you…” and then—I don’t remember exactly how he worded it—he let me know that he “saw me,” that, in short, he saw that I was clever and with it on the issues he was into; that he appreciated me, starting each compliment with “I see that.”

Do you know how rare that is? How rare it is for a man to be that generous and kind and complimentary and direct with another man? (I didn’t remember this moment until just now, as I sat down to write this; the memory just popped to the surface, and its rarity became clear just now as well.)

I “saw” Marc, too. But I didn’t have the courage and confidence that Marc had, to just straight up tell him. This is what I saw: Marc was funny and he was smart and he was courageous and he was brimming with life- force and verve, commanding and energizing the table with his big, gap-toothed smile, his wit, his ready laugh. This isn’t posthumous rose-colored bullshit. The man made a definitive impression on me.

At one point, though, I did compliment him. He had just taken a bad beat and lost a big chunk of his chips. But he kept on playing with the exact same joy and aggression.

“I like your style, man,” I said (or something like that, it was some six weeks ago). “No matter what happens, you keep playing confident.”

“You gotta believe in your cards,” Marc said. (This I remember quite clearly.) “You gotta love your cards. You got to.”

And I remember thinking—knowing—that what he was saying was clearly about more than cards. It was about an orientation toward life and fate and self. Marc’s suggestion—“you gotta love your cards”—wasn’t about an optimism of expectations; it was about one’s relationship with one’s reality. That’s what
I thought at the time, though it was less a thought, then, than it was a feeling; a sort of flash of recognition. And I was moved, I remember, and impressed, partially because I have a depressive disposition and tend not relate to my own life in that way; tend not, perhaps, to appreciate my own cards as much as I should.

That was the effect Marc Thompson had on me over just one short evening playing poker.

This is what I read in the paper (in a tasteful and very well-written/reported article by Ken Smith in the News&Review called “Death of the ‘lone soldier’”): Marc Thompson was (almost certainly) murdered; his body found on September 3rd, burned in his car in a remote location off of highway 70.

25-year-old Marc Thompson was set to graduate from Chico State this year; a Sociology Major, with minors in both Psychology and Gender and Sexuality. He was the A.S Commissioner for Multicultural Affairs from 2012-2013. He was one of the featured subjects of If These Halls Could Talk, an (from some small clips I’ve seen) honest and searing documentary about race relations in University settings. And he had just sold his first article to a newspaper—a Turkish paper, oddly. The article is a powerful and personal and wise- beyond-his-years exploration of the national and personal reactions we’ve all been having following the death of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The article was published on September 14th, but Marc was already dead.

When I was a little kid, one of my earliest memories is of watching my grandmother cry as she watched the news. She did that a lot. She’d cry and swear and mumble to herself and even take swings at the air, watching the news, infuriated at all the injustice and pain. I don’t remember what the particular tragedy was, at the time, but I remember thinking that I wouldn’t be like that—that I couldn’t be like that—that I—that we—couldn’t let all the pain in the world whip us around like that, because there was so much, because we couldn’t possibly take it all in. And so I didn’t. We didn’t. The generations who grew up around 24-hour news cycles didn’t. We built callouses of irony and analysis up around our hearts. Because we had to.

Perhaps I’m projecting here, making this sweeping generational comment. But I think something has definitely happened to us as the Sphere of Things We Can Do Something About has been so rapidly eclipsed by the Sphere of Things We Must Now Know. The pain and tragedy are far beyond what we’re biologically evolved to handle. Just an eye-blink back in evolutionary history, if we knew about a tragedy it was generally because it was happening within walking distance or right in front of our face. We could go do something about it. Now, all the pain in the world is piped straight into our heads, but we’re mostly powerless to do much about it. How could we not have formed defense mechanisms against that pain?

But something about the murder of this young man who I barely knew has torn my scar tissue down. And it hurts. I’m so fucking angry. Here was a man just getting started; a man of such promise and complication and moral courage and depth and spirit—and somebody just snuffed him out.

I want to curse this killer; to call him a piece of shit, whoever he is. But instead I’ll quote a bit from the writings of Marc Thompson, a man much wiser than myself, from the first and last article he’ll ever publish, “The Troubled Lenses of Humanity.”

Marc ends the piece about Ferguson and national healing quoting Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But he begins it this way: “Death can be a time of sorrow or celebration, anger or happiness, peace or unrest; it is for each of us to decide how we welcome this inevitable phase, both for our selves and those we love.” But Marc: I don’t know how to feel anything right now but sorrow, anger, and unrest— and it doesn’t feel like a choice.

On Marc’s Facebook page, there are now well-wishers and memory-sharers; people saying similar things to what I’ve said here. Then, if you scroll down, back through time a bit, you find (who I believe to be) his sister, saying he is missing, crying out for him. Then you can keep scrolling, back to when he was alive and casually posting things. The last thing he ever posted, on August 23rd, at 1:58 in the morning, was the Yeats poem “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Scroll down a little farther and you find a few pictures Marc posted of himself as a child. Same bright smile, same bright eyes.

Rest in Peace, Marc Thompson. May your family and those who loved you find peace and justice. I’m going to try my best to believe in my cards, and to love them as best I can, too.

If you have any information:

Contact Butte County Sheriff: Detective Matt Calkins: 530-538-7671

The Justice For Mark Thompson website:


To help Marc’s family with funeral costs go here:


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About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.