by Julie Withers
Mountain House and Brush Creek are part of an unincorporated area 25 miles or so east of Oroville, California. They are tiny burgs off the old Oroville-Quincy Highway, on the way to Buck’s Lake Wilderness, Quincy, and countless outdoor opportunities in Plumas County. These areas, steeped in mining and logging history, are rural and quiet, known for marijuana grows and conservative politics. It is a lonely wooded place. But on September 3, 2014, a burning car was found there. The car was a Ford, described as either gold or tan, and it was registered to Marc Thompson of Oroville. Marc was my student, friend, and was featured in a movie I helped make that was directed by Lee Mun Wah titled If These Halls Could Talk. But for seven days, he was simply missing—and possibly the body that was found in a burning car.
Cal Fire extinguished the fire by 7:30 pm, and at the time, the local sheriff only knew that it was Marc’s car with a body inside. They were also aware that the fire was surrounded by dry grass at the end of a hot, late-summer day. Marc wasn’t “circumstantially identified” as the body in the car for a week, not until a September 10th press release from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO). It took until early October for the coroner’s office to confirm through DNA testing that it was him.
I didn’t know about the car fire that night. I found out that something was wrong only on September 6th, three days after the body in his burning car was found. I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and hopped on Facebook to post a video clip from the movie Thank You for Smoking on Marc’s wall. My husband Larry and I watched it the week before and I knew that it was one of Marc’s favorite movies. When I got to his Facebook page I saw that one of his sisters posted this:
From April Nicole-Drakes, September 6, 2014
Friends of Marc Thompson please keep your eyes and ears open!! Marc has been missing for days & no one seems to know anything. Chico & Oroville California be alert! If you know anything please inform me or the police! Please read!!!!!!!
I met Marc in the spring of 2009 when I was teaching sociology at Butte Community College. Marc wasn’t a student in any of my classes that semester; he was enrolled in a sociology course that began ten minutes after my intro sociology course ended, so we briefly crossed paths every Tuesday and Thursday. But Marc showed up early and I took a long time packing up my teaching materials. I can’t remember the moment we started talking, just that we did. Marc was a talker same as me, someone who liked words and conversation; it was an easy and fast friendship.
That friendship led Marc to Stirfry Seminars & Consulting, a company I worked for beginning in 2010 when I was recruited to help cast the documentary film If These Halls Could Talk. The film—about the state of race relations on campus and in the U.S. through the eyes of college students—was a volunteer gig for me, something I did because I wanted the public to hear the comments and conversations I heard in the classroom. Students were having honest conversations about race, class, gender, and sexuality; daring to go places I wasn’t always certain about. Marc was part of that conversation, an outspoken member of a larger group of student leaders in the Black Student Union (BSU) and Associated Students (A.S.) who were making change on campus before they transferred to four-year schools. It was dazzling to be part of it, both the film and the activism with the students.
He would go on and transfer from Butte College to Chico State, where he hoped to become a sociology professor someday. Already an activist, Marc was soon elected Commissioner of Multi-Cultural Affairs for the Associated Students. He became well-known at Chico State—a vocal student in his classes, familiar to the school President and other campus leaders, and through his early morning job on the grounds crew where he would cheerfully wave to the many people he knew from the back of a riding mower.
What Happened to Marc?
If you knew Marc you knew that he did not like the woods or rural places—he liked to be among people. It was something we joked about sometimes because I’m a bit of a hermit and live in a small rural town, off a dirt road, in a house in the middle of the woods. We said that my people were “fishing and camping people” and that his people were “tropical people.” I grew up in a rural place, raised in a white, predominantly working class Christian community in Southern California—like Paradise, CA but close to the desert. I am comfortable in rural spaces and feel a cultural connection. But I understand why Marc did not. We joked about it but the woods and rural areas are not historically safe places for Black people. Nefarious crimes happen to Black people in the woods; for African-Americans the echos of lynching and burnings often stir a feeling of being suspect and not belonging. The laws have changed, but attitudes, behavior, and laws don’t necessarily progress in sync. In places like where I live and where Marc was found, attitudes and behavior sometimes take the shape of exclusionary, race-troubled Tea Party politics.
I’m writing about Marc’s murder because it seems he disappeared into the woods without a trace. Why was there so little notice in the local papers of someone so well-known and well-liked? Why was there no clamoring public need for an investigation of his murder? Indeed, we only know that he was murdered. Was he shot or bludgeoned? Who poured the accelerant around his car so it would burn? Why did they burn the car when it was still daylight, at around 6:30pm?
Despite the peculiar circumstances, there are still no leads in the investigation three months later, and I’m afraid there won’t be unless we keep Marc’s name and story in the press so that it stays part of the “running conversation.” This sociological idea suggests that it’s valuable to keep the public excited and interested in the case through everyday conversation such as gossip, street talk, community organizing, and brief articles in local newspapers like you might have read in the Chico Enterprise Record and here in the Synthesis. Keeping a “running conversation” going is essential in cases like Marc’s when the victim is young and Black, a person who was seen and then dead in a short span of hours. Our culture has a short attention span and makes its collective mind up quickly; stereotypical assumptions are made and then the public moves on to the next exciting tragedy.
But, homicides are unusual events in Butte County. Sheriff’s detective D’Amato, the lead investigator on Marc’s case, told me that by his estimate there are about 6-10 a year. I sat down with detective D’Amato and learned that there wasn’t much he could share about Marc’s death because of the ongoing investigation, but also that it’s been a “Season of homicides” in Butte County—whatever that means in a county with so few homicides and, as the detective said, “the largest department in northern California.”
From my perspective as a sociologist, the running conversation about race, murder, and institutional discrimination are all part of this “Season of homicides.” Without intending to, detective D’Amato provided me with a metaphor. It is an analogy that illuminates the larger social issue around Black men and women who have died as a result of interactions with law enforcement and gun-toting, frightened White people, sometimes in rural places.
In June 2014, an area man was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of three African American people he shot and burned up in a car on a ridge in Paradise, CA. This means that in 2013—a year with 13 homicides— African Americans burning in cars made up 23% of Butte County’s murders (the national average for African American homicides is 6.3 times higher than for Whites). To be clear, there is no evidence that Marc’s murder was racially motivated but the lackluster response from the community and the way that the case has been handled by the BCSO is indicative of the institutional racism that has made possible this particular “season” in the U.S. As Marc himself wrote a month before he died: “On a daily basis I fear for my culture, my future, and at times my very life. So I then began to ask the question ‘if I fear them, and they fear me, how will we ever come together to understand each other,’ a question it seems that would haunt me even to this day. The results of this fear are plain as day, people of color are dying at the hands of those who swore to protect us, and the mainstream media must twist these stories so we don’t lose faith in our protectors.”
September 3, 2014
One of the last people to see Marc alive was his older brother, L.T. At around 2:30 Marc stopped by their mom’s house in Oroville to pick up his mail. Marc had recently moved back to Chico to finish his Sociology degree at Chico State and was living with his Dad there. L.T. says he recalls him opening a package with a textbook in it. He describes Marc standing in the living room and ripping the clear plastic off the book. He didn’t stay at the house long. L.T. says that he “took it [the textbook] and left to go to the casino.” Four hours later, Marc’s car was on fire in the boondocks.
Marc was a poker player, and from what he told me and some of his other friends, he was a good one. There isn’t much known about Marc’s trip to the casino. Who did he play poker with? Who saw him there? When I spoke with L.T. and detective D’Amato back in September, there was no forthcoming information about that visit. I did hear through street talk that Marc was seen on the casino’s many cameras but that there was nothing conclusive to be learned. His car was seen leaving the casino parking lot, but which way he turned is unknown. Nor is it known if he was by himself, or with someone else. This is the car that would be burning by 7:12 pm, 25 miles away in the foothills—with a body in it.
At around 11pm that night, L.T. received a phone call from his next-door neighbor telling him that the police were out in front of the house. L.T. greeted the sheriff at the gate. The officer began by asking L.T. if he knew of Marc’s whereabouts. L.T. did not and said that Marc lived in Chico. They spoke for ten minutes. From L.T.’s perspective the sheriff was acting like Marc was “accused of a crime” and was trying to “get information” from him; that something serious was up but that L.T. didn’t know what it was. And then the sheriff told L.T. about Marc’s car being found on fire. He produced a black vinyl zip-up binder. Inside was Marc’s DMV info, a copy of his driver’s license picture, and information on the make and model of his car that was found burning. The sheriff asked L.T. for their dad’s phone number and, 15 minutes into the conversation, he told L.T. that there was a dead body in the car. That didn’t sit well with L.T. and felt insensitive; it was as if “Marc was a suspect in his own murder.”
According to the BCSO call log, a call came in at 19:12 on the night of September 3rd stating that there was a car on fire (pg46). The reporting party is not named on the log, nor is the location of the burning car noted. Another call came at 19:50 identifying Marc’s father Lawrence Thompson as the reporting party and giving the precise location of the car in Mountain House (pg47). This is one of the more confusing details to come forth after Marc was killed. Marc’s father never called 911 or the main sheriff’s office numbers that night, yet his name is there, creating unproductive gossip and street talk. Marc’s sisters, his brother, his mother, and his father expressed frustration over this SNAFU. Marc’s dad Lawrence said this: “I feel as crucial and sensitive as this information was that horrid night, it was imperative to get all calling parties names, times, and facts correct from the moment they found a car on fire!” With a body! There are only 6-10 murders in all of Butte County each year, less than 1 per month. When I asked, Detective D’Amato told me that it was a “clerical error” on the sheriff department’s Computer Assisted Documentation (CAD) program. So, did someone call at 7:50pm? Who was it? Was there a 911 recording?
If it wasn’t someone you love, you may not notice such a detail, but I did and so did Marc’s family. One of the things about keeping stories like Marc’s murder in the “running conversation” is that the “prestige holders” (people with privilege and power such as sheriffs, reporters, writers and activists) must present a unified, factual story. Without it, the public will make its assumptions and disregard the story. I don’t want you to disregard the story, this is my friend and when I saw those details on the sheriff’s log about a “car on fire” it sucked the breath out of my body and made my ears ring: Marc. Marc was not just another body in the car, he was my friend—his story needs to remain alive, even if he isn’t.
When Someone You Love is Murdered
Marc’s funeral was in Chico on Monday, October 6th, another scorching hot day. His friends and family collected together in small circles, everybody sweating and crying and waiting for the service to begin. His casket was centered at the front of the church when we walked inside, a shiny silver metallic box topped with bunches of purple flowers, and surrounded by enlarged photos of him on easels, he filled the room and he would’ve loved that.
Marc’s close friend Foxie Brown delivered his eulogy. She spoke of his hugs, his honesty, his intelligence, and his sense of humor. On a day when we were often reminded of his activism, she showed how it came from his kind, considerate, and thoughtful nature; because of this, she complimented his parents on his “home training.” I sat between my husband and Marc’s girlfriend Jay, my arm tight around her shoulder and my heart feeling for the room.
Marc was buried in Oroville that day, next to his maternal grandmother Edna Taylor. Marc’s mom wanted them buried together, the grandson being a true reflection of his grandmother’s legacy of fighting for social justice and equity. Edna Taylor was “very active” in the Oroville community including work with the NAACP, which Marc’s mom LaWanda says resulted in rocks being thrown at their house and a cross being burned on the lawn of their Oroville home. She says that the “amazing amount of racism” they experienced influenced Marc’s passion for fighting for social justice and for people from all walks of life; LaWanda says, “He was a visionary.”
The Value of Catharsis and Outrage
What keeps the public excited about a story in the news? Sometimes it’s the actions on the part of the prestige holders. Two years ago, a young student visiting Chico from San Luis Obispo went missing during the annual Labor Day float on the Sacramento River. The BCSO participated in searches with a large team of bureaucrats including the Glenn County Sheriff Department, aerial units, CA Department of Fish & Game, CA State Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local search and rescue volunteers. There was a “Let’s Bring Brett Home” Facebook page (I joined it) and flyer’s posted in Glenn and Butte County. Sadly, fisherman at the Sacramento River discovered Brett’s body a little more than a week later. What is most impressive about this however, was the immediate (sheriff search party the morning after) and widespread community response. The interest of the public directly influenced the “running conversation” and thus, the actions of the local bureaucrats.
But why isn’t the public and local sheriff department excited about the murder of a young Black man who disappeared without a trace? A 25-year old college senior in whose burning car a body was found that was not clearly identifiable as him? There were no sheriff search parties for Marc Thompson. No public outcry. According to Sheriff Sgt. Jason Hail, Marc was not “officially reported missing with any law enforcement agency.”
In the immediate days following Marc’s murder there wasn’t much press, only a short blurb in the Chico Enterprise Record highlighting the suspicious nature of the fire. Using facebook and Gmail, a whole bunch of Marc’s friends joined his family in calling the sheriff to demand more public attention to his death. Marc’s mom said she called the sheriff but it was three days before they even returned her calls.
Because of the efforts of Marc’s family and friends (across the state and throughout the U.S.) enough excitement was briefly generated to make Marc’s story part of the “running conversation.” Nevertheless, the reporting in the press and on the BCSO website identified the incorrect lead investigator in Marc’s case since the day he was murdered. Detective D’Amato explained to me that it is not Sheriff investigator Matt Calkins’ error—and I’m sure it’s not—but let me be clear: if you know anything about what happened to my friend Marc at that dusty turnout off the Oro-Quincy Highway, please contact BCSO Detective Chris D’Amato at 530-538-7544 or 530-538-7671.