Seattleland: Beauty Queen Still ‘A Victim’

The likelihood that no one believed her never seemed to rattle Peggy Sue Thomas. Cops, prosecutors, and most of Whidbey Island eventually came to suspect the cinnamon-maned beauty queen was a co-conspirator in the point-blank murder of Russel Douglas a day after Christmas 2003.

But she had convinced herself, it seems, and that’s what mattered. Ms. Washington 2000 never batted a mascaraed eyelash or blew a well-practiced answer when it came to her story and sticking to it: She had no idea her married boyfriend had gone out one day and shot the estranged husband of her good friend Brenna Douglas—a dry-eyed widow who would later collect a hefty life-insurance payoff and express little interest in finding the killer.

So what if the wife of the shooter and a friend of the shooter both claim Peggy was his co-conspirator? Or that another witness recalled Peggy saying she wished she had thrown the shooter’s gun into Puget Sound the day of Russ Douglas’s death?

Hearsay and circumstantial, Peggy Sue would calmly point out to detectives, all the while aware that the shooter, Jim Huden, a lovesick, drug-addled jazz musician who played for Buck Naked and the Xhibitionists, was going to take the rap alone.

The woe-is-me defense seemed to be working so well that last weekend Peggy Sue told it on national television. “I fell in love with the wrong man,” she said to CBS, shaking her head ruefully. “I have no reason to lie.”

The investigators and the gossips and the media had all lined up against her after she was eventually charged and the bloody details emerged—Russel Douglas, 32, of Renton, was lured to a dead-end road and then shot between the eyes.

“My life became a tabloid story with headlines about ‘Drop-Dead Gorgeous,’ ” Thomas told 48 Hours reporter Peter Van Sant, referring to the title of a 2011 Seattle Weekly story that was then superimposed behind her on the TV screen. “I knew I had a battle on my hands.”

And she sat there, 48 years old now, handsome and far from her pageant playing weight, with a confident smile crinkling the corners of her mouth. Just as she had won the beauty contest 14 years earlier, just as she had won the lottery by marrying and then quickly divorcing the multimillionaire racehorse owner of a Kentucky Derby winner, she had won the battle of the island homicide.

Though she was headed off to prison after the interview—taped last year after her sentencing, at which she refused to discuss the killing—it would be for four years for rendering criminal assistance, rather than life for a contract killing. And so now she was ready for questioning.

“Did you encourage Jim . . . ”

“Absolutely not!”

“ . . . to murder Russ?”

“Absolutely not!”

“You did not participate in any way, conspire to kill him?”

“I swear on the love for my children. I swear on my life.”

Island County Sheriff’s Det. Mark Plumberg swore, too, when asked if he thought Peggy Sue was deeply involved in the contract killing. “Absolutely,” he said.

But there will be no do-overs. Jim Huden saw to that by going quietly, refusing to negotiate a lesser charge or take the stand at his eight-day trial and conviction. Even if he should decide to speak up between now and the end of his 80-year sentence, his former girlfriend, thanks to double jeopardy, cannot be retried.

Yet the murder case is still open, with at least one loose thread. It trails off somewhere around Brenna Douglas, the widow who collected $200,000 in insurance proceeds, and who, according even to Peggy Sue, said of her husband, “He’s worth more to me dead than alive.”

Reporter Van Sant—a Seattle native and WSU grad—tracked down Douglas in a parking lot after she repeatedly refused requests for a sit-down interview. “Hey, Brenna?” he said, running up to her with a mike. “After all this time, investigators still believe you were involved in the murder of your husband. What do you have to say to that?”

“I have to say that you’re harassing me, and I already filed a police complaint for you guys following me.” She jumped back into her big pickup and took off.

“She remains a suspect in my mind,” says Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks. He worries that his client, the victim, has not gotten a full measure of justice. “I mean, what did Russ do? He was trying to do the right thing by his wife, trying to get back together. And for that he got a bullet in the head.”

But it turns out there’s another person who thinks justice has not been served. Yes, her.

“I’m also a victim in this,” Peggy Sue said on American TV last week. “I’m actually giving up four years of my life for something I didn’t do.” Nothing, not an eyelash, moved.

Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing.

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