Guilty plea ends bizarre murder saga in St. Bernard

After nearly three decades of intrigue, the saga of slain pet cemetery owner Dorothy Thompson came to an abrupt end Friday inside a St. Bernard Parish courtroom, as the shadowy con artist long suspected of suffocating Thompson and dumping her corpse in the Mississippi River accepted a plea bargain that authorities touted as a belated semblance of justice in a cold case steeped in a generation of unlikely lore.

Brandon T. Nodier, a 60-year-old from Arabi who committed the killing in a bitter dispute over Thompson’s property, pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and was sentenced without delay to 10 years in state prison. But under the parole calculation in effect at the time of the 1985 killing, Nodier can expect to serve less than five years behind bars, said his defense attorney, Pat Fanning, who portrayed the sentence as a compromise reflecting the fragility of the state’s evidence. “They didn’t have a great case,” he said.

Law enforcement officials gathered at the Chalmette courthouse Friday morning to witness the final chapter of one of the most bizarre murder mysteries to befall the parish, a case devoid of physical evidence but replete with speculation, guilty consciences and even ghost sightings.

State Police detectives had been so stumped in the early years of the investigation that they enlisted the services of a Slidell psychic, who, according to sheriff’s officials, visited the pet cemetery and reported that Thompson had been tortured there.

Nodier, appearing slightly unkempt in thick glasses, plaid shirt and jeans, uttered mostly one-word responses during the brief hearing, his hands clasped behind his back as if waiting to be cuffed. In accepting the plea, 34th Judicial District Judge Perry Nicosia made clear that Nodier, who has been out on bond, received a bargain in the truest sense of the word and that he would have received a far stiffer punishment had he been found guilty at trial.

“You walked the streets as a free man for so long,” the judge said. “You got away with this horrible act of violence for a long time.”

Unmentioned during the proceeding was the irony that Nodier, after so many years of freedom, appears to have triggered his own demise by visiting the state’s star witness in jail and threatening him and his wife. It was only after that encounter that the witness, James J. Tregler, contacted authorities and claimed to have witnessed Thompson’s slaying, a compelling account that detectives quickly used to secure Nodier’s indictment.

“I would like to have seen Mr. Nodier go to jail for the rest of life,” Sheriff James Pohlmann said, while calling the outcome “some form of justice.”

A peculiar past

Thompson, the 61-year-old owner of the Azalea Original Pet Cemetery in the tiny community of Toca, disappeared in April 1985 and was found nearly three weeks later in the Mississippi River near Myrtle Grove. Fishermen discovered her partially nude corpse on May 2, 1985, weighted in chains on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish.

A plastic garbage bag had been tied around her neck with a metal wire, and detectives said she had been dumped upstream near a ferry landing. The coroner determined she had died of asphyxia.

The Sheriff’s Office estimated that Thompson had been suffocated inside her home on April 13, 1985, 10 days before she was to appear in court in connection with a lawsuit she had filed over the cemetery property she had signed over to Nodier.

“He swindled her, is what he did,” said Col. John Doran, chief of detectives at the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office. “He scammed her out of the land, and when she realized she’d been scammed, she filed that lawsuit.”

Investigators long ago concluded that Nodier was the prime suspect and had a clear motive to want Thompson out of the way. A handyman with a history of arrests and a burglary conviction, Nodier worked for Thompson at the 14-acre cemetery and had made headstones for many of the animals buried there.

The parish’s longtime former sheriff, Jack Stephens, referred to Nodier as “a fearsome and dangerous guy.’’ But investigators were left with a crime scene that afforded them few clues and a trail that eventually ran cold. There wasn’t enough circumstantial evidence to arrest Nodier, they said.

A peculiar fame

Opened by Thompson’s mother around 1950, the cemetery, also known as the E.E. Matt Pet Cemetery, has garnered a peculiar fame through the years. According to The Times-Picayune, which in 2012 published a lengthy account of Thompson’s lineage and a history of the cemetery, the property once served as a boarding house for live pets, including monkeys.

Some 5,000 pets were buried there, the newspaper reported, with some graves costing as much as $2,000 and 12-foot azaleas sprouting alongside tombstones. It also was the site of previous bloodshed: In November 1970, Thompson fatally shot her husband in the rear of the cemetery, the newspaper reported.

She was never charged in the slaying, as St. Bernard officials determined she had acted in self-defense. A few years later, in 1976, she married a cemetery caretaker, Donald E. Robinson, who less than two years later was found fatally shot on the property. Thompson phoned police to report finding his body, and no charges were filed.

Those previous killings only added to the mystique of Thompson’s death, which remained unsolved until 2012.

“Lore has grown up surrounding the case over the years,” Steve Cannizaro, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, wrote in a news release after Nodier’s arrest. “Since the murder, there have been several subjects in the case who have told tales involving the alleged ghost of the victim.”

The cemetery is now overgrown with vegetation, but Patricia Newman, Thompson’s longtime friend and executor of her estate who hounded the authorities for years about solving her murder, said she intends to renovate the property and reopen the cemetery soon.

Turning a corner

St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s detectives cited a number of complicating factors in the case, including jurisdictional confusion because Thompson’s body was located in Plaquemines Parish. Doran said the Sheriff’s Office lost a number of files during Hurricane Katrina but benefited immensely from a State Police file that remained intact, which he described as “a bible of names and witnesses.”

Authorities said Friday they would not immediately release the investigative file.

The biggest break in the cold case came in 2012, after Doran and Capt. Mark Jackson had been re-examining the file and interviewing old witnesses, including Nodier’s wife. “It caused the reaction that we wanted,” Doran said. “It caused (Nodier) to panic.”

Nodier caught wind of the renewed interest and decided to make a trip to the St. Tammany Parish jail, where Tregler — whom Fanning described as a “mad bomber” — was being held in federal custody on a charge of possessing a gasoline bomb.

Law enforcement officials have refused to identify Tregler throughout Nodier’s case, but his name is printed on grand jury subpoenas that were served at the St. Tammany jail.

Tregler, whose involvement in the matter has not previously been reported, contacted the authorities on March 15, 2012, because he feared for his wife’s safety after Nodier visited him. He claimed to have firsthand knowledge of Nodier’s involvement in the killing because he was with him at the time, authorities said, though he apparently was not in the home when it happened and saw it from outside.

After being granted immunity from prosecution in Thompson’s death, Tregler told investigators he had not previously come forward because Nodier threatened him at the time of the killing. His testimony was compelling, Doran said, and he knew details about the crime that had not been made public, bolstering his credibility and providing detectives perhaps their most promising lead.

Shortly after Tregler came forward, a St. Bernard Parish grand jury indicted Nodier for second-degree murder.

“If he doesn’t pay him that visit, I don’t know that this thing goes any further,” Doran said, adding that Tregler had been “scared to death of” Nodier.

A known pyromaniac

Still, Tregler seemed to be a highly impeachable witness, given his criminal history. The case against Nodier hinged largely upon his testimony, and prosecutors knew it would be a gamble to go to trial and seek a murder conviction.

Even before his most recent run-in with the law, Tregler had been a known pyromaniac. In 1990, in what he claimed was a plot to discourage drug trafficking, he was implicated in another series of bombings when one of his devices exploded prematurely, according to a Times-Picayune report, singeing his body and bursting his eardrums.

Court documents show Tregler pleaded guilty to possession and manufacture of a bomb in December 1990 and was placed on probation for five years.

Tregler landed in similar trouble in May 2011, when he “assembled the parts to construct a gasoline bomb,” according to federal court documents. He had purchased birthday candles, gasoline and a 2-liter bottle and then drove his truck to a vacant field, the documents say, where he “placed the gasoline bomb on the floorboard of the front seat and ignited the candles.” The bomb “failed to operate as intended because each of the candles extinguished themselves prior to igniting the gasoline,” the documents say.

Tregler pleaded guilty to the 2011 charges within weeks of contacting the St. Bernard authorities about Nodier. He received a sentence of 37 months but was released from custody in August, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Despite that timing, Fanning, Nodier’s defense attorney, said he is convinced Tregler “did not get any consideration for his (grand jury) testimony.”

“My guy had a motive in the dispute over the land,” he said, referring to Nodier, “and in 30 years, they haven’t had anybody else they think could have done it.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.