Guilty plea closes Polk County cold murder case 25 years after body found

A Polk County Circuit Court judge on Thursday sentenced Brian Clifton, 69, to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to murdering his wife, Kathy Thomas, in 1996.

Clifton pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Thursday afternoon in Polk County Circuit Court. He will serve at least 30 years in prison and may receive credit for time served.

It wasn’t until 25 years after Thomas’ remains were found in rural Polk County that Clifton was arrested in Oklahoma and admitted to killing her.

On Sept. 1, 1996, two teenagers came across a woman’s body, wrapped in a tarp and bound with rope, off a logging road outside of Dallas. Polk County detectives searched the area the following day and found skeletonized remains scattered around the hills overlooking Mill Creek. 

Detectives at the time determined the woman had been killed in a homicide. In the years that followed, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office did sketches, CT scans, 3D-rendered images and a sculpture using the skull to identify the woman, the agency wrote in a statement on Sept. 7, 2021, following Clifton’s arrest. Nothing worked.

“We had her DNA in the system, but it was producing no hits, and I knew it looked bleak for the future,” said John Williams, a Polk County Sheriff’s Office detective who took over the investigation in 2013 after Detective Bernie Krieger retired. He spoke with Salem Reporter about the case in October 2021.

A sketch of the woman detectives later identified as Kathy Thomas (Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

Williams said the sheriff’s office found no missing person reports that came close to matching the woman’s remains. There was also no record of a divorce between Clifton and Thomas.

“We just had nothing really to go on,” he said. “You can’t do further investigation when you don’t know where to start.”

Outside help

The investigation that Polk County detectives called “the bones case” remained open but unsolved until 2019, Williams said. Police hadn’t identified the dead woman and had no leads.

When the state’s forensic anthropologist told Williams he’d be getting a call about the case from someone named Yolanda MaClary, he immediately recognized the name from the TV show Cold Justice. 

MaClary, a retired crime scene investigator with the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, was working on a new show to provide financial help for police agencies in identifying remains found in cold cases, the sheriff’s office wrote in its statement.

“Without the help that she provided, I don’t know, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are, because what she provided and the network provided as far as funding totally paid for all the DNA work, totally paid for all the genealogical researchers that worked on this,” Williams said.

That effort to identify the body is documented in the TV series “The Jane Doe Murders.”

After ten months of tracking down the family tree linked to the woman’s DNA, the genealogists started giving Williams numbers to call in September 2019. 

“I finally reached out to a guy and started telling him the story, and he just flat out says, ‘This is about my adopted sister Kathy,’” Williams said.

Kathy Thomas (Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

Kathy Thomas was born in 1953 in Oklahoma. 

“Kathy’s life story is remarkable, yet tragic,” the sheriff’s office wrote in its statement. She was the youngest of three girls born to Leo and Jessie Thomas, of Oklahoma. After they divorced, Kathy’s father took her to southern Oregon when she was five years old and gave her up for adoption to Aileen Buxton. 

Thomas had three children in her first two marriages, but lost custody of them when visiting Oklahoma, where they were adopted to other families, the agency wrote. 

She returned to Oregon and married Brian Clifton in 1984. 

“We never really got a story out of him on how they met,” Williams said.

Williams said Thomas’ uncle kept tabs on her after she moved from southern Oregon to Salem. 

“The last he knew, she was married to a guy that was previously convicted of murder. He knew that much, he didn’t know his name,” Williams said. “So, now we’ve got to learn as much as we can about him.”

Detectives learned Clifton had strangled a hotel employee to death in December 1973 in Multnomah County. He served seven years in prison before he was released on parole, according to Williams.

Clifton and Thomas lived in the Salem area for most of their marriage, according to the sheriff’s office’s statement. There was no record of a divorce.

The last time police made contact with Thomas was in March 1996, when she reported a hit-and-run crash to the Salem Police Department. Six months later, her remains were found near the Mill Creek area in Polk County, northwest of Dallas.

The skull of Kathy Thomas, which detectives found scattered off a logging road outside of Dallas on Sept. 1, 1996. (Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

Gone undetected

Williams said Clifton married another woman in South Carolina one month after Thomas’ body was found. They had a child nine months later.

“That, to me, spoke to motive,” Williams said. 

Clifton and his new wife stayed married for about 12 years, moving at one point to Portland, then back to the East Coast before separating. Williams said Clifton met a friend at a homeless shelter in New Hampshire who said he was going back to Oklahoma, where it was warm. 

Clifton went with him, eventually dating the man’s grandmother. “He kind of glommed onto this family,” Williams said. 

They bounced around from place to place all over central Oklahoma — not far from Kathy Thomas’ sister and two daughters. “But that was just dumb luck,” Williams said.

Clifton worked at Goodwill and other temporary jobs, but was mostly unemployed and receiving disability benefits while in Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Polk County detectives worked with state and federal authorities to find Clifton in Oklahoma.

Williams said they interviewed him in December 2020 and again July 2021.

On Aug. 12, 2021, a Polk County grand jury indicted Clifton on a first-degree murder charge for killing Thomas.

With an arrest warrant, Williams flew to Oklahoma and waited the following day outside the building where Clifton was living as the local police arrested him.

When Polk County detectives interviewed Clifton at the police station, he confessed to stabbing Kathy to death.

“He told them how he had prepared to kill her. He had gotten a good knife, a good-sized knife, placed it in his bedside table,” Polk County Deputy District Attorney Alicia Kay Eagan said at Clifton’s plea hearing Thursday. “He lay beside her for several hours. She was asleep when he put the knife into the back of her neck the first time.”

Clifton was later extradited to Oregon and booked into the Polk County Jail, where he has remained since Sept. 6, 2021.

“Polk County Detectives met with Kathy’s adult children and Kathy’s sister and let them know we had never forgotten about their mother/sister and that after 25 years, Kathy is finally getting the justice she deserves,” the sheriff’s office wrote in its statement.

Clifton’s attorney could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Williams said Clifton was never hesitant to talk with detectives — speaking with them for 14 hours total over the three interviews, usually giving short answers.

He said Clifton in interviews remembered mundane details such as a conversation he had with a Department of Motor Vehicles employee 20 years ago, how much his truck registration cost at the time, and the speed limits on Lancaster Drive.

“He’s real talkative when it’s not about Kathy. He’ll go on for hours, if you let him, about nothing. But then you bring him back to pertinent questions and he just shuts up, he doesn’t want to talk at all,” Williams said in October 2021. “But once you get over that hurdle, he’s more than willing to recount what he did. And so, I’m not a psychologist, but the word in my mind when I was listening to him describe that was psychopath. But that’s just my own opinion.”

Lost hope

Eagan at the hearing Thursday read a statement by Thomas’ sister, Linda Amsler, who said that her sister was always on her mind, and that she felt like she had lost her mind since learning of her death.

“He killed my sister and is sitting in jail, sitting up, ready to go to to prison. He has been given a bed and three meals a day,” she said “Because my sister has been laying in a box that looks like a Tupperware container, it’s not fair that you’ve been given anything at all. You deserve to be within a hole in the ground without nothing.”

She urged the judge to give Clifton the maximum sentence possible for murdering Thomas, who was 43 when she was killed.

“She had her whole life ahead of her. You took the opportunity for her to know her children, to allow her children to reunite with their mom, for Kathy to meet her grandchildren,” she said.

Eagan also read a statement by Thomas’ daughter, Tina Grubb, who said learning her mother had been a “Jane Doe” in Oregon for over two decades “changed everything” as she realized she could never take a chance and reach out to reconnect with her mother.

“No matter what mistakes were made in the past by my mother, she had a right to be able to live her life, and that choice to live was taken away,” she said. “He may have thought he knew her, but no matter what he thought about her, he hadn’t thought about, or maybe didn’t want to remember, that she had children that may have wanted to reconnect and get to know her. I’ll never have that chance.”

“None of it makes sense. She was a person that that deserved to have a chance, and that chance was taken away by Brian Clifton. My hope is that the court will take into account that the murder of my mother has been an extremely difficult journey that no one should ever have to go through. My sons’ lives, my husband’s life was entire family and close circle of friends have been affected in one way or another by this loss. Our heart has been torn out,” she said.

Thomas’ youngest daughter said at the hearing that even though she didn’t know her mom, she knew before her death that she was out there somewhere. 

“I didn’t know what she was like, or the sound of her voice, but I knew I wanted to find her,” she said.

Polk County Circuit Judge Norman Hill told Clifton before sentencing him that he never apologized for what he did.

“You apologized for what happened,” Hill said. “This wasn’t something that just happened. It wasn’t an accident. It was a deliberate, cold-blooded murder.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.