In a city where people seldom secured their doors, suddenly there was a run on better door locks. Journalists from California and England showed up as the killing made international news.
On April 13, 1963, Reno police arrested Wooster High School student Thomas Lee Bean, 18, who confessed to the murder and recounted macabre details while talking to police at McCaskie’s Yori Avenue duplex.
On July 8, 1963, a Washoe District Court jury deliberated for 70 minutes before giving Bean the death penalty. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all pending death sentences in the United States, and Bean’s sentence was commuted to life in prison without a chance for parole.
Bean is now a 68-year-old prisoner at a medium-security Carson City prison. His Nevada Department of Corrections mugshot shows a balding, silver-haired man with a pleasant demeanor and even kind eyes.
“If you met the guy walking along the street walking in a coat and tie, you’d think he was somebody’s mild-mannered banker,” said Joe Elliott, who knew Bean while working in the prison system for the Carson City School District. “He’s very nonassuming and in no way abrasive.”
Warren Lerude was the 25-year-old city editor of the Reno Evening Gazette, the competitor to the Nevada State Journal, at the time of McCaskie’s slaying. He has never seen another story based in Reno that generated as much attention.
“We had the great floods of Reno, which obviously got everybody’s interest, but I’ve never seen the kind of interest that I saw with this story,” said Lerude, 75, who went on to be publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Sonja McCaskie was born in Elgin, Scotland, on Feb. 13, 1939. Her father died shortly after, and her mother moved the family to the U.S., first to Long Beach, Calif., then moving to Tahoe City in 1954. The family skied there, and McCaskie skied for Tahoe-Truckee High School.
With the Olympics coming to her adopted area, McCaskie wrote the Ski Club of Great Britain for a chance to ski for her native country. The rest of the British team arrived in 1960, and McCaskie tried out and earned a spot. She raced the slalom, fell down and finished last.
McCaskie worked part time as a ski instructor at the Slide Mountain Ski School and also worked as a secretary for Blue Ribbon Meat Packing in Sparks. She had been married and divorced and had a child from that marriage and a 10-month-old born out of wedlock at the time of her death.
Police find body
On April 5, 1963, a woman caring for McCaskie’s 10-month-old son told police she was concerned because McCaskie did not show up for her usual visit. Reno police officer Mort Ammerman went to McCaskie’s home at 2640 Yori Ave. to check on her. He found the cedar chest.
“It was all so weird that it took me several seconds to realize that it was a human body stuffed into a chest,” Ammerman later told reporters. If Ammerman had been expecting a homicide, he would have been mentally prepared.
“I was just there to deliver a message from her babysitter,” Ammerman said, but seeing McCaskie’s remains “was like being hit between the eyes with an axe.”
Reno police originally thought the murder was done by someone who knew McCaskie well, since there was no sign of forced entry. They also investigated the possibility the killer had knowledge of butcher or surgery skills.
The case had all the makings for a news media sensation. It was a grisly murder of an attractive young woman. McCaskie had a diary that detailed her love life, and police questioned her lovers to eliminate them as suspects. Plus, Reno was still a small, sleepy town.
“It became very quickly known that this was not another terrible murder,” Lerude said. “This was a unique, different kind of murder. ... It was gruesome beyond my ability to discuss the detail on this day.”
People grew more alarmed as police could not find the suspect.
“People were double-locking their doors,” Lerude said. “People who were used to leaving their doors unlocked in the small city of Reno were locking them.” Some bought better locks.
Richard Williams, 87, of Reno was a court reporter District Attorney William Raggio used to take down the statements of suspects as police interviewed them. Williams also remembers a frightened community. He had two young daughters at the time and remembers hearing a noise outside his window at home one night and finding footprints in freshly spaded dirt. He had difficulty sleeping for the next few nights.
Lerude said that as city editor of the Reno Evening Gazette, he kept the most gruesome details of the McCaskie murder out of the paper. He grew up in Reno and walking down the street, people would talk to him about the McCaskie coverage.
“I could remember people stopping me and deploringly saying, ‘How can your newspaper run this kind of sensational, horrific detail?’ ” Lerude said. “A half a block later, other people would stop me and say, ‘Why won’t you print the news? We have the read the San Francisco papers to get all the details.’ ”
While the San Francisco newspapers were more sensational in their coverage than Reno, the sensationalism ratcheted up even more when the British press showed up, Lerude said.
Raggio and police needed the news media because they were hoping for leads to find the suspect. Raggio and Reno police Chief Elmer Briscoe held a news conference to show the garotte — a length of rope with clothes pins as handles — they believed the killer used on McCaskie in the hopes it might jog someone’s memory. Lerude said he had never even heard of the term garotte before then.
And the news media, monitoring, police radios, followed Raggio in a caravan, whether or not he or his investigators wanted them around.
Police found a bloody footprint at the murder scene. But they had no one to match it with.
As investigators, including 14 Reno police detectives, tracked down every clue, they got their big break. They found a camera instruction manual but no camera. John Peevers, an investigator with the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office, found that camera at a Reno pawn shop. Thomas Lee Bean sold it for $10.
Bean was born in Reno and later complained to reporters he had moved 18 times in his first 18 years of life. His father, Elza “Roy” Bean, worked for a short time as a preacher. In June 1961, Thomas Bean was arrested in Salt Lake City after he tried to strangle a girl sleeping on a porch. The family moved to Las Vegas, and Bean was transferred to the Nevada Youth Training Center in Elko. Bean spent eight months there before joining the family in Reno.
A few weeks before the McCaskie murder, Elza Bean reported Thomas Bean’s younger brother as a runaway, and Thomas Bean helped police chase down his brother, recalled Daryl Pelizzari, 78, who worked on juvenile matters for Reno police then.
The Bean family lived on Neil Road when Bean murdered McCaskie. Bean lived on Grove Street before, and there were indications he prowled the area looking for women’s underwear, something he denied. Bean told reporters he hated his father, who favored his younger brother, and he spent nights out walking to avoid fights with his brother.
On April 4, 1963, Bean was out driving and spotted McCaskie’s Triumph sports car parked next to her Yori Avenue duplex. McCaskie had left her laundry out back to dry. Bean found that, including her slip. He also found McCaskie had left her back door unlocked.
Raggio would say Bean spent about five hours inside McCaskie’s home, leaving between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. It’s not clear which side of midnight Bean entered her home with his garrote and knife, but he took off his shoes — Bean wore no socks — and crawled around in every room to make sure no one besides McCaskie was in the home.
Bean told investigators he played records on McCaskie’s stereo as he cut her up.
Raggio and investigators developed enough evidence to take Bean into custody and headed down to the Bean home on Neil Road. Lerude remembers a caravan of journalists followed, but was kept on Neil Road, away from the Bean home, which was down a short road. The location now has apartment buildings on it next to Miguel Ribera Park.
Williams, who had been called as a court reporter to take statements as police eliminated suspects, was also called in to take Bean’s statement. He remembers walking down the hallway at the Reno police station with Raggio and others as Bean came walking with police officers at the other end of the hall. Suddenly, Bean bolted, and everyone, including Williams, gave chase.
Bean made it out of the police station and ran down East Second Street. Williams remembered a police officer fired warning shots, but couldn’t remember how many. Newspaper clippings indicate it was five.
“That brought traffic to a stop,” Williams said.
Finally, detective Ralph Andreini caught up with Bean.
Bean then cooperated with police and described the murder when they took him back to McCaskie’s home. Williams transcribed statements. At one point, it was just him and Bean in a room in McCaskie’s home as others talked outside.
“He turned to me and he said, ‘You want to know something?’ ” Williams said. “I said, ‘No, what Tom?’ ”
“He said, ‘No one’s bothered to search me yet.’”
Williams got up and walked outside to Chief Briscoe.
“I said, ‘Hey chief, guess what? No one’s bothered to search Tom yet,’” Williams said. And police promptly searched Bean for weapons.
Bean’s father worked for Washoe County taking inventory of county property. Williams ran into the elder Bean at the courthouse two days after taking Bean’s detailed confession.
“I recall coming to work the next Monday and his dad telling me his son could never do something like that,” Williams remembered. “I said, ‘Well, I think maybe he did.’”
Thomas Bean today
Bean was taken off death row when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all pending death sentences with the decision of Furman v. Georgia. His most recent classification has been in a medium-security prison.
On March 11, the Reno Gazette-Journal requested to interview Bean about his life today, what he remembers about the murder and if he thinks about getting out of prison and to record it on video. The Department of Corrections refused with this statement:
“The Nevada Department of Corrections does not allow recorded interviews of inmates for entertainment purposes.”
It also refused a request to interview Bean without recording it.
The Carson City School District had a contract to teach inmates, and Elliott worked as a teacher under that contract from 1984 to 2007. He worked with Bean, who helped teach other inmates.
Bean admitted to being a problem for guards in his younger years, but Elliott said Bean mellowed by the time he worked with him. He called Bean polite and unassuming.
Bean had artistic talents and was good with computers, Elliott said.
Bean sometimes talked about the motive for the McCaskie murder, although generally he did not like to talk about it. When Bean was 6 years old, his mother had a lot of male visitors, Elliott said. That’s when the seeds of his fantasy were planted.
“When he first had sex with anybody, he was going to kill that person,” Elliott said. He said that Bean thought about it for 12 years.
Then he finally acted on the fantasy.
“When he woke up the next day after killing Sonja McCaskie, he did not know if it was his fantasy or if it happened,” Elliott said. “I think that makes a powerful statement about what we think about in our mind about what our thoughts can do. There was no distinction. He did not know he had done it, whether it was a dream that he had done it, or if it was a continuation of his fantasy.”
Elliott, who served as an assemblyman in the Nevada Legislature in the 1991 session representing part of Carson City and southern Washoe Valley, said that despite Bean’s pleasant demeanor, if he had a say in it, he would never let him out of prison.
“Because of what he did. He still has this fantasy thing that he had. Who knows if it’s still there,” Elliott said.