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“An Execution-Style Murder”: Real Estate Salesman Kills 2 Coworkers, Then Steals Car
California investigators race to track down a merciless thief and killer who “didn't want to have any witnesses left behind.”
On February 2, 2009, investigators rushed to a mobile home dealership in Stanton, California, after receiving a report of a possible double homicide just before 11 a.m.
The caller, Donald Scott, identified the victims as his son, Matthew Scott, 42, and longtime employee Elizabeth Palmer, 49. Don told Oxygen's The Real Murders of Orange County, "It's hard to explain the feeling that I had. I was shocked and I was mad."
Investigators surveyed the Golden Sun Homes crime scene, noting that the deceased had been shot in the head and were facedown. “It was an execution-style murder,” Dan Salcedo, a now retired O.C. Sheriff’s Dept. investigator, told producers.
"This certainly led us to believe that the person that did this didn't want to have any witnesses left behind,” Salcedo added.
The Key Clue: A Stolen Car
Matthew was a salesperson for their family business, while Elizabeth attended to the office and finances. Had he been targeted? Had she?
As far as the Scott family could tell, neither Matt nor Beth had any known conflicts.
Two 9mm shell casings were recovered from the scene, but nothing else appeared to be missing, including valuables. Then, Don Scott realized that Elizabeth’s 2004 white Lexus and her car keys were gone, prompting investigators to issue a BOLO.
As investigators searched the crime scene, Elizabeth’s husband of almost 30 years, Richard Palmer, arrived at the scene, having been at work at an RV repair shop. "When I found out that she passed away, that was pretty hard. Just everything is running through your head, like what happened and did she suffer?" he told Real Murders of Orange County.
After Richard’s boss confirmed his alibi, investigators interviewed him to get a better timeline of Elizabeth’s movements that morning. According to Joe Gaul, a now-retired OC Sheriff’s Dept. investigator, Richard confirmed that his wife drove her Lexus to work that morning. Detectives wondered whether the car was what the perpetrator was after or if it was just a means of escape.
At this point, Don Scott told police that his stepson, Tracy Porterfield, lived on the business property but was nowhere to be found. Investigators wanted to speak to him as a witness – and as a possible person of interest. But when detectives tracked down Tracy he said that he’d been out surfing by himself. “We found no evidence that he was involved with the murders,” investigators said.
Victims' Loved Ones Step Up
Police had no solid leads about who was responsible for the murders, so Matt’s family took matters into their own hands. They drove around the city searching for the missing Lexus.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth's husband Richard made a public appeal and offered a $25,000 reward for information. “I would like some answers to why this happened,” he said in a press conference.
A flurry of tips came in, most of them dead ends. Then, two weeks after the murder, a call came in from a woman who said she was driving by Golden Sun Homes the morning of the murder and saw a white Lexus pull out. The eyewitness noticed the car because she was also driving a white Lexus. She recalled that it was 10:30 a.m. but couldn't see the other driver, said Gaul.
Refining the Timeline
Cameras on a local bus showed that Elizabeth’s car was in the parking lot unoccupied at 10:22 a.m. Richard said he had spoken to his wife at 10:15 a.m. and Don had arrived at the office at 11 a.m.
Detectives now had a window for the murders, believed to have occurred between 10:22 a.m. and 11 a.m. “We needed to find that car,” said Salcedo, who said they searched chop shops, tow yards, the Mexico border, and other places.
The case went cold for eight months. Then, on October 20, investigators made another plea to the public concerning the missing Lexus. Shortly thereafter, a white Lexus was spotted parked behind the El Dorado Inn in Anaheim. While it didn't have license plates, authorities confirmed that it was Elizabeth's through its VIN number.
Stolen Car Linked to Suspect
Detectives covertly staked out the car for four days, but it appeared that the car had been abandoned. And to make matters more difficult, there were no security cameras in the area to aid in the investigation.
On October 28, 2009, investigators swarmed the motel and blocked people from leaving in order to question everyone for information. The goal was to get somebody to tell them they saw someone driving that car, detectives said.
Detectives struck out until they knocked on the door of one resident, who said he knew who was driving the Lexus. He gave detectives the name of Hilbert Thomas, who, according to the witness, didn’t live in the motel and worked in real estate.
The witness didn’t know why Hilbert had abandoned the car several months earlier, but he never came back for it, according to investigators. The resident had no idea the car was linked to a double homicide.
“We learned Hilbert Thomas was living with his mom and his sister and it was literally blocks away from our crime scene on Beach Boulevard,” said Salcedo. “That was the big break we needed.”
“It was obvious that he saw the car and he wanted it. He wasn't leaving anybody around that could say he took it,” said Gaul.
Hilbert Thomas Is Arrested
Investigators learned that Thomas, a formerly successful realtor, was hit hard by the Great Recession. “He lost his home, he lost his car, he lost his family,” said journalist Tricia Takasugi.
They dug deeper and found out that his wife had filed a protection order against him two weeks prior to his arrest, and that he had a 9mm handgun registered under his name. Because of the restraining order, he was required to turn over his firearm and had recently surrendered it to the Lakewood Sheriff’s Station. Forensic tests confirmed that the gun matched the casings at the crime scene, giving police the evidence they needed to carry out an arrest.
A SWAT team surrounded the apartment complex where he was living on October 28, 2009. The suspect was spotted carrying laundry and taken into custody without incident. "He didn't seem surprised that police were arresting him," Gaul said.
Gaul questioned Thomas about the stolen car and the murders but he immediately lawyered up, and the interview ended. He was charged with two counts of murder and transported to the Orange County jail.
The trial began on January 29, 2014. Prosecutors made the case that Thomas hatched the plan to steal the car because he needed it to succeed at selling real estate. "As a real estate agent, you need a nice car to show clients around in these Orange County neighborhoods," Takasugi said.
On February 11, 2014, the jury returned a guilty verdict on two counts of murder. He was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole and remains on death row in San Quentin.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Orange County, airing on Oxygen.