Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

The Murder of Glen Tompkins: A Personal Story

George M. Lawrence on the copy desk of The (Shreveport, La.) Times
My dad, George M. Lawrence, on the copy desk of The (Shreveport, La.) Times circa 1980.

SHREVEPORT, La.—I’m not sure which staff photographer snapped the photo of my dad, George M. Lawrence, but one of them caught him checking out a wire photo on the copy desk of The (Shreveport, La.) Times. This was circa 1980, because The Times switched from hot type to cold type about 1978: The dreadful computer terminals we used were installed during the switchover. (Before that, they used typewriters, long rolls of paper, grease pens, dummy sheets, and vacuum tubes. Lest anyone need better evidence of the era, check out the ashtray in the lower left.)

My dad began his professional journalism career, like I did later, as a copyboy in The Times’ sports department. Working at The Times had been something of a family tradition. Both of his brothers, Howard (a.k.a. Bubba), and Cecil (a.k.a. Punk) had worked there before he started his journalism career. Howard was a reporter and editor who went on to the Houston Chronicle. He was assistant state editor there in 1966 when he died in a traffic accident. Cecil was a beloved—if notorious—copyboy and occasional sports correspondent and photographer.

My dad didn’t stay in the sports department for long. He was an excellent editor who could write and shoot when needed. He went from copyboy to copy editor and, for a time, state editor. Because he often butted heads with the executive editor there, he went back to the copy desk. But he still pitched in to report and shoot when the need arose.

SHREVEPORT, La. (Oct. 20, 1978) — The police car driven by Shreveport police officer Thomas Glen Tompkins rests against the guard rail on the 7300 block of Mansfield Road where the car came to a halt after Tompkins was shot in the back by Wayne Robert Felde. Tompkins had arrested Felde on a charge of drunk and disorderly conduct.

My dad took the photo of the patrol car. It was one he was quite proud of. He took it on Oct. 20, 1978, when we were both caught up—in my case, in a stressful but minor way—in a big story. The police officer pictured, Shreveport Patrolman Thomas Glen Tompkins, was transporting a man arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

Patrolman Thomas Glen Tompkins

What no one knew at the time was that the arrested man, Wayne Robert Felde was a fugitive from Maryland who had been serving time for manslaughter. What Tompkins also did not know was that Felde was carrying a concealed handgun. Somehow Felde missed it when arresting Tompkins. Shortly after beginning the drive to the Shreveport City Jail, Felde shot Tompkins. A bullet fragment severed an artery in Tompkins’ leg. By some accounts, Tompkins was found draped over the guardrail in the photo.

He died as a result. Felde tried to run.

Felde later claimed he intended to commit suicide. Tompkins tried to stop him, and the gun went off by accident. The story is certainly possible, but the only other person who can confirm it never lived to testify.

My family lived nearby, and my dad, as I said, knew how to use a camera. I think the newsroom called him at home and asked if he could get to the scene. He did, and he captured a photo that—to me at least—tells a grim, sad story.

As for my connection, I worked at a movie theater near the location of the shooting. I also had a friend who lived less than a block from the theater. That night, I was either trying to get home from work or my friend’s house when I got caught up in the dragnet to catch Felde. I was asked a lot of questions, and the car I was driving—probably my mom’s Volkswagen—was given a good going over (not that there was much space to hide a fugitive. I was told to be careful and not pick up any hitchhikers.)

I had no idea what had happened until I got home.

Felde was caught not far from where the shooting took place. He claimed to have been trying to commit suicide by cop, and the Shreveport police certainly tried to oblige. Felde was crippled for the rest of his life by the buckshot he caught that night.

Felde was a Vietnam veteran who claimed to be suffering from PTSD. Of that, I have no doubt. I knew enough Vietnam vets who were besides him. In his trial, he plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but the jury—while sympathetic of his plight as a war-damaged veteran—convicted him of murder.

Felde himself asked for the death penalty, telling jurors he would probably kill again if not executed for the crime.

To confuse matters, he also participated in appeals of his conviction, but, as his scheduled date with the electric chair approached, he hoped he would be granted no more stays.

He wasn’t, and he walked to the electric chair at Angola State Penitentiary on March 15, 1988.

His cryptic final words were, “You can kill the messenger, but you can’t kill the message.”

It took four jolts to grant Felde his wish for death. According to some reports, the electrical burns were so severe and so deep that his skull was exposed in spots.

I have a hard time believing Felde had no knowledge of right vs. wrong when he shot Tompkins. The fact that he concealed the weapon before shooting Tompkins suggests otherwise. And if I remember Louisiana law (at the time, at least) correctly, killing someone in the commission of a felony counts as first-degree murder. So I consider the conviction sound.

Likewise, I don’t have a strong objection to the death penalty in cases like this. I do find the penalty excessively applied, and applied with significant bias against people of color, and too often applied to burnish a prosecutor’s reputation as “tough on crime.”

But the shooting of Tompkins checks enough of my boxes for judging it appropriate. Tompkins warned the jury he would kill again. He had already killed a couple of people in a couple of years. I doubt he could ever have been safely released again. I’m also certain that he would not have received the mental treatment he needed in a Louisiana prison. (He was certain of that, too, which was one of the reasons he asked to be executed.)

Nevertheless, it seems that we as a nation failed him for letting him get so badly damaged in our name, then failing to do anything to help him heal afterward. And then, when it came time to execute him, we failed to do so in a humane—or at least as humane as possible—manner.


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