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'Shanghai' Thomas, convicted killer dies
After 30 years in jail.....
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In this 1976 file photo, Eddie Lee Thomas, 33, of Preston is escorted to a waiting police car on Jan. 12, 1976, following the jury selection of his murder trial.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

Eddie Lee "Shanghai" Thomas, who was convicted in the 1974 murders of Sallie Aliff and her four children in what has been called the most heinous crime in the county, died in April while still in prison.

Thomas was 67 when he died on April 23, 2008, according to Larry Traylor of the Virginia Department of Corrections. The cause of death was metastatic cancer, a spokesman for the State Medical Examiner's Office in Richmond said.

Thomas died two days shy of spending 30 years in the state corrections system, which he entered on April 25, 1978, Traylor said. The former Preston resident had been housed at Powhatan Correctional Center when he entered the state prison system and also before his death, Traylor said, although it could not be determined if he had remained there throughout the past three decades.

Thomas was convicted on Jan. 17, 1976. Traylor said it is possible that Thomas spent time in local jails after his conviction.

Thomas was sentenced to five life terms in the slayings of Aliff, 34, and her four children. They were killed on the day after Christmas in 1974.

Thomas lived next door to the Aliff family on a dirt road in the Preston area, about 10 miles west of Martinsville. Sallie Aliff's husband, James Aliff, sometimes gave Thomas a ride to Nationwide Homes, where they both worked, but in different departments, according to Martinsville Bulletin articles at the time.

On Dec. 26, 1974, Aliff came home from work and found his wife dead in their bedroom. She had three stab wounds to the chest, one of which was fatal, according to testimony in Thomas' trial. She also had been strangled.

Aliff called the police and told them he didn't know where his children were, according to Bulletin articles.

"James said to me, "˜I'm real worried.' I said, "˜I understand,' and he said, "˜When I left here, there were four children and they're not here now,'" said then-Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney W. Roscoe Reynolds, now a state senator, according to news articles at the time.

The children - Vernon Darrell Aliff, 2; James Alvin Aliff, 4; Charlotte Ann Aliff, 8; and Peggy Marie Aliff, 10 - were found 100 yards from the house in a back trash ravine, partially buried in a pile of leaves and clutching their Christmas toys, according to news articles. They had been beaten to death.

The baby was wearing only plastic diapers and a thin shirt, and none of the children wore shoes, despite the winter chill.

A crowd estimated at 5,000 attended the visitation at Stone Funeral Home - their names covered 45 pages in the chapel's register book - and about 500 people attended the family's burials in a private Ridgeway cemetery on Dec. 29, 1974. Contributions to a fund set up to help with funeral and related expenses totaled nearly $9,000.

Thomas was taken into custody the night the bodies were found. Initially, he was held under $100,000 bond, but that was changed to no bond when he was formally charged on Friday, Dec. 27, 1974.

Thomas' trial was moved to Fredericksburg, and he pleaded not guilty. Henry County Circuit Court Judge John D. Hooker presided over the case and dismissed rape and grand larceny charges against Thomas.

His defense attorney, Robert W. Mann, described Thomas to the jury as a "wreck of a human being." Mann and a psychologist both said Thomas was "borderline mentally retarded," but the psychologist also testified that he knew right from wrong the day of the killings.

Thomas was a large man and had been violent in the past, according to accounts at the time. But his brother also described Thomas to the Bulletin a man who loved children and treated them well.

After a trial that lasted at least four days, the jury of 10 men and two women deliberated for one hour and 30 minutes before announcing the guilty verdicts in the slayings. Hooker sentenced Thomas immediately.

During the trial, the jury heard a taped statement Thomas had given to State Police investigators Sherman Norris and J.T. Oliver two days after the slayings. Thomas said he had gone berserk when Sallie Aliff pointed a rifle at him.

He pulled her down on the floor, "I don't know whether I grabbed her or choked her or what ... that's when I got scared," he said in the statement.

"I just did it," Thomas said during the early portion of the taped questioning. "But I don't know, and I'm saying I did it, but I don't know and I can't, I can't remember how I did it. That's the bad part."�

Thomas' attorneys maintained he should have been acquitted by reason of insanity. Psychiatric tests had determined that Thomas was competent to stand trial, Reynolds said at the time.

In the taped statement, Thomas said he went to the Aliff home to borrow a fuse for an electric water pump. He said Sallie Aliff enticed him into the bedroom. "It seems we were on a bed with covers," he said, and the next thing he told investigators he could remember was one of the Aliff children entering the bedroom with "some kind of rifle."�

Thomas said he grabbed that gun and put it aside. At that point, he said Sallie Aliff pointed the gun at him. He said he remembered having a rag around her neck and then he remembered the oldest Aliff daughter re-entering the bedroom carrying two piggy banks. She apparently thought Thomas wanted money, according to accounts at the time.

He said he did not remember hitting the children, but he said they "took off behind the house ... I think they were running." He said he chased the children into a wooded area but he did not remember anything else.

Oliver, one of the investigators, also testified how, on Dec. 29, Thomas led him to a small farm pond about 1.5 miles from the Aliff home in search of the rifle used to beat the children and the two piggy banks. The items were recovered after about 90 minutes, he said, according to accounts at the time.

In a 1976 interview with a Martinsville Bulletin reporter in the Richmond State Penitentiary, Thomas said prosecutors had proven his guilt, "but I couldn't say that (he was guilty) because it's things that took place that I don't even understand."�

His subsequent appeal of his conviction was denied.

Thomas became eligible for parole in 1989 because he was convicted before Virginia did away with parole. However, his parole was denied each time it was considered.

In 2000, former Henry County Sheriff C.P. Witt, who was in office when the crime was committed, called it "the most heinous" act ever in Henry County.

Former county Sheriff James Rogers agreed in a 2000 interview. "It really gets to you when you see children who were discarded or thrown away like trash. It took me a long time to get over. In my 27 years of law enforcement, that's the worst I've ever seen."�


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