By guest writer Lydia Comstock
There is a certain irony that a Professor Emerita at the University of California at Davis with an annual genetics symposium named in her honor would give birth to two criminal sons. While Dr. Ursula Abbott was breeding featherless chickens in the UC Davis laboratory and garnering international recognition, including Guggenheim Fellowships in Paris and Edinburgh, her sons were on a trajectory that would lead to son Michael dead in a police shoot out in 1976 and her genius son John Gordon Abbott involved in a saga of international murder, gun and drug running that was so convoluted Ian Fleming could not have imagined a more intriguing plot.
Perhaps the least understood or explainable aspect of murder is the simple twist of fate that places the victim in the path of the killer. This is the story of a beautiful young aspiring actress named Valerie MacDonald who happened to rent the wrong apartment above Murphy’s Tavern at the wrong time in the city of San Francisco in North Beach in 1980. She disappeared on November 9, 1980.
Two other tenants who functioned as managers at the Tower Apartments had continued to orchestrate lives mysteriously on the periphery of crimes and murders they had either planned or executed - the aforementioned John Gordon Abbott and Phillip Arthur Thompson. These men frightened Valerie MacDonald and she had told friends four days before her abduction that she had witnessed cocaine parties and other illegal activities, including an assault attempt in which Thompson broke down her door. Valerie had no way of knowing that her hard-partying neighbors were actually masterminding a million-dollar bank heist for a shipment of automatic weapons that they were then to deliver to a right-wing counterinsurgency group in El Salvador. Did Valerie stumble upon this plot or did Thompson’s lust end Valerie’s life?
Thompson and Abbott’s initial meeting in prison created a lethal team. Abbott was sentenced to the Sierra Conversation Center after robbing a jewelry store in Davis with his younger brother Michael, who was killed by police in the ensuing shootout. Abbott was described as having a genius level IQ of 160, spoke Japanese fluently and was considered a suspect in an arson murder in Davis, as well as another fatal shooting. Thompson was a career criminal with a record dating back to 1965, but had mysteriously worked as a driver for the California head of Richard Nixon’s re-election committee in 1972. Both escaped prison in 1978. Both also went on to be released from prison after remarkably short stints for robberies or to avoid prosecution altogether in the future.
Later, even law enforcement would concede that Thompson had worked in black operations for the CIA. Unknown to the officials who employed Thompson as an operative, he also had a penchant for raping and murdering young women. This character defect remained undiscovered until a DNA match in 2008 linked Thompson to the murder of a young Sacramento woman, Betty Cloer on June 18, 1971.
Valerie MacDonald was described by her former Walla Walla, Washington elementary school classmate Jerry Krummell as a lively girl who lived life to the fullest. 8 year old Valerie and Krummell would walk to school each day, both oblivious to the future that would place them on the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives on April 25, 2005. Valerie was there only in the presence of the picture boards that chronicled her happy life with her parents growing up in Washington and Oregon. Krummell was present as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives honoring Valerie’s mother and step-father, Dee Dee and Bob Kouns for their tireless efforts for resolution of Valerie’s disappearance and for founding Crime Victims United.
Valerie graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a degree in film making. She was described by her friends as a stunningly beautiful blonde who dressed dramatically in her quest for fame as a model and actress, supporting herself through modeling jobs, working in clothing stores and as a cocktail waitress. In spite of her trepidations and frightening encounters with the men in the Tower Apartments, her ambition clouded her judgment on the night of November 9, 1980, when she agreed to go with Michael Hennessey, another Tower apartment tenant, to the set of a Dino DeLaurentiis film. The bogus movie set turned out to be an empty warehouse where Thompson, Abbott and Hennessey held her captive and chained for 10 days while she was repeatedly raped on a mattress according to an informant. Sadly, before her death, Valerie’s parents were in San Francisco searching for her.
On November 25th, 1980 in Trails, British Columbia, Abbott and Hennessey were confronted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for unknown reasons. Abbott proceeded to wound one of the constables, while another officer shot and killed Hennesey in self defense. Abbott’s vehicle contained weapons and a search of his hotel room yielded Valerie MacDonald’s personal identification and a receipt for cement, two bags of plaster, a tub and a hoe. Valerie’s wallet contained a slip of paper with the name and address of Inez Sailer, a young woman later found murdered in San Jose on New Year’s Day 1981. Abbott was arrested by the RCMP and served only a 7 year sentence for his role in the shoot out that killed his friend. Thompson though considered a person of interest in Valerie’s disappearance was arrested in January 1981 for the armed robbery of a United Parcel truck. Abbott was released from Canadian prison in 1988.
Thompson is currently incarcerated for the murder of Betty Cloer. Abbott, whose father was an economist for the United Nations, drifted out of prison in Canada to England and eventually Japan, where he taught in a Japanese University. He also purchased millions of dollars in real estate in places like New Zealand paying cash for his transactions. Thompson and Abbott believed that Valerie’s body would never be found. Hunters found Valerie’s skull in the Kettle River in 1991 and positive identification was made in 2000. An expose written by Ian Wishart has driven Abbott from New Zealand to England. Mrs. Kouns waits for justice.
DNA linked the murder of Inez Sailer to a man named Melvin Forte in 2006. He made a statement in court that "Working and homicide is two different things." Since Forte raped Sailer before murdering her and he had a prior conviction for the same type of offense, it remains unknown what he meant by that remark. We will never know how or if the two doomed women met.
One other strange twist of fate in the murder of Valerie MacDonald is that Abbott was once viewed as a person of interest in the Davis Sweetheart murders of Joel Riggins and Sabrina Gonzalves on December 20, 1980. Riggins was Abbott’s paper boy. Richard Hirschfield has been convicted of those murders, but a British Columbia matchbook found in the Riggins vehicle remains a mystery.
One of Abbott’s journals seemed to chronicle the disposal of MacDonald’s’ body one day in November of 1980 in the Kettle River. . “The Ice Maiden, she was ice cold”, Abbott wrote.