Speedy trial denied: Murder charges against convicted killer dropped in Port Angeles strangulation

Prosecutors say--becase of a technicality--they're left with no choice but to drop the charges against Tommy Ross Jr--even though they say he confessed to strangling a Port Angeles woman in 1978.

Clallam County prosecutors informed the family of a woman murdered 41 years ago that a decision by the state Supreme Court leaves them with no choice but to drop charges against 61-year-old Tommy Ross Jr. who allegedly once confessed to the killing--and is connected to the scene by DNA--according to detectives.

Janet Bowcutt was found strangled in her Port Angeles apartment in 1978 while her infant son was unharmed on a nearby bed. Ross was eventually connected to Bowcutt's and two other similar murders in California and Canada.

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"He took something away from us that wasn't supposed to be taken away," said Bowcutt's sister, Pam Horkey. "She was the nicest person you'd ever meet."

The Supreme Court decided to uphold a lower court ruling that Ross' constitutional rights to a speedy trial were violated--after Ross' trial was delayed for 38 years--the time Ross spent in a Canadian prison for another similar murder.

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Bowcutt's family said they feel "slapped in the face'' by the judicial system. "I don't want anybody else to lose somebody like we did," Horkey said. "It's something you never get over."

Horkey said her only comfort now is knowing Ross back in jail in California facing felony charges for allegedly threatening family members with a knife.

Horkey said her fear is, without a trial, Janet Bowcutt's story will fade. "Everybody who knew her, don't forget her," she said, "It's always the victim that gets forgotten."

Ross, originally from Los Angeles, served 38 years in a British Columbia prison after being convicted of the strangulation murder of 26-year-old mother and model Janice Forbes in her Victoria apartment on Mother's Day,1978.

Court documents detail how Forbes was hog-tied tightly with scarves and a belt from her ankles to her neck, where struggling likely caused strangulation.

Detectives released a composite sketch of a man who was seen entering and leaving the building.

Three weeks earlier, 20-year-old Bowcutt of Port Angeles was found dead in her apartment bedroom under remarkably similar circumstances. Police found Bowcutt strangled after being hog-tied the same way as Forbes.

Forty years and six months to the day later, Jimmy Bowcutt told KIRO 7 how the loss will always affect him deeply.

"I just wish I knew my mom, he said. "I just wish I knew who she was. It's not fair."

Eight months after the Bowcutt and Forbes murders, detectives arrested 20-year-old Tommy Ross Jr. in Los Angeles, where he was facing other charges.

Ross, who -- according to court records -- was also a person of interest in another strangulation case in Southern California, was brought to Clallam County where he faced charges for the murders of both Janet Bowcutt, and Janice Forbes, based on fingerprints, and witnesses who said they saw Ross near both scenes.

Grant Meiner, the Clallam County prosecuting attorney at the time, who later became a Superior Court judge, allowed Ross to be tried in Canada first for the Forbes murder.

Records show Canadian courts resisted allowing Ross to return to the U.S. to face charges in Port Angeles until his sentence was completed. Documents also suggest Ross was given the choice several times to be transferred to the U.S. prison system and face charges for the Bowcutt case. In every case, court records say Ross declined the offer.

"Our office could have, back in 1979, decided to prosecute him first," said Clallam County Deputy Prosecutor Steven Johnson. "But they made the decision to let him go to Canada first and be tried there with the understanding that Mr. Ross would then come back in 1979 after the trial was over and face prosecution here."

In a 38-year Canadian prison stint, records show Ross was often combative. He stabbed another inmate and repeatedly threatened and assaulted prison staff.

When his sentence ended in 2016, Ross was promptly arrested again by Port Angeles police when he crossed the U.S. border at Blaine, Washington.

As prosecutors prepared to put Ross on trial in Port Angeles, his attorney, Lane Wolfley, argued Ross' constitutional rights to a speedy trial were violated when it was put "on hold" for 38 years.

Murder charges against Tommy Ross Jr. were dropped by Superior Court Judge Brian Coughenour, and Ross was allowed to leave the Clallam County jail on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 23, a free man.

"When he got let out, it tore me up inside," said Jimmy Bowcutt. Horkey says she was inconsolable, in disbelief at the judge's decision. "When I found out that he actually walked out of the jail, I lost it," she said.

Clallam County prosecutors immediately asked the courts for an emergency stay, and an order to bring Ross back to jail, saying, "The State believes Ross presents an immediate danger to the community and is likely to leave Washington State, likely for California."

Five hours later, a Court of Appeals judge agreed and ordered Ross back into custody. He was arrested on I-5 while being driven by his family in Oregon. Ross remains in a Clackamas County jail cell while the Court of Appeals decides ultimately if he should be set free or tried for murder.

"We regard this as an extremely serious case and we will do everything we can to hold him accountable," said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Troberg, in October of 2018.

"(Ross) took away a daughter, a sister, a mother and a friend," said Horkey. "She was all those things, and he took all that away from us. If he got  convicted it would take a little bit of the sting out, if he's put away he can't hurt somebody else. he can't take away somebody else's daughter or sister or mom. He can't do that."

When Ferne Wooldridge of Vancouver, Washington, found out 61-year-old convicted murderer Tommy Lee Ross Jr. was arrested on Sunday, March 31, in Sacramento, California, she immediately called the prosecutor's office in Sacramento with a warning.

"I said 'This man is dangerous, that he's evil. He cannot wander free,'" Wooldridge said.

Ross, who was arrested in connection with the strangulation murder of Wooldridge's mother 41 years ago, faced a Sacramento judge in April for allegedly endangering and threatening to kill children with a weapon and destroying the cellphone they used to call 911 in a Rancho Cordova home. Court records indicate the threats are felonies, and Ross is jailed without bail.

In November 1977, Ross was 19 when he was arrested in Los Angeles for the slaying of Bethel Wooldridge--a single mother of four, who was strangled and dragged into a bathtub.

Feryne Wooldridge, who was 15 at the time, found her mother's body after she came home from school.

After Ross was arrested, questioned and completed a polygraph test, one of the investigators concluded: "Unequivocally, leaving no doubt, that Ross committed the crime of murder against the person of Bethel Wooldridge."

"I seriously thought they were going to arrest him and try him and that she was not going to be killed in vain," said Feyrne.

But Ross never stood trial for that killing, either.

He was charged in Washington State with strangling Bowcutt four months later in 1978.

Months later, Ross was arrested--and eventually convicted--for strangling 26-year-old single mom and model Janice Alli Forbes in her apartment in Victoria, British Columbia, on Mothers' Day 1978.

Prosecutors indicated that Bowcutt and Forbes were found hogtied from their feet to their neck with materials found in their apartments, and they were both strangled in the same way.

But before Clallam or Los Angeles counties could put Ross on trial, he was sentenced to 38 years in a Canadian prison for the Victoria murder.

In October of 2018, a Clallam County judge set Ross free, saying his constitutional right to a speedy trial in Clallam County was violated while he was in prison in Canada.

"He thinks he's going to be a free man and he's never going to see a day in jail for what he did to my mother? It kills me," Feryne said. "This man is a monster. He kills women and he leaves children behind."

Feryne says she has spoken to Los Angeles prosecutors about potential charges in her mother's death.

"I cannot imagine another group of children going through what this group of children have already been through," she said, adding, "If he is freed again, there are other people out there that need to be afraid!"