Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:31 PM
Former beauty queen Peggy Sue Thomas has lived a life that has alternated between opulence and blue-collar struggle. She went to beauty school, had stints repairing cars and naval aircraft, and was once wed to the millionaire owner of a thoroughbred that won the Kentucky Derby.
But the winner of the 2000 Ms. Washington pageant may have caught the break of a lifetime this week when she struck a plea deal with Island County prosecutors who were preparing to try Thomas for allegedly luring a man to his death nearly a decade ago.
By pleading guilty Thursday to first-degree rendering criminal assistance, Thomas, 47, will avoid what could have amounted to a life sentence had she been convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors now hope Thomas will spend the next four years in prison after she is sentenced in February.
“It was a trial that presented a substantial risk to us because of the nature of the evidence we had. We always knew it was going to be a tough trial,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said Friday.
Craig Platt, Thomas’ defense attorney, said the plea deal gives Thomas much-needed relief from a case that has been hanging over her head for nearly a decade.
“She accepts the outcome, but for her it’s the lesser of two evils. Although we felt comfortable going into trial, sometimes you have to look seriously at compromise, the risks were just so high,” Platt said, adding that Thomas maintains her innocence.
Thomas was accused of plotting with her then-boyfriend, James Huden, to kill Russel Douglas, who was found shot to death in a car in Freeland, Whidbey Island, two days after Christmas 2003. Thomas, a former beautician, had once worked at a salon owned by Douglas’ wife.
Huden was arrested in Mexico in June 2011 and Thomas was arrested a month later in Farmington, N.M., on her $500,000 houseboat named “Off the Hook.”
Huden was convicted of first-degree murder in Island County Superior Court last summer and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
But Huden refused to testify against Thomas, even declining an offer from the prosecution that would have lessened his sentence, according to the Whidbey News-Times.
He also refused to disclose the motive for the slaying.
Banks said prosecutors believe Douglas was killed because the defendants believed he had been abusing his wife and children.
“It was some weird karmic revenge thing. I’m not sure if that was the motive or the only motive. There were a lot of theories about what the motives were,” Banks said.
Thomas’ case has drawn national media coverage. NBC’s “Dateline” and “America’s Most Wanted” have followed what some scribes breathlessly dubbed the “Drop Dead Gorgeous Case.” True-crime author Ann Rule reportedly plans a book on the homicide.
Much of the coverage has focused on Thomas’ background.
As a teenager, Thomas went to beauty school before joining the Navy, where she was an aircraft mechanic, and then later worked in an auto-repair shop, according to a lengthy profile published in the Seattle Weekly.
The oft-married Thomas was driving a limousine in Las Vegas when she met Alaska oil millionaire Mark Allen. Thomas quit her job at Presidential Limo, where she worked from 2003 to 2006, after the couple married, according to the Weekly.
The marriage didn’t last long. In 2009, amid the couple’s contentious divorce, Allen’s horse, Mine That Bird, won the Kentucky Derby, the Weekly reported.
In October 2011, shortly after her arrest, Thomas made headlines when an Island County judge allowed her to take a two-week, five-state road trip so she could tend to personal business.
Thomas, who was free on $500,000 bail, sought permission to attend a memorial for her recently deceased half-sister in Idaho, and to travel to New Mexico, Utah and Nevada to prepare to sell a house, go to her dentist, and collect her winter clothes, among other things.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that,” Banks, the Island County prosecutor, complained at the time. “We’re sure hoping she comes back.”
In explaining the plea agreement, Banks said Friday that landing a murder conviction in the mostly circumstantial case has weighed heavily on his mind.
In addition to Huden’s refusal to testify against his ex-girlfriend, Banks said a key witness for the prosecution was gravely ill in Florida and unable to take the stand when Thomas’ trial was slated to begin next week.
“I think we were really very satisfied to get a prison term and I do think she was involved (in the homicide),” Banks said. “There was no direct forensic evidence that would say it would happen.”
Had a jury convicted Thomas of first-degree, premeditated murder with a firearm, she could have served up to 45 years in prison.
“We had a case that was built on a lot of hearsay,” Banks said.
He said the plea agreement was supported by Douglas’ mother, father, brother and sister. Banks said that it’s been difficult for the victim’s family to see attention lavished on Thomas and not on their slain relative.
Platt, Thomas’ attorney, said he is in full agreement with the recommendation that she serve four years in prison.
“What she’s guilty of is getting in with the wrong guy. She’s guilty of having poor taste in men,” he said.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.