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The Penn Brothers (1966)

12/18/2012 6:15 AM by

The arrest of William Penn, 25, and Thomas Lee Penn, 18, in May 1966, after a 6-week killing spree in the East End of Richmond made national news.

Thomas Lee Penn, alone and with his older brother, killed 6 people and attacked another between April 10 and May 22, 1966. Adding terror to the killing spree was that there was no pattern to the Penn brothers’ victims. Mozelle Leon Spencer, age 78, a black night clerk at the Eggleston Motel, was robbed and killed on April 10. Willie Sexton, a 21-year-old black man and resident of the 2800 block of East Broad Street, was shot nine times in the back and left floating in the Chickahominy River. Three more victims were white men, two more were young black girls.

Cynthia Johnson, a 16-year-old black girl and Church Hill resident, was shot twice in the chest and left behind 1409 North 32nd Street on May 10:

Oscar E. Henderson testified that he had dated Cynthia Johnson and had been with her from about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, May 8th, until about 11 or 11:30 that evening. He gave her a package of Marlboro cigarettes and about 90 cents in change. When he last saw the decedent they were at the corner of 25th and Venable Streets, and, following an argument between the two, she left going in the direction of 26th and Q Streets.

On May 21, 20-year-old Addison Wilkins and 41-year-old Malcolm Norment, both white men, were killed and dumped in the 3600 block of East Richmond Road (near Oakwood Cemetery). The sixth victim, 52-year-old white man James Carter of Sandston, was shot twelve times in the stomach, back and head before he was discarded in some nearby woods in rural Henrico just east of of the city.

The case was broken with the survival of the 7th victim: a 14-year-old Mosby School girl who was raped, shot twice, and left for dead. She recognized her attacker, who had boasted of killing two white men on May 21.

Johnnie Mae Hicks, age fifteen, testified that the first time she ever saw Thomas Lee Penn was on May 22, 1966, at or near a friend’s house at 2019 North 29th Street. She stated that the time was close to 11 P.M., and that she and her boyfriend had been fighting when Penn walked up and told her that he was a detective. Defendant asked Johnnie Mae Hicks if this man (referring to her boyfriend) was bothering her. She replied that he was and that she was going to call the police. Penn responded by telling her that his mother had already called them. At this point the boyfriend, Eugene Willis, went into the house to get a companion, a man named Purcell. Johnnie Mae Hicks stated that Penn ran with her around a field; that when they got there Willis and Purcell came out of the house and climbed across a fence looking for them; that Penn shot at Willis three times; and that he (Penn) ran. Willis then walked her home and left her at the door.

After that episode this witness reconsidered calling the police and had started towards a phone booth when she saw defendant again on the side of “the ice cream house”. Penn walked with the Hicks girl to the phone booth, but convinced her that if she made the call there would be a lot of trouble. The two then went back to the girl’s home and at this point she said that Penn suggested that she go back and call the police because Willis might come around and start some disturbance.

En route back to the phone booth, and upon seeing an automobile which they thought belonged to Willis, Penn suggested running around another way instead of going straight. This way took them across the street and in a field. There defendant told the Hicks girl that she “was going with him”. He told her to take off her clothes.

Warrants were issued for 18-year-old Thomas Penn. William Penn was added to the suspect list the next day, and by May 29 both men were in custody.

Thomas Lee Penn, the younger of the 2 brothers, was seen as the main force behind the killings, admitting his guilt and giving a vivid description of several of the murders:

He met Wilkins about Forest Hill Avenue and asked the decedent to show him to Laburnum Avenue. Defendant said that he took Wilkins down by the cemetery “right up where they were cleaning up the ground”. Penn feigned trouble with the accelerator of his car, opened the door and asked Wilkins out. He told him he “… was going to send him to a resting place, then… shot him,… [and] put him in the area that they were digging up”.

Penn then returned to West Broad Street where he saw Norment, identifying him as “this other follow”, and offered to take him to the bus station. Instead, he took Norment out to the same excavation spot near the cemetery where he had killed Wilkins, required him to get out of the car and then shot him. Defendant says that Norment “grabbed his heart and mumbled something, then I put him down near the other body”.

Thomas Lee Penn also implicated his older brother William in the murders, saying that he fired some of the shots and shared in the stolen money. Thomas Lee Penn ended up receiving 2 life sentences, while William got 26 years for taking part in the killing of Spencer.

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At question was Thomas Lee Penn’s mental state. He had spent time at Central State Hospital in Petersburg, and had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. The same doctor, Dr. Lordi, said that when he saw him in 1966 it was his feeling, or opinion, that defendant “had deteriorated considerably, intellectually, emotionally and in terms of being more disturbed psychiatrically”. He believed that Lee’s killings in May, 1966 were “an act of impulse growing out of some mental disease affecting his volition.” Two other doctors, though (Doctors Montero and Kervin), testified that they subjected Lee “to the usual tests and examinations to determine his mental and physical condition”, and found no mental illness, and that he was able to distinguish right from wrong.

In 1966, there were 39 people killed in Richmond, which at the time had a population just over 200,000 – just about where the city is in 2012 (crime / population).


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