Posted: May 24, 2004
A MURDER MYSTERY FOR GOP CHAIRMAN TERRY STRINE
By Celia Cohen
Terry A. Strine, the Republican state chairman, does not have just any country house across the line in Pennsylvania. It was the scene of a sensational murder mystery that rocked Chateau Country one summer day 37 years ago.
The original homeowner there was Katharine Thompson Wood, who was beaten to death in her bed on Aug. 30, 1967, even though two unfriendly guard dogs, a German shepherd named Mr. Magoo and a golden retriever called Rumpus, were in the house with her. She was 74.
Wood, who was nicknamed "Kaa" in her upper-crust social circle, was prominent in her own right as one of the founders of the Vicmead Hunt Club, but what really sent interest skyrocketing was the timing of her death, five months after the disappearance of her internationally famous brother.
James H.W. Thompson was the "Silk King," a businessman who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II and then struck it rich in the Thai silk trade. On Easter Sunday 1967, Jim Thompson walked into the Malaysian jungle, leaving behind his cigarettes even though he was a heavy smoker, and never came back.
In a final twist, Harrison Wilson Wood, the 47-year-old son of Kaa Wood, shot himself to death four years later in Malvern, Pa.
The strange fates of the brother and sister never were linked, beyond the macabre fascination they jointly provoked. The headline in The Morning News at the time of the murder blared, "Silk King's sister slain in home," and the speculation was intense.
"What spooked it up was her brother was CIA, and they thought he was assassinated. I don't personally think the two [events] were related," said Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr., the iconic Republican who was a congressman and Wilmington mayor in the 1950s and 1960s.
Haskell had reason to remember. Wood was a friend of his father, and her property, nearly 14 acres, bordered the Haskell family farm in Pennsylvania. After the murder, the house could not be sold, but Wells Foster, who is Haskell's brother-in-law, had the nerves to rent it, eventually buying it from the heirs and living there with his family for about 25 years.
The house sits in solitude, set back from Selborne Drive, a meandering country lane that branches off Delaware 52 beyond Centreville near the state line, its estates hopscotching between Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Strine bought the site for $1.35 million in 2002, according to property records. It was before there were any thoughts he would be in line a year later to jump from Republican backbencher to state chairman when J. Everett Moore Jr. abruptly decided not to seek a second term.
Although Strine is in the real estate business himself, just before he became the chairman he insisted he was unsure on which side of the state boundary the house was. He settled his residency by registering to vote from the apartment above his business in Wilmington.
This was after he had settled his party affiliation, which leapfrogged from Republican to independent to Democrat to independent to Republican between 1968 and 1996.
Yes, Strine knew about the murder when he bought the place. "We've had no ghostly visitors," he said.
The house was built in 1963 with a new wing added in 1966, according to newspaper stories at the time. The murder was committed in the addition.
Pennsylvania state police believed Wood knew her assailant. Not only did the dogs fail to protect her, but it appeared she was awake and did not try to fight off her attacker. A night light was on and a radio playing, and there were bits of her own skin and hair under her fingernails, as though she had grabbed her head to ward off the blow when she finally saw it coming.
Wood lived alone, divorced from a husband who had died since and attended by a daytime housekeeper and part-time gardener. It was the housekeeper who found her in the morning.
There was nothing taken, and no weapon was recovered. As a reporter wrote a year after the murder, "No trace of the killer has been found, nor any trace of the weapon -- a blunt instrument, which is the term police use when they don't know what it was."
Blood had spattered everywhere. When Wells Foster moved in, there were still signs of it in the bedroom and even on the floor joists in the basement, where the blood had soaked down.
"We didn't live in the master bedroom for about six months. Then we said, what the heck," Foster said.
While Foster came to terms with the murder mystery, he still is shaking his head over the political one.
"I don't understand how a guy who is head of the [Delaware] Republican Party can live in Pennsylvania," Foster said.