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Another Octopus Murder: American Conspiracies and True Crime Stories

Updated: Mar 28

The demented zen of national security agency handlers of mass murderer Phillip Arthur Thompson as shown in the Netflix documentary American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders.

It was jarring seeing Phillip Arthur Thompson staring back at me from my flatscreen TV; his 1970s mugshot rendered in high def so I could count every strand of hair in his eyebrows were I into that sort of thing. I wasn’t expecting to see him when I started watching the new Netflix true crime documentary series American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders, but I probably should have.

A chapter of The Murders That Made Us (MTMU) is devoted to the unsolved murder of Valerie McDonald, an aspiring actress and filmmaker who was a tenant in a North Beach apartment building managed by Thompson before she disappeared from it on Nov. 9, 1980. Thompson was suspected of her murder, and, according to American Conspiracy, he was suspected of a lot of murders, along with a ghastly number of rapes, strong-arm robberies, kidnappings, assaults, and other forms of extreme mayhem.

Episode three of American Conspiracy goes into detail on the Jan. 13, 1982 murder of Paul Morasca, a short trek from McDonald’s apartment, and also unsolved. Morasca was found dead in his Telegraph Hill apartment. His body had been hogtied in such a way that he strangled himself when he could no longer keep his legs bent. The body “was found next to his computer, from which the hard disk had been ripped out,” according to the San Francisco Examiner in a story 10 years after the killing. Before he was tortured and asphyxiated, Morasca had been afraid of someone named “Jason Smith,” which turned out to be an alias for Phillip Arthur Thompson.

But the Morasca murder is what drew me to American Conspiracy. I had planned to write about it for my SF Weekly “Yesterday’s Crimes” column that provided the building blocks of MTMU, but the research shot me in way too many directions. As I tried to gather information on this bizarre murder on Telegraph Hill with some connections to the then emerging computer industry (or so I thought), but found myself poring through articles on the mysterious death of journalist Danny Casolaro in a West Virginia Sheraton in 1992; a piece of legal discovery software called PROMIS that was allegedly ripped off from its owners by the friggin Justice Department; and some weird dealings out of an Indian casino on the Cabazon reservation in Indio, Calif. involving spooks from the CIA, FBI, and NSA, with a few mafia hoods thrown in. And or course, there were more unsolved murders.

It was all too much for my short column to hold, even if I serialized it as I’d done for Valerie McDonald. Her tragedy took up four installments. Morasca’s murder was going to take the better part of a year's worth to cover, so I just tapped out and moved on to shallower rabbit holes.

It didn’t help my efforts back in 2017 that the San Francisco Examiner—one of San Francisco’s two major dailies at the time of the Morasca killing—only mentioned him once according to my search of its archives. I swapped out vowels in Morasca’s last name to see if they had misspelled it with no luck. The only contemporary reporting on the murder in a Bay Area paper that divulged to me was a UPI wire story printed in the Napa Valley Register on Jan. 16, 1982. How could the Hearst Ex pass up reporting on a crime this weird that looked like a mob hit??? It was totally out of character for them, considering the paper’s history of lurid crime reporting.

(It’s not helping my mental state right now that my attempts to log into the San Francisco Chronicle archives through my SF Public Library account keep timing out. I’m not paranoid. You’re paranoid!)

But director Zachary Treitz’s American Conspiracy puts the whole sprawling mess together in a way that I could not by following researcher Christian Hansen’s obsession with the death of Danny Cosolaro. Authorities called it suicide, but that didn’t sit right with people close to the reporter. Cosolaro was working on exposing a grand unifying conspiracy theory that tied together everything mentioned above with Iran Contra, the 1980 October surprise, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush (the good one), Manuel Noriega, the Wackenhut Corporation, major drug trafficking, and other forgotten murders and covert ops. Cosolaro called this network of crisscrossing conspiracies and their masterminds “The Octopus.”

By episode three of American Conspiracy, the Octopus’ tentacles touch on Phillip Arthur Thompson. Valerie McDonald’s picture even flashes onscreen quickly during a montage of newspaper clippings illustrating Thompson’s expansive criminal history, a litany that overwhelmed the documentarians as much as it did for me.

“We struggled to figure out how much story we can tell in this because there's so many names, and so many different tentacles,” Trietz told Hell Gate. “And I think I had made the choice of, we just can't go into the Paul Morasca murder because it's another location, another time, there's just too many things going on, people already are having trouble grappling with all the stories we were telling.”

In both cases, Thompson the FBI informant with a knack for getting released for prison early no matter how violent his crimes, gets lost in a web—or octopus—of accomplices and grander plots. With the Morasca murder, he’s overshadowed by Michael Riconosciuto, an antisocial computer genius and chemist; and John Philip Nichols, an NSA (or was it CIA?) asset who bankrupted an Indian casino and moved weapons and drugs off the reservation in a filthy covert op that Morasca laundered money for.

With the McDonald murder, Thompson is obscured by John Gordon Abbott, a British national who possessed a genius-level IQ with a UN economist for a father and a UC Davis genetics professor for a mom. Thompson and Abbott planned and perpetrated a wave of UPS truck robberies in Burlingame and other San Francisco suburbs, which they used to get seed money to buy guns to sell to right wing militias in El Salvador and South American cocaine cartels. Thompson got busted by SFPD for that one while Abbott skated on it. Neither were ever charged with the murder of Valerie McDonald.

All of these characters and conspiracies had a way of pushing Thompson into the background, even though he probably killed and raped more people than any number of serial killers that we can’t stop obsessing over. This had to be a feature not a bug for whatever alphabet soup agencies kept Thompson free where he could do more harm, and got him sweet jobs like driving for the Nixon reelection campaign in 1972, just a year after he raped and murdered 21-year-old mother Betty Cloer in Sacramento— the crime that revoked his get-out-of-Quentin-free card once and for all when DNA evidence finally caught up with him.

In 2003, sperm found on Cloer’s clothes was matched to Thompson, while he was still serving his 18-year sentence for the UPS robberies. Investigators from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office charged him with murder just hours before he was going to be released. He was found guilty of first-degree murder on April 8, 2008, and was incarcerated in the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, a prison dogged throughout the 1970s by persistent rumors of CIA activity.

The Agency denies this of course, even though Donald DeFreeze AKA Cinque recruited the future members of his Symbionese Liberation Army through a UC Berkeley program while he was incarcerated there. And like Thompson, DeFreeze was an informant who had to be far more dangerous to the general public than anyone he could’ve snitched on. Cinque also had a way of getting out of prison early, right up until he just walked out of Soledad one day and went on to organize the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Drawing those Vacaville connections between Thompson and Cinque starts to give me that true crime messiah complex where I believe that I’m the only one who can see aspects of the octopus that everyone else has missed.

But then I realize that this isn’t an octopus at all, or even a squid with its extra tentacles. It’s not even dark Cthulu rising from the depths. What Colosaro was after is more like that mammoth fungus in Michigan. You can see its toadstools that push their way through the dirt—they are the Thompsons, Abbotts and Riconosciutos—but the rest of its vast expanse festers out of sight, underneath the ground we walk on.

--Bob Calhoun


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