There are many theories about the death of Lydia Shevchenko Thompson in 1945, none of which satisfactorily explains her unsolved murder:
- Lydia was slain by (or at the order of) her estranged husband, Louis Thompson
- Her plan to have Louis and his paramour killed backfired
- Lydia arranged her own death to punish her husband who was seeking a divorce
- Lydia was the target of foreign secret police
- The Russian immigrant was murdered by a random psychopath
Louis Victor Thompson was a British military officer who met Lydia Shevchenko in Turkey after World War I. She had fled the Bolshevik revolution, leaving her family behind in Rostov-on-Don, and was working as a nurse. Lydia and Louis married in Constantinople in 1922. For the next few years they lived in Europe before emigrating to the United States in 1928. They settled in Highland Park, Michigan, a city now completely encircled by Detroit.
In Highland Park the Thompsons opened a small laundry and over time the business thrived. It was the accumulation of wealth that caused the first rifts in the Thompson marriage.
Louis bought a $40,000 home in Orchard Lake (about a half-million dollars in 2007), a community between Detroit and Ann Arbor, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, and billiard room. Louis also hired a chauffeur to ferry him and his wife to their laundry in Highland Park.
While Louis enjoyed the luxuries that wealth brought, Lydia’s Old World work ethic and refugee experience prevented her from doing the same. While Louis golfed and enjoyed Detroit’s bustling nightlife, Lydia continued to work in the damp heat of her laundry. She berated Louis for wasting money and complained about the time he spent away from the Orchard Park home.
Lydia’s anger at her husband’s liberal spending habits turned to jealousy when he began spending time with younger women who were more than willing to enjoy his largesse. She hired private detectives to shadow her husband, who had developed a close relationship with his secretary, Helen Budnik.
After 22 years of marriage, shortly before Christmas 1944, Louis asked Lydia for a divorce. She adamantly refused and told her husband she would never agree to end their marriage.
On March 31, 1945, Lydia followed her husband to a club in Detroit where he was having dinner with friends. Although it appeared as if Louis was on a double date, the dinner was quite innocent and Helen Budnik was not present. Entering the Capitol Cafe, Lydia stormed over to her husband and accosted the group. She reached into her purse and pulled out a vial of acid that she threw on the women. One was burned on her face and the other received splashes of acid on her legs.
The attack ended any chance of the Thompsons reconciling. Louis called Helen, who was vacationing in Florida, and arranged to meet her in Miami. Lydia’s private detectives tailed him there and reported that Louis and Helen were occupying adjoining rooms in their Miami hotel. Lydia flew down to confront them.
“You can’t have my husband,” she reportedly told Helen. “If you take him, I’ll haunt you all my life. I’ll kill myself.”
Lydia wasn’t bluffing. She swallowed a handful of sleeping pills while in Miami, which only succeeded in making her ill. After she recovered she climbed out on a ledge outside her hotel room and threatened to jump.
“Please, Lydia,” Helen called to her. “I promise I’ll never see Vic again!”
Louis convinced Lydia to return to Michigan with him, but he resumed his relationship with Helen. Again, Lydia confronted her rival.
“If you try to marry my husband, I will never give you any peace,” Helen reported Lydia as telling her.
This time, however, Helen told Lydia that she intended to continue to see Louis.
Louis remained away from the Orchard Park house but he and Lydia saw each other about once each week until late autumn 1945.
It was October 11, 1945 that Lydia Thompson was last seen alive. She had breakfast with two friends, the sisters Nina Gentile and Josephine Latona in Highland Park. She expressed fear for her life, but according to a contemporary report, “in such a vague way that they smiled.”
That afternoon Lydia sent a mysterious cable to Rostov-on-Don that read “Send your address. Am mailing package soon. Wire immediately.” Just who the telegram was meant for or why it was sent was never explained. Police theorized that she sent it to family members behind the Iron Curtain. After that she apparently returned to her home in Orchard Park because the clothes she was seen wearing earlier in the day were hanging in a closet.
Police believe that by 7 p.m. that night she was dead.
On October 12, Lydia’s car was found in a parking lot in downtown Pontiac. The parking lot attendant later told police that the vehicle was not there when he left work at 10 p.m. Two waitresses, however, told investigators that the car was in the lot when they parked there at 11:30 p.m.
No one realized that Lydia had met with foul play until her body was found on October 13 by mushroom hunters about 12 miles west of Pontiac.
It was a particularly violent death. She had first been knocked unconscious and then stabbed four times in the breast and abdomen with a knife. Her killer then took an ice pick and drove it into her body 13 times. Finally, the assailant nearly decapitated her with a hatchet. Any footprints or tire tracks at the place where she was found had been obliterated by rain on the night of October 12.
Lydia was not murdered where her body was discovered, authorities decided based on the blood found at the scene. However, there was no blood or signs of a struggle at the Orchard Lake house or the Highland Park laundry. A search of the home indicated that no robbery had taken place — about $3,000 in diamonds and other jewels were found in the home. Police were unable to locate a handgun Lydia owned, her ration book, her driver’s license or any of her keys.
There was a letter to an Andrew Shevchenko found on her desk.
If after this day you don’t see me and you don’t hear anything of me, then go on Jefferson and find a man by the name of Perrone and ask him where I am. This is the doings of my husband. He is tired of me and wants to marry her. Everything that belongs to me I leave to you, father. Lydia
Shevchenko turned out to be Lydia’s 70-year-old senile father who lived in Detroit. No one who knew Lydia had any idea that her father had left Russia. Shevchenko could shed no light on his daughter’s activities.
Police tracked down three men on Jefferson Avenue named Perrone, all of who denied knowing Lydia.
Of course the primary suspect was Louis Thompson; he denied knowing anything of the crime and offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to her killer(s).
“Isn’t this terrible,” he told the press. “Some maniac did it and I wish I knew who.”
In addition to the letter, police found Lydia’s diary that hinted at a convoluted plot to make her husband pay for leaving her.
“I shall drag two people into my death with me,” she wrote.
A carpenter who worked on Lydia’s house came forward and helped point the finger of blame at Louis. While repairing some shelving, he said Lydia told him that Louis had attacked her several times with an ice pick.
“If I dared, I would show you the places,” Lydia reportedly told the man.
Louis and Helen Budnik each had an alibi for the time of Lydia’s murder and both took and passed lie detector tests. For a little while, however, Louis became a suspect again when dirt and hair were discovered on a pair of golf shoes in his car. A chemical analysis revealed that the hair was animal hair and the dirt was dissimilar to that at the scene of the crime.
Two weeks after his daughter’s death, Andrew Shevchenko left Detroit for New York, claiming that he feared for his life. This prompted speculation that he and his daughter might have been foreign agents of some kind. Those rumors were never borne out.
The investigation revealed that in the last months of her life Lydia was spending money like crazy. She spent a total of $6,400 and less than a month before her death she borrowed $1,500 from a friend. Some theorized that she was being blackmailed by Soviet agents who threatened the lives of relatives still living in Russia. Lydia told her friend that she needed the $1,500 to set her father up in business. Her father denied that she had ever made such a suggestion to him.
While police were tracking down a number of false leads, Louis Thompson married Helen Budnik in February 1946. She readily agreed to move into the Orchard Lake house. In preparation for the couple’s return to the house, relatives were cleaning up after the numerous police searches and found a package beneath the refrigerator: wrapped in one of Louis’s handkerchiefs were Lydia’s keys, her driver’s license, and her ration book. Police denied that the package was in the house when it had been searched earlier.
In the summer of 1946, Thompson himself found a property envelope belonging to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department behind some pipes in a closet. Inside the envelope was Lydia’s gun.
“I’m beginning to think that Lydia paid that $1,500 to have herself killed and arranged to have the blame put on me,” Louis told police when he handed over the weapon.
Helen had a different theory.
“Personally, I think that Lydia was arranging to have us killed,” she told the press. “In an argument with the person she hired she got killed herself.”
In 1947, acting as a one-man grand jury investigating the Detroit racket scene, Wayne County Judge George B. Murphy issued a subpoena for Santo Perrone, one of the Peronnes on Jefferson Avenue who had denied knowing Lydia Thompson. Shortly after speaking with Perrone, Murphy handed up indictments against Louis and Helen Thompson.
The story that came out, however, had nothing to do with Perrone, but did involve an Italian ex-con from a Detroit suburb who told a girlfriend that he had been hired by Louis to “get rid” of his wife. The ex-con claimed that the story was made up to scare the girlfriend so he could return to his wife and children.
After 12 days of testimony at the Thompsons’ preliminary hearing, the judge threw out the case against them on a technicality: there was no evidence to show that the murder occurred in Wayne County.
The last time police had any public comment on the case was in 1949 when a “weak-minded, borderline psychopath” arrested in Atlanta, Georgia on a bad-check charge said he was paid $500 to drive the car for the man who killed Lydia.
The man claimed that Lydia was killed by a man whom she hired to spy on her husband.
Police discounted his claim and after a cursory probe, returned the investigation to the cold case files, where it remains.