Betty Jo McClain Thomas, an active 83-year-old from Irving, Texas, was supposed to spend the evening with family for a Christmas and birthday dinner. She didn’t show up.
When her family went to check on her, they found Thomas on her living room floor, stabbed to death.
Through investigations and footage from her Ring doorbell camera, police learned that the last person to see Thomas alive was a Spectrum cable repairman, who arrived in a company van even though he was off the clock. The technician, Roy James Holden Jr., had been at Thomas’ home the day before for a service call to fix her fax machine.
Holden would plead guilty to the 2019 murder and be sentenced to life in prison. But for Thomas’ family, that was not enough. In a civil lawsuit that went to a jury trial last month, they said the company that owns Spectrum, Charter Communications, was accountable for Thomas’ death. Holden also was named in the suit.
Thomas’ family’s lawyers called the death “senseless, brutal, and preventable.” They contended that Holden lied about his work history and that Charter Communications admitted it did not verify his past employment. Had the company taken that step, Holden would have been disqualified as a job candidate for lying.
On June 23, the jury awarded $375 million in compensatory damages, holding Spectrum responsible for 90% of the damages. The jury now is considering additional punitive damages.
Like Thomas, people open their doors for all kinds of services – housekeeping, maintenance, repairs. The workers often arrive in uniform, with a company badge and, in some cases, a vehicle with a company logo. If they commit a crime, how much responsibility does the company bear?
That’s a question Thomas’ family and others across the country have sought to answer. Incidents have ranged from robbery and identity theft to beatings, sexual assault and murder.
When cases make it to the legal system, one theme tends to dominate: negligence. Victims claim that companies either failed to verify employment or did not properly supervise the employee on the job.
David Sokolow, a corporate law expert at The University of Texas at Austin, said the debate often centers on whether a company can be held responsible for a crime an employee commits.
“The question is whether we should pin liability on somebody else, namely the employer, for what the employee did,” he said. “And the idea is, it’s not fair to hold an employer liable for everything an employee does.”
But he said that when an employer fails to check an employee’s work history, for instance, that can tip the balance toward negligence.
In court filings, Thomas’ attorneys noted that Charter sends technicians to people’s homes every day, and customers are led to feel safe because they rely on the company to properly background-check and verify each new hire.
“Customers have no other way to determine the criminal or employment background,” they wrote, “or the fitness of an in-home technician.”
Rich Ruggiero, spokesman for Charter Communications, said nothing in Holden’s background would have prevented him from getting a job with the company or suggested he would commit a crime.
“Charter had no indication, prior to his employment or during, that Holden had any propensity to commit violent acts – including a full criminal background check across all federal and state jurisdictions,” he said. “It showed no criminal activity whatsoever – no arrests, convictions or other criminal acts.”
The company has already signaled it will appeal the jury verdict.
“Mrs. Thomas was the victim of a tragic crime,” Ruggiero said. “We are grateful that justice has been served, with the perpetrator in prison for life.”
Out-of-court settlements are common in negligence cases, allowing companies to avoid publicly accepting blame. That can be true even in extreme situations with extensive evidence of company awareness of the employee’s past.
In a 1996 case, a cable technician from Comcast used his position to enter an Arkansas woman’s home, where he raped her at knifepoint, then tried to kill her.
The victim, Natasha Saine, 23, a teacher, said Ceotis Franks beat her with a blowtorch canister, then tied her hands and feet and dropped her in a bathtub full of water, where he slit her throat.
He then tossed in a lamp to electrocute her. When that did not work, he held her head underwater to drown her. When that also failed, he pushed Saine into a closet and set her apartment on fire.
Saine lived to tell the story and took Comcast to court, accusing the company of negligent hiring, supervision and retention of Franks. Her case relied on testimony from another Comcast customer, Jeanie Leonard, who had complained a year earlier that Franks made inappropriate sexual remarks while installing cable at her home.
For two weeks, Leonard tried to lodge a complaint and talked to three employees. No one from Comcast ever returned her calls, she said in a deposition testimony that Saine’s lawyers presented to the court.
What the company knew and when it knew was pivotal in a 2006 case in Chicago in which Anthony Triplett, a cable technician, murdered Urszula Sakowska while on a routine call to fix her internet service. The 23-year-old babysitter was raped and beaten, her body found in a bathtub.
At the time of the death, Triplett was being investigated in the murder of Janice Ordidge, 39, whose body had been found in her bathtub seven weeks earlier. Triplett had also visited Ordidge’s home for a service call.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Comcast and the subcontractor Triplett worked for – Premier Cable Communications – allowed him to continue making service calls.
Civil suits against Premier and Comcast were filed on behalf of Sakowska in March 2007 and November 2016 and on behalf of Ordidge in October 2008. According to Colin Dunn, the attorney who represented families in the cases, they were settled out of court.
Saine’s case reached the Supreme Court of Arkansas on appeal, where the woman’s attorney argued that Comcast’s background check on Franks was inadequate. Comcast countered with evidence that Franks had passed the pre-employment drug screening and had been honorably discharged from the military, and his previous two employers had said he was not a risk to customers.
While judges disagreed with that claim of negligent hiring, they agreed that the company had been negligent in its supervision and retention of Franks.
Saine’s attorneys presented evidence that Franks’ supervisor would have terminated him if he had been informed that Franks made inappropriate remarks to Leonard, and that there was no record of a complaint in Franks’ file, according to court documents. The attorneys also presented evidence that there was no system in place to report complaints.
In Triplett’s case, Dunn said, he was trying to get information about how much Comcast and Premier knew about Ordidge’s killing when they let Triplett keep working.
“Our position was they should have taken him off of duty,” Dunn said, “and not allowed him to see customers.”
Dunn said Premier and Comcast attorneys said they had no evidence of problems in Triplett’s background, and it also was unclear how much information law enforcement had provided to the companies after Ordidge’s murder, for which Triplett initially was classified as a witness.
And there was no indication Triplett had stalked the women, Dunn said. “But,” he said, “they were alone in the house, and he took advantage of it.”
Over the years, companies have taken steps to ensure that customers are safe.
Ride-sharing services have changed policies over time after women were sexually assaulted, kidnapped and raped and lawsuits followed. Now, Uber and Lyft provide customers with the driver’s name, photo and license plate number to help ensure they get into the correct vehicle.
Both companies also require background checks for drivers before they begin working, as well as annual checks thereafter. The apps for the companies now have a built-in button to request help in an emergency.
When people come to a private home to perform services, however, much of the onus falls to consumers.
Trish Hoffman, a retired lieutenant with the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico, runs Women Against Crime, which provides self-defense training. During her classes, women often asked how they could stay safe while having repairs done in their homes.
Hoffman recommends people living alone – especially women and the elderly – have a friend with them when a worker is expected. She also advises that if anyone sees something happening that they think could be criminal, or just makes them feel unsafe, they should call the police and tell their neighbors.
“No one can go to bat for you except yourself,” she said.
Strangers in your house: How to stay safe
She recommends looking carefully at the service worker’s identification on arrival and checking for a uniform, badge and company vehicle. People also should not let workers in without an appointment, she said.
“We, as women, we want to believe so badly that there is no one capable or no one ever wanting to hurt us,” Hoffman said. “We learn all the different things we should or shouldn’t do based on what happened to someone else.”
Hoffman speaks of her own experience with an ex-boyfriend who she said stalked her for a year and a half in Arizona. He threatened to kill her and himself, she said, which prompted Hoffman to move to Albuquerque.
“My heightened sense of awareness was brought on by someone else,” she said. “Once you’ve been through something like that, or survived a type of encounter or traumatic event, you don’t ever want to be put in that position again … where you feel you can’t handle yourself.”
Hoffman said service companies also can do more. When Hoffman had appliances delivered, she said, she was provided with the installer’s name, photo and time they would be at the appointment.
In Betty Jo McClain Thomas’ case, Hoffman speculated that seeing the company vehicle and having dealt with Holden the day before may have led Thomas to have her guard down. Hoffman also believes the company bears some responsibility in that case, especially since Holden had access to a company vehicle during his off hours.
“Except for military and police, who would need a take-home car?” she asked.
Holden’s supervisor told the Irving police that technicians were able to take vans home, but Holden had instead parked the van at the company lot. Thomas’ attorneys said Charter deleted eight minutes of video footage from the lot that would have shown Holden taking the van the day he murdered Thomas.
In court documents, Thomas’ family’s lawyers also claimed that Charter’s written policies prohibit off-duty use of company vehicles but the company “refuses to enforce those policies or take other reasonable steps to prevent unauthorized use of company vehicles and protect the unwitting public from preventable violence and death.”
Ruggiero agrees that Holden should not have been allowed to use the company van the day Thomas was murdered.
“Holden was not authorized to travel to Mrs. Thomas’ home, nor to use his company vehicle to travel there on the day of the murder,” he said in a prepared statement.
Holden’s behavior was troublesome on and off the job before he murdered Thomas, according to police reports and opening statements made by Thomas’ lawyers.
Ray T. Khirallah, of the law firm Hamilton Wingo LLP, told the jury that Holden’s supervisors and managers started receiving complaints just weeks after Holden started his job. Disciplinary reports were filed against him, along with a corrective action.
The complaint that consistently came up was that he’d forget to add splitters when installing cable in people’s homes, which meant he’d have to go back and repeat the work.
The Charter human resources department also reviewed Holden’s request to transfer to a new location, but the manager there refused to take Holden on, saying his repeat work was “terrible.” Khirallah told the court that Charter’s human resources director reviewed Holden’s performance and said, “We need to make sure he’s not running from something.”
Nine days before Thomas’ murder, Holden emailed his operations manager asking to borrow money because he was going through a divorce, Khirallah told the court. Holden claimed his wife had emptied their account.
“If I didn’t need the help, I wouldn’t be asking,” he wrote in the email.
The next day, Holden’s supervisor noticed he looked sad, as if he had been crying, and asked if he was OK.
“No, I am not OK,” Holden told the supervisor, according to Khirallah.
Nonetheless, that day he went to a service call at an 83-year-old woman’s home and took pictures of her Social Security card and driver’s license on his work phone, Khirallah said. The next day, Holden went to an 82-year-old woman’s home and took pictures of her driver’s license, American Express credit card and Wells Fargo checking account information.
Two days later, he requested mental health intervention through the employee assistance program and told his operations manager. In the intake form, he wrote he had insomnia, racing thoughts, had stopped eating and thought he was a Dallas Cowboys player whose career ended after he was paralyzed.
Over the next five days, Holden was scheduled to see 25 customers.
Two days before Thomas’ murder, a grim post appeared on his Facebook profile: “I am lost, hurt, and I don’t want to be here anymore. Please just let me go in peace.”
As Irving Police Department detectives worked to solve Thomas’ murder, they interviewed Holden’s ex-wife. She told detectives that on one occasion Holden knocked her across the bed, choked and threatened to kill her. He had lost his previous job and called in sick a lot, she said, and after they separated, he showed her a gun that he threatened to use to kill himself.
Before Holden admitted to murdering Thomas with a utility knife from his tool belt, he told detectives multiple stories.
First, he said he had given his number to Thomas, who called him to fix her fax machine again. When Holden arrived at her home, he said, he saw two other workers in the back of her house. He discovered she needed an adapter, which he offered to go buy. He also noticed something wrong with the television reception and headed to the attic to tighten a connection.
He headed out after that, he said. When he returned, he said, he found the front door open, the workers gone and Thomas bloody on the floor. He took her wallet, which contained her checkbook and credit cards, he added, thinking he could find a phone number or information.
He told detectives that he went straight to the Spectrum warehouse to drop off the van, then went to a check cashing service where he tried to cash a $1,500 check with a forged signature from Thomas. He continued to a 7-Eleven to purchase gas using Thomas’ debit card.
As the interview progressed, Holden changed his story and said that when he was fixing Thomas’ television, she said something to him that he didn’t understand, and it made him mad.
“It was something, I mean, something about black something,” Holden told detectives. “I didn’t know if she was talking about me or what.”
Detectives suggested Thomas might have been referring to the cable box, television or remote control, and not to Holden, who is Black. He told detectives that Thomas repeated herself, and it “irritated” him, which is when he stabbed her. Before he left, he said, he told Thomas he was sorry.
He then used Thomas’ card to buy gas and Air Max shoes online for his daughter for $216.50.
Concerns about an adequate background check were at the forefront of the trial, much as they were during Franks’ and Triplett’s hearings.
Khirallah also told the court about a terrifying attack involving a Charter employee out of Missouri in March 2015, when James Helderle made inappropriate comments to a woman while on the job and was subsequently fired. Helderle went back to the woman’s house and blamed her for getting him fired, then sexually assaulted her. The woman survived, and Helderle was sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Khirallah told the court that after Charter bought Time Warner and acquired 21 million more customers, executives changed the paperwork to show that they ran employment verification checks.
“But the Charter Spectrum Vice President of HR services knows there’s no way that Charter Spectrum is going to spend an extra $4.99 running an employment verification on every employee now that they’re going into 21 million homes in America,” Khirallah told the court, according to opening statement transcripts.
Reports about theft and assault increased, including a case in 2017 when an elderly woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease was sexually assaulted by a field tech.
The jury also heard from one of a dozen of Thomas’ grandchildren, William Goff, who brought the suit alongside Thomas’ three daughters and son. Goff testified that Charter sent an overdue bill to her house after her death, which included a $58.94 charge for the work Holden did the day before he killed her.
The bill went past the payment date and was sent to a collection agency.
As the jury turns this week to the question of punitive damages, Charter officials continue to maintain that Holden’s crime was not foreseeable.
“The law in Texas and the facts presented at trial clearly show this crime was not foreseeable: At Charter, we are committed to the safety of all our customers and took the necessary steps, including a thorough pre-employment criminal background check – which showed no arrests, convictions or other criminal behavior,” Ruggiero said in a prepared statement to USA TODAY.
“Nor did anything in Mr. Holden’s performance after he was hired suggest he was capable of the crime he committed, including more than 1,000 completed service calls with zero customer complaints about his behavior.”