By Dawn Cranfield
50 Years Later, and Murder of Olympian Sonja McCaskie Still one of Reno’s Most Horrific Crimes
Fifty years ago this weekend, the biggest little city was jolted when Sonja McCaskie, an Olympic Skier for Great Britain in 1960, was discovered brutally murdered in her duplex on Yori Avenue. McCaskie, 24, was found on April 5, 1963, when a sitter caring for her 10-month-old son asked police to do a check on her when she failed to show up for her usual visit.
The horrific sight stunned officers; they found McCaskie’s nude body in a cedar chest in the bedroom with three kitchen knives still stuck in the torso. She had been decapitated; her head was wrapped in undergarments and a white lace tablecloth. The young woman’s heart was lying on the floor near the front door, and one foot was wrapped in a blanket in the middle of the living room.
Even by today’s standards, the crime scene was gruesome; some of the veteran police officers were said to have been gagging at the sight. “This was a unique, different kind of murder…. It was gruesome beyond my ability to discuss the detail on this day.” (Warren Lerude, Editor of the Reno Evening Gazette in 1963, Reno Gazette Journal)
The way the body had been cut up, investigators believed they were looking for a suspect with either surgical or butchering skills. They never suspected they would be searching for an 18-year-old Wooster High School student.
However, little more than a week after the murder, on April 13, Reno police arrested Thomas Lee Bean who confessed to the crime.
Bean claims he was out driving the night before the murder and saw McCaskie’s Triumph sports car in her driveway, a completely random selection. He discovered some of her laundry on the line and found that she had left her back door unlocked upon investigating.
On July 8, 1963, it took a jury only 70 minutes of deliberation to determine Bean was guilty and to sentence him to death. However,
in 1972, the US Supreme Court overturned all pending death sentences after Furman v. Georgia. He is currently incarcerated in Nevada a medium-security prison.
Bean, now 68, has sometimes talked about his motive for the murder; he has spoken of his dislike for his father and how his mother had many male visitors. When he was 6 years old, he began to fantasize about sex and determined that he was going to kill the first person he had sex with; he held on to that fantasy for 12 years, then acted on it.
While the McCaskie murder may have been one of the first and most gruesome murders that put Reno on the macabre map, for being a city with a small-town vibe, it has had some national recognition for some big-city murders.
In 1980, on Thanksgiving Day, Priscilla Ford drove her 1974 Lincoln onto the sidewalk down North Virginia Street in downtown Reno, killing 7 and injuring another 24. Ford plowed down five blocks, accelerating as she went before being stopped by another car. Ford was found incompetent to stand trial, as she claimed she had been hearing voices. She died in prison of natural causes in 2005.
On July 6, 2006, State Controller, Kathy Augustine was found unresponsive by her fourth husband, nurse Chaz Higgs. Higgs claimed Augustine had a massive heart attack. However, when she died four days after she was initially found, an autopsy revealed she had succinylcholine in her system. Higgs was later arrested and charged with her murder. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Brianna Denison was only 19 when she was murdered on January 19, 2008; her case garnered national attention because she could have been the girl next door. She was sleeping peacefully on the couch of a friend when an intruder entered and stole her away into the night. Reno was on high alert for weeks as they awaited word on the young girl; finally, in the middle of February, her body was found in a snow-covered field.
However, it would still be months before area residents could rest knowing that her killer had been found. On November 1, 2008, some ten and a half months after her murder, a call to Secret Witness named the murderer for the first time, James Biela. Biela was eventually brought in for questioning and DNA was found that connected him to Denison. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Timko, Steve (2013, April 5) Gruesome murder shook city 50 years ago. Reno Gazette-Journal, pp. A1, A5