Attempt to rescue dog costs Galveston jeweler his life

This postcard from the early 1970s shows Central Plaza on Postoffice. When it was opened in 1970, it was hailed as the first such pedestrian-only shopping area in Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)

At about 5:30 p.m. on June 28, 1973, Galveston police dispatch got word someone had triggered the silent alarm inside Thebault’s Jewelry of Distinction at 2220 Postoffice. Officer J.S. Curran, on patrol in the area, swung by Central Plaza to check it out. Although the store didn’t normally close for another hour, Curran found the door locked. He peered through the glass and spotted someone crouched down behind the counter. Seeing he’d been spotted, the man ran into a back storeroom, disappearing from view.

While Curran radioed for backup, 50-year-old store owner Stanley Thebault came staggering toward the front door. Blood trickled from a wound on his head while he tried to untangle a rope binding his hands. Curran kicked in the front door and ushered Thebault outside. When the other officers arrived, they stormed the store, guns drawn. They found Thebault’s wife, Eileen, bound and lying face down on the storeroom floor. But the three robbers had disappeared.

The Thebaults waited outside while Curran, officer Bill Scott, Sgt. D.R. Lankford, and Det. Dick Hegman started their search. They quickly discovered the robbers had retreated into the attic, hidden above the store’s drop ceiling. Outside, Thebault realized he’d left the family dog behind. Before anyone could stop him, he raced back through the store’s open front door.

Unaware Thebault had come back inside, the officers hid behind the store’s counters and called for the robbers to surrender. The response came in a volley of gunfire. For the next five minutes, the four officers and three robbers traded shots, until the cornered men finally agreed to give up. One by one, they dropped their guns through a trap door in the ceiling. A few minutes later, the officers discovered Thebault in a small room adjacent to one of the store’s display windows. He was lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

Not wanting to wait for an ambulance, the officers carried Thebault to a patrol car and rushed him to John Sealy Hospital. He died shortly after arriving at the emergency room. Investigators said he’d been shot through the mouth, the gun fired from between 12 and 18 inches away.

Galveston police officers lead one of the suspects from Thebault’s jewelry store after his arrest. (The Galveston Daily News)

The district attorney charged Galveston residents John Richardson, 24, James Wesley Burton, 35, and Louis Campbell, 25, with capital murder under Texas’ new death penalty law, which had gone into effect two weeks earlier. Prosecutors alleged one of the men shot Thebault intentionally, at close range. But they didn’t know who had pulled the trigger.

During a preliminary hearing, Eileen Thebault recalled the terrifying minutes she and her husband spent after the men walked into the store. In a barely audible voice she described how the men had kicked and hit her husband for no reason: “They threw us down. They were just like animals. They pushed his face right into the cement floor.”

Burton and Campbell went on trial together in January 1974. Testimony focused on how far away the fatal shot had been fired. Experts agreed it came from one of the robbers’ guns, but prosecutors never tried to put the gun in any one man’s hand. The defense rested without calling any witnesses.

The jury deliberated for 5 hours and 10 minutes before finding both men guilty. Under the capital murder law, jurors had to consider two questions, and their answers would automatically determine whether the judge would assess the death penalty. First, they had to say whether they believed the killing was intentional. Second, they had to decide whether the convicted killers posed an ongoing threat to society. It took them just 48 minutes to answer no to the former and yes to the latter. Jurors later said they couldn’t hand out death sentences to both men when only one had fired the fatal shot.

Judge Donald Markle sentenced Burton and Campbell to life in prison. Neither man bothered to appeal. The Galveston Daily News never reported on the fate of Richardson, who had requested a separate trial.

The Thebault murder and robbery cast a pall over the still new—and much vaunted—downtown shopping district. Galveston leaders had celebrated Central Plaza’s opening just three years before, in October 1970. It was billed as the first attempt in the state to stave off a downtown decline with pedestrian-friendly improvements. City leaders agreed to close one block of Postoffice and local businesses paid for benches, plantings, and European-style kiosks.

Less than a month after the trial ended, Eileen Thebault sold the store. None of the newspaper reports ever said what happened to the dog her husband gave his life trying to rescue.

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