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The Bully of Toulon

From our September 2002 issue: For years, a rough-hewn man named Curt Thompson threatened and intimidated his neighbors in the small farming community of Toulon, Illinois. Many complained about him, and a few filed charges, yet little was done, and residents learned to alter their lives to avoid him. Then one night, authorities say, a newcomer paid him a call, and the town’s worst fears came true

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Thompson was finally captured, but not, authorities say, before he went on a rampage that included smashing a car through a fence at the home of Jim and Janet Giesenhagen, then killing them both while their ten-year-old daughter was in the house. Photo: Matthew Gilson

On March 22, 2002, sheriff’s deputy Adam Streicher was the only cop on duty in Toulon, Illinois, a town of 1,400 that briefly pokes up between cornfields, the municipal equivalent of a prairie dog. Toulon is located 160 miles southwest of Chicago and it feels even farther. Most folks farm the land or work for the town. The lone grocery store has wood floors and hand-drawn signs. A flashing yellow light slows traffic on Main Street. 

Deputy Streicher, 23, had dreamed of becoming a cop since childhood, when he admired Ponch, the hero of the TV series CHiPs. He had grown up in nearby Annawan, so he knew the rhythms and mores of rural Illinois. As a Stark County deputy, he would be responsible for covering the county’s three main towns—Bradford,  Wyoming, and Toulon—in an area considerably larger than Chicago. Often, he was the only law enforcement officer on duty in the entire county. Streicher had been on the force just three months, but he handled his rounds with confidence.

On a Friday night like this one, an ambitious deputy might nab some beer-chugging teenagers or issue a “Settle down, folks” to a bickering couple. But Streicher didn’t intend to sit. He nosed around the Stark County deputy’s office—there was usually something if you looked—and found a five-month-old warrant for the arrest of a local man. It seemed routine enough—the man had failed to pay some court fees and had missed his court date. Dressed in starched brown pants and brown shirt, with a stark county silver badge covering his left breast, Streicher found the squad car keys and began the four-block ride to the man’s house.

In Toulon, people mind their business. But anyone who had known Streicher’s plan would have spoken up; they would have warned him, Don’t do this. But Streicher did not know what Toulon knew.

The deputy turned right on Main Street, left on Miller, and right on Thomas. It took him a minute to arrive at the house of the man named in the warrant. Carrying the document, Streicher walked to the front door and knocked.

* * *

Nobody in Toulon pretends that the place is Mayberry. It once was, maybe, in the 1950s, when the town supported an active Main Street, four car dealers, four new farm implement dealers, and three doctors; when the city constable was a one-armed geezer who patrolled on foot and shook business doors to check the locks; when America valued its farmers. That’s history now. In Toulon, as in many small towns, young people worry about opportunity. The talented nurture an appetite for the larger world. Empty storefronts embarrass Main Street.

Still, Toulon has its advantages, and they are the kind that don’t defer to eras. Everyone knows each other here, not just by name but by hopes, dreams, victories, and disappointments. A newcomer who buys the Williams house will live in Toulon a decade before residents stop referring to it as the Williams place. Gossip—the small town’s nectar—is reliably ladled in the town’s two coffee shops, ladies at one table, men at another.

But Toulon’s biggest advantage is in its biology. The town exists as a living, unified being; no part moves without implication for the other parts, no person lives without affecting other lives. When someone in Toulon gets sick, much of the town rushes to her bedside or comforts her children or takes over her household chores. When someone in Toulon dies, the town converges for fundraisers, selling candles or car washes or whatever it takes to make the system whole again. In this way, by merging into a single, 1,400-person organism, Toulon survives.

Residents aren’t naïve enough to believe that bad things can’t happen in Toulon. But what they never imagined was that certain kinds of bad things—maybe the worst things—could happen in a place like Toulon because it is small, because everyone knows each other, because the people are so close.

* * *

Deputy Streicher waited for an answer at the man’s door. The house and property stood out from its tidy neighbors; logs, tires, and appliances lay around the modest carport, forming a meniscus of junk that crawled along the edges of the house. A small yellow tractor sat parked near the front door. A wooden swing on a faded red metal stand stood sentry on the tiny patch of yard.

(The following events of the evening of March 22, 2002, as described here, are drawn from law enforcement allegations and court records including a 30-count  indictment, as well as Chicago magazine interviews with witnesses and other sources.)

A 60-year-old man with Einstein salt-and-pepper hair, a disorganized gray beard, and frozen eyes answered the door. He stood perhaps five feet nine. His name was Curtis Thompson, and he was a former coal miner who had lived in the area all his life. Apparently, Deputy Streicher announced the purpose of his visit—to serve an arrest warrant. A brief conversation ensued. Shortly thereafter, law enforcement officials and the indictment allege, Thompson located his sawed-off shotgun and pointed it at the deputy. Before Streicher had much of a chance to react, Thompson pulled the trigger, hitting the deputy in the left shoulder, upper chest, and neck. Streicher fell to Thompson’s porch, his face dusted with gunpowder, shotgun wadding stuck to his shirt collar, his upper left side blown away. He likely died before he hit the cement.

Streicher lay on the porch in a pool of blood. Then, the indictment alleges, Curt Thompson took the officer’s nine-millimeter pistol and, along with the shotgun, jumped into the deputy’s squad car, flipped on the flashing lights, and proceeded down Thomas Street, a glaring, enraged monument to a small town’s recent history.

* * *

For 30 years, some of the people of Toulon had worried that it could come to this. Curt Thompson was a terrifying bully. He selected his enemies for committing offenses few could fathom, then punished them through methodical stalking—sometimes for years—that derailed their lives and infused them with fear. “He was the meanest person I ever met,” says a man who knew Thompson. “He wanted people to be afraid of him, and spent years making threats.”

People filed numerous complaints against Thompson. Mayors, city councils, prosecutors, and law enforcement seemed powerless to stop him. (State’s Attorney James Owens, Stark County sheriff Lonny Dennison, and Toulon’s lone police officer, Bob Taylor, would not comment for this story.)

A handful of Toulon residents claim that Thompson was misunderstood. They attest to his intelligence, work ethic, kind wife, and instinct to help those in need. Some even mention his sense of humor. “There was quite a bit good about him,” says Mary Jane Swank, whose husband is Thompson’s cousin. “There was nothing Curt wouldn’t do for you.” Few, however, express complete surprise at how things turned out for Thompson and Toulon.

The shock came when Thompson began to terrorize people. Then, Toulon’s strength—its smallness—became its biggest liability. Residents who otherwise massed to help neighbors now advised one another to “just ignore” Thompson. Police counseled citizens to “just stay away from him.” In the town’s two coffee shops, headquarters for Toulon’s get-involved impulse, the mantra on Thompson became “You know how Curt is. Just leave him be.”

Several decades ago, the town of Skidmore, Missouri, suffered under the rage of its own bully. Ken McElroy, a hulking, 47-year-old farmer with long black sideburns, manufactured feuds and then stalked his foes. For years, McElroy defied authorities. One day in 1981, a posse of 30 or 40 followed the bully to his truck and, in broad daylight, shot him dead. When authorities asked for witnesses, no one came forward. The case remains open. By midnight on March 22, 2002, some in Toulon would be wondering if the same fate shouldn’t have befallen Curt Thompson.

* * *

The details of Thompson’s life are sketchy. Acquaintances say he grew up on a farm near Toulon, the youngest of several children. His father died when Curt was six years old, leaving the family to struggle for the basics.

“Curt had to go work on farms when he was in grade school,” says Barry Taylor (no relation to Bob Taylor), who knew Thompson when they were children. “It’s a rotten childhood when you have to work in grade school.”

“His mother was good in ways,” recalls Mary Jane Swank. “She could be stubborn; things had to be her way. She didn’t want anyone to touch any of her stuff, and she raised her kids like that. If she got mad at someone, she’d hold that against them forever. But she was smart, and she was a beautiful writer.”

Taylor recalls Thompson as bright, serious, and an excellent high school football player for Toulon High School (now Stark County High). He tells that Thompson had to quit school at 16 to work full-time. “He had no choice. He had to eat.”

Thompson married a girl from his high school class, a woman Taylor describes as “fun and nice and pleasant,” and to whom he is still married. He went to work on various farms, then took a job in an Illinois coal mine. Without exception, those who knew him describe him as a capable and hard worker able to do almost any odd job or farm task. Somewhere along the line, however, Thompson began to get very angry.

* * *

 

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