Teresa Seabolt was taking a shower when her beeper went off. This is it, she thought, her heart pounding—this is finally it. There would be justice at last for her twin sister, Lisa, who had vanished 19 months earlier in August 1996—murdered, Seabolt was sure. And now a jury had decided the fate of the man she suspected of the crime: Leonard Bryce Thomas, Lisa’s volatile husband.
But as Seabolt dressed hastily and sped to the courthouse in Bakersfield, Calif., she knew the chances of a guilty verdict were exceedingly slim. For one thing, Lisa’s body had never been found. “There was no murder weapon either,” says Seabolt, 39. “And no eyewitness.” In fact, no one had ever been found guilty of murder in Kern County in a case with no body. “It’s very difficult to convict for murder,” says Deputy District Attorney Lisa Green, who prosecuted the case, “when you don’t even know how the victim was killed.”
But long odds and countless obstacles hadn’t stopped Seabolt so far. Through the months leading up to this moment, Seabolt had simply refused to accept the disappearance of her free-spirited fraternal twin. Instead the mother of two devoted her life to cracking the case—following up on even the slightest of clues, breaking into Lisa’s home in search of evidence and relentlessly badgering a sheriff’s department she felt was indifferent at best. “Lisa was a nobody to them,” says Seabolt, her voice tinged with anger. “She was involved with people who did drugs. Her life didn’t seem to matter.” In a desperate hunt for clues, Seabolt at one point even dressed and acted like her troubled twin, in order to be accepted in Lisa’s twilight world of bikers and crystal meth addicts. “Teresa felt like Lisa’s spirit was inside her, telling her which way to turn,” says her older brother Rick Seabolt, 42. “The psychological bond between them helped Teresa find the answers.”
In trying to avenge her sister’s death, Seabolt was playing a familiar role—her fragile twin’s guardian angel. Even in childhood photos, the difference between the sisters, who looked so much alike, is striking. “I’m always the one smiling,” says Seabolt. “Lisa had this inner sadness. I was always the protector.”
And there was a lot to protect Lisa from. The twins were the unplanned daughters of Clyde Seabolt, an electric-company foreman in Bakersfield, and his wife, Ethelyne, a homemaker and Sunday school teacher, who already had three sons. Clyde, an alcoholic father who abused the girls’ mother, died following a barroom brawl in 1963. The boys moved in with their paternal grandfather, while the twins, then 3, were shipped off to an aunt and uncle in Muskogee, Okla. “They weren’t very loving,” says Seabolt, forbidden by her aunt from contacting her mother, who had gradually become an alcoholic. Being raised separately from their brothers strengthened the bond between the girls. Says Rick, “Teresa became like a mother to Lisa.”
While Teresa did well in school, her tomboyish sister ran wild with their older male cousins. “I would always do her homework,” says Seabolt. “When she would pee the bed, I’d change the sheets so she wouldn’t get in trouble.” Unlike Teresa, who won science contests, Lisa spent her high school years drinking and smoking pot. In 1975, at 15, Lisa persuaded Teresa to move back to Bakersfield with her. But the twins’ happy reunion with their mother and their brothers, who had returned home 11 years earlier, proved short-lived: Ethelyne died of heart-and-lung disease in 1985. Two months later, Lisa tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of prescription medication.
Things improved in 1987, when Lisa, unemployed at the time, met Bryce Thomas. A successful oil-field mechanic, Thomas, 25, “looked like an all-American guy,” says Seabolt. “All of Lisa’s drugs and drinking stopped. I no longer had to worry about her.” Lisa gave birth to a daughter, Christine, in October 1987. She and Thomas married the following year and had daughter Breana four years later. But her troubles were not over. “Bryce was abusive,” says Lisa’s friend Patricia Kirk. “I saw him throw the kids around a bit.”
Lisa also became addicted to the drug methamphetamine. “She was just a lost soul then,” says Kirk. When Lisa fell in love with another meth user and decided to leave Thomas, Seabolt agreed to babysit her nieces for four days while Lisa moved into a new apartment. (Meanwhile, Teresa was breaking up with her sometime boyfriend, Terry Nelson, a sound engineer who is the father of her two children.) On Aug. 11, 1996, she talked to an upbeat Lisa on the phone, and the two agreed to celebrate their newfound freedom later that week at the beach. But Lisa failed to come for her kids two days later, as planned. “I kept calling and calling and couldn’t get her,” says Seabolt, who had never known Lisa to be careless when it came to her daughters
Alarmed, she phoned Thomas, who said he believed Lisa had run away with her new boyfriend. Acting heart broken, he came by and picked up the girls, but as the days passed Seabolt grew suspicious. She began calling around and soon discovered that Lisa’s boyfriend was in prison. “That’s when I knew my sister was dead,” she says. Eight days after Lisa’s disappearance, she filed a missing persons report.
So began Seabolt’s journey toward justice. She drove to confront Thomas at his Bakersfield home but found no one there. Seeing Lisa’s car in the driveway, she climbed to an unlocked second-story window and crawled through. Inside she stripped Lisa’s bed in a hunt for clues. “I put my hands between the mattress and box springs and it was all wet,” she says. “When I saw the blood, I immediately felt Lisa’s spirit grab me.”
Seabolt dialed 911 and reported her findings. When Thomas was brought in for questioning, detectives found a loaded gun and a suicide note in his truck, yet he was released. The problem: no body. With financial help from her former boyfriend, Seabolt organized searches using bloodhounds and divers, to no avail. “Bryce had access to 50,000 oil wells and 20,000 sumps,” she says. “He had millions of places to hide a body.”
But the real problem, Seabolt insists, was that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department approached the case in a leisurely fashion, waiting a year before even testing the blood on Lisa’s mattress. Sgt. Rosemary Wahl, the lead investigator, says she went by the book. “We had to establish that we were working a murder investigation,” argues Wahl. “We had to prove Lisa was nowhere to be found, and that takes time. Teresa wanted everything to happen immediately.”
Or sooner. Seabolt called Sergeant Wahl nearly every day, prodding her to arrest Thomas. She also began dressing like her twin, wearing miniskirts and halter tops and befriending two drug dealers—the last people to have seen Lisa alive—in order to establish a time line for the murder. “She felt like Lisa almost took her over,” says Rick. “Even Lisa’s daughter Christine said, ‘You’re acting just like my mom.’ ”
Finally, Seabolt gathered enough circumstantial evidence—including a $200 check she had given Lisa that turned up in Thomas’s possession—to force an arrest. At the murder trial, which began on March 3, 1998, Seabolt testified for 10 hours over three days, and a forensic expert argued that the tiny blood spatters on a wall and curtains in Lisa’s bedroom suggested she had died from blunt-force trauma. Thomas took the stand and “did a good job of acting sympathetic,” says Rick.
After more than three days of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict. Seabolt pulled up to the courthouse too late to hear it read, but saw a friend waving frantically and yelling something over and over—”Guilty!” Seabolt felt the tears stream down her cheeks. “It was like the world had been lifted off my shoulders,” she says. Donnalee Huffman, Thomas’s attorney, observes, “I don’t think the jury would have convicted without her. Her tenacity is what did it.”
But Thomas was not finished either. He filed a motion for a new trial, and from his cell in the Lerdo Detention Facility hatched a plot to kill Teresa, the primary witness against him. Thomas solicited a fellow inmate to help him with his intricate plan and also revealed gruesome details of Lisa’s murder: He had put her body in a 55-gallon oil drum, doused her with gasoline and let her burn for four hours.
The inmate alerted police, and Thomas wound up discussing the plot on the telephone with an undercover officer posing as a hit man. Last November, Thomas was sentenced to 12 years for the murder-for-hire plot, to be served before the 15-years-to-life he had received for killing Lisa. Meanwhile, Seabolt was named Witness of the Year by the California District Attorneys Association. More important, she was awarded permanent custody of Lisa’s daughters, Christine, now 11, and Breana, 7.
Today, Seabolt and her brood—Lisa’s girls and her own children, Kyle, 7, and Keana, 5—live in a house owned by Terry Nelson in Oak View, not far from Santa Barbara. Seabolt hopes to enroll in a work training program to get off public assistance. But her dream is to one day go to law school and—in memory of Lisa—become an advocate for the women and children suffering the kind of abuse with which she is all too familiar. “If I didn’t get Bryce to prison, then Lisa’s little girls were going to be in the same situation,” Seabolt says. “They were going to be abused, addicted or suicidal, and the vicious cycle would continue. I want it to end.”
Lyndon Stambler in Oak View