Gene Thomas choked back tears while listening to the song he wrote for his daughter Carrie, who was killed during a robbery one year ago.
Things were good. / Life was bright. / She was on her way. / One selfish, senseless act / it was all wiped away.
“It doesn’t matter how many times I hear that song, it still gets to me,” Thomas said, wiping his eyes.
Writing the song, “Purple Stars and Penguins,” helped him cope with the grief since Carrie Thomas, 23, was shot to death. She was killed before midnight March 27, 2011, during a robbery at the Visterra Credit Union off Cactus Avenue in Moreno Valley.
She had just finished her night shift as assistant manager at Shakey’s Pizza.
The title and chorus are named after her affinity for penguins, her favorite color and her love of star-gazing.
Each day of our shattered lives / we have to ask God why. / Purple stars and penguins will always cloud my eyes.
As the family marks the one-year anniversary of her death, investigators are no closer to catching her killer. The only solid lead is a grainy ATM photo that captured a man as he fled the scene.
Visterra Credit Union has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.
The family has rented a billboard alongside the Ramona Expressway and Cajalco Road near Interstate 215 in Perris. It reads, “Help me find my killer,” and features the ATM photo of the suspect and a photo of Carrie Thomas.
Riverside County sheriff’s homicide detectives said the case has not yet gone cold and a few leads trickle in from those who see the billboard. So far, none has panned out.
“We just want people to keep doing what they’re doing,” Sgt. Herman Lopez said. “If they think they know something, let us know.”
Last week, Gene Thomas, 57, sat in his daughter’s former room, which the family has turned into a memorial for Carrie. It’s filled with photos, stuffed penguins and the same kitten calendar she kept her work schedule on.
It included that fateful night where she worked the late shift at Shakey’s Pizza in Moreno Valley, “4-close,” she noted.
“She always said, ‘You never say goodbye,’ so it was always, ‘I’ll see you later,’ ” Gene Thomas said.
‘Love that killed her’
The Thomas family and police do not believe Carrie knew her killer.
She was going to the bank just before midnight when her shift ended. She planned to withdraw money to lease a house she was going to share with her boyfriend and his 2-year-old son.
She expressed reservations to her boyfriend, Ryan Hassan, about going to the bank so late but agreed to get the money so they could make the house payment the next morning.
“It was love that killed her,” Gene Thomas said.
As she pulled into the drive-through ATM to make the withdrawal, she was accosted by a man with a gun. He shot Thomas, and she crashed her black Mazda into a light pole. Police have not said how much money was taken.
When she didn’t come home, Hassan went to look for her. He found her in the wrecked car. He called her parents, who went to Riverside County Regional Medical Center, believing she was being treated for injuries.
Her parents waited in a secluded room until a doctor and two police officers arrived to tell them that she had been shot and had no chance of survival. She was taken off life support and died about 4 a.m. March 28.
“We were astounded,” Carrie’s mother LaDonna Thomas, 58, said. “We had no idea.”
The family believes the gunman was waiting at the bank and Carrie Thomas was the first available target.
“It was senseless and extremely violent and needless,” her mother said. “It makes no sense. It makes me wonder, why did it have to be her? She just happened to be stopped there.”
Waiting for a suspect
Friends and family said Carrie Thomas’ death has left a void, and they’ll never forget her infectious smile and goofy, fun loving spirit.
Her father said he wrote the song to channel his emotions and honor his daughter’s free spirit.
As much as the family tries to accept the loss, they feel incomplete without knowing who took their daughter’s life.
They rented the billboard and modeled it after one for 10-year-old Anthony Martinez. Anthony’s billboard generated hundreds of tips after the Beaumont boy’s 1997 abduction and murder, but none led to his killer.
Joseph Edward Duncan III was found eight years later thanks to a fingerprint match. Duncan had been arrested for different murders in Idaho.
Police have no DNA evidence from the scene of Carrie Thomas’ killing. The bank’s camera’s filmed the shooting, but there is no video footage, only still photographs.
“We still think there’s someone out there that knows who did this,” Gene Thomas said. “He’s still out there. … Our only hope is if he trips himself up.”
To report tips
Moreno Valley police are asking anyone information to call them at 951-486-6700 or the central homicide unit at 760-393-3500.