26 | The Ballad of Tom Gussie

I met her on the mountain, there I took her life

Met her on the mountain, stabbed her with my knife

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, The Kingston Trio

Defense lawyer Gary Lozow recommends that investigators look in another direction that evidence had pointed to then and now: to Thomas Gussie, a convicted burglar.

Gussie, who died in 2000 at the age of 48, left fingerprints at the house and a witness who was shingling a roof on the street identified him visiting the house that day, Lozow said. Gussie moved to California shortly after the murder in 1973 and was soon convicted of a very similar burglary in which he was caught piling possessions in a garage, he said.

Gussie had a drug-and-violence background, Lozow said. He was a man of the streets.

The Denver Post, October 26, 2008

The Kingston Trio’s Ballad of Tom Dooley hit #1 on the Billboard chart in 1958. Based on an old folk tune about a Civil War era murder, the song posed a tragic triangle of Tom, his lover Laura Foster, and a sheriff named Grayson who hauled Tom in for killing Laura. History reveals another triangle: Tom, Laura, and Ann Melton, the woman with whom Tom had been sleeping since he was 12. Some locals believed Ann killed Laura, and that Tom went to the gallows for Ann. In Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley, North Carolina historian John Foster West tells a grittier tale.

When rebel soldier Tom Dula (Dooley) returned to the hill country after the war, he took up not just with Ann and Laura, but also with their cousin Pauline. Pauline gave Tom syphilis, and he gave it to Ann and Laura. Tom blamed Laura for infecting him. Perhaps egged on by Ann, he lured Laura to her death on the mountain by promising to marry her. At trial Pauline was the star witness against Tom. In 1866 and 1958, a love triangle was sexier than syphilis.

Like Tom Dooley, Tom Gussie was remade for an audience.

Gussie’s first run-in with the law was for stealing ice cream out of the back of a truck. When he was 18, he took the rap for his kid brother on a marijuana charge. Four days after his 21st birthday, and six weeks after Betty’s murder, he and a young sidekick were nabbed trying to break into Georgia Boys, a burger joint a mile and a half from the Frye house. They were taken to the Arapahoe County Jail.

Defense investigator Blake seized the moment. Claiming he’d found prints at the house, he talked the DA into giving him Gussie’s prints to compare. Blake was the only one who ever said the prints he’d found matched Gussie’s, and by the time the DA asked Blake for his set they’d disappeared.

Randy Peterson, the carpenter on the roof cater-corner to the Fryes, described the man in Duane’s backyard as five-nine, with a slim build and dark hair. Blake told the cops the man Peterson saw was blond and five-eleven. In 1973, Gussie was five-eleven, blond and 175 pounds. Peterson later said the man he’d seen was in his late twenties or thirties. (He also remembered Blake as a retired New York cop who was easygoing and fair. Blake told him Duane and Betty had been having problems but were working things out.)

Gussie agreed to be polygraphed on Betty’s murder. The test was scheduled for December 1973. There is no record of the results, but his sidekick took a polygraph and passed. Neither of them was charged in Betty’s murder, or even for the Georgia Boys caper.

The “very similar burglary” Lozow fed The Post occurred in Sacramento, California 17 years after Betty was murdered. Gussie climbed through an unlocked window of an empty house, offered no resistance when caught, and never denied what he’d done. The eagle on his chest and pink panther on his arm, the mug shots with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, the rap sheet for careless driving, failed burglaries and DUIs, tell not the drugs-and-violence tale of a man of the streets, but a nonviolent alcoholic’s life of petty crime.

Disabled and suffering mild brain damage from a motorcycle accident, Gussie returned to Colorado to live with the brother for whom he’d taken the rap 30 years earlier. In 2000, when he died of cirrhosis, the responding officer reported his kid brother wept.

Do we need folk heroes?

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