Accused of raping and killing a fellow sailor, Thomas Solheim sunk deeper into depression and prayer as the weight of criminal allegations tarnished his reputation and pulled him down.
Saddled with an ankle monitoring bracelet and mostly confined to his New York home, the 56-year-old suspect had nothing but time to ponder his fate as he awaited trial in the 1992 killing of James Horton in Berkeley County.
“He constantly reached out to our office just to talk,” his Charleston lawyer, Andy Savage, said. “All he had was 24 hours a day to think about this.”
When Savage got the call in January that Solheim had died after collapsing in his Long Island church in an apparent suicide, the news seemed deeply ironic. Faith had become Solheim’s primary refuge; his church, a harbor of peace and solace, one of the few places he could venture outside his home.
The Rev. Mike Reider, pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Montauk, N.Y., said most people in the church were aware of Solheim’s legal troubles, but the allegations just didn’t square with the man they’d come to know.
“I can’t imagine this man I knew for almost four years could have done anything near what he was accused of,” Reider said. “He was just a wonderful, simple, prayerful man.”
Savage thought so too, and Solheim’s insistence on his innocence echoed in his attorney’s head. So Savage and his staff set out to rectify what they considered to be an injustice and a case of wrongful arrest.
After the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office posthumously dismissed its case against Solheim, Savage successfully petitioned the court to expunge the charges from his record to clear his name.
“For me and for our office, he had become one of those special guys you look out for above and beyond the legal ramifications,” Savage said. “So we did this to give some peace to his family.”
Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, whose office did not oppose the request to expunge Solheim’s charges, said state law on expungements bars her from commenting on the matter.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which broke the cold case, also had no comment on the development.
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, Solheim’s death will have in the proceedings against two of his former co-defendants in the case. A third codefendant has already been exonerated, and attorneys are pushing to get a key confession tossed out.
Wilson said only that she is waiting an order scheduling the case for trial.
A grisly death
In 2010, Solheim was one of four people accused of participating in the beating, gang rape and killing of Horton in Berkeley County. Horton, 22, was stationed at the former Charleston Naval Base, assigned to the ocean minesweeper Exultant, when his body was found in a drainage ditch off Sheep Island Road on Nov. 14, 1992.
Horton lay face down in about 4 feet of water with his hands tied behind his back. He had been shot in the chest, struck on the head with a blunt object and sexually assaulted.
Solheim was a gunner’s mate who served aboard the Exultant. A former codefendant in the case, Doug Emery, told investigators that Horton had walked in on Solheim having gay sex, which at the time was potentially career-ending conduct, and Solheim was angry.
Another co-defendant, Konnie Glidden, later gave a confession implicating herself, Solheim, Emery and Charles Welty in the grisly killing. That led to the arrest of all four, though the charges against Emery have since been dropped.
Glidden has maintained that her confession was coerced after a grueling interrogation led by an NCIS agent, and that it was all a pack of lies brought on by an emotional meltdown.
Her attorney, Kate Landess, said she recently learned that the lead investigator, NCIS Agent Stanley Garland, is slated to be reassigned outside the country at the end of June, which could further undermine the prosecution. She said she is hopeful the case against Glidden will be dismissed soon.
Garland did not respond to an email seeking comment on his status.
Savage said the government’s case was weak from the start, based on “pure conjecture and speculation” rather than hard evidence. Tests of DNA found on rope used to bind Horton excluded Solheim, and prosecutors still hadn’t sought to indict him in the killing three years after his arrest, he said.
Still, the allegations haunted Solheim as he struggled with the stigma of being an accused murderer and sex offender, Savage said.
“He was clearly depressed,” he said. “And he became very obsessive about his religious beliefs, with saying the rosary every day and saying his Catholic prayers.”
A faith reborn
Reider, his pastor, said Solheim was under suspicion in the case when he first came to the church about four years ago looking to reconnect with God. For a while, Solheim just silently sat in the church for long periods before he finally approached an elderly parishioner with a request, he said.
“One day, he just went up to her and said ‘Can you teach me how to pray?’” he said.
Solheim learned that and much more, becoming a devoted parishioner and a member of the church choir, Reider said. “He said ‘I just need to find my relationship with God,’” he said. “And he did so with a fervor.”
When a detective came to the church to ask Solheim for a DNA sample, he readily agreed, though Reider reminded him that he was in a sanctuary and had the right to refuse.
“He said ‘I want them to take the sample because it’s going to clear me,’” Reider said.
Instead, in July 2010, investigators arrested Solheim and he spent months in the Berkeley County jail before he was granted bail. During that time, his mother died. When he returned home, he regularly visited her grave and prayed for her and the people buried around her, Reider said.
The day he died, Solheim was at church awaiting choir practice. He collapsed and became unresponsive, reportedly from an overdose of pills.
East Hampton Town Police Lt. Chris Anderson said Solheim’s death was determined to be a suicide.
Reider said he has doubts about that finding, particularly after one of Solheim’s relatives explained that he had been having problems with the dosage of some medication he was on. The priest has even greater doubts that Solheim had anything to do with Horton’s murder.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s clear. There is no way the man I knew could have done the things he was accused of,” he said. “No way.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.