Airing It Out

A new book by a best-selling author promises to make national news of a mysterious death in South Jersey.

By Brian Hickey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 4, 2002

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Her sister's mysterious unsolved death may soon draw national attention, but Wendy Rose Mahdi has more on her mind than the new book that looks into whether an airbag--or a philandering husband--killed her sister, Tracy Thomas, more than five years ago.

Scheduled for release this month, Lawrence Schiller's Cape May Court House: A Death in the Night might serve to reignite an already muddled debate. (The author's slated for an appearance on the Today show later this month.)

Thomas' family has been fighting for years to get people to acknowledge their belief that her husband, Eric Thomas, a prominent South Jersey dentist, killed her (or had her killed) so he could pursue a relationship with the high school sweetheart he later married.

Eric Thomas, who's denied any wrong- doing all along, has police and autopsy results supporting his stance that his wife died when an airbag activated during a one-car accident on a snowy, desolate South Jersey road.

The book's unlikely to affect much change, as initial investigations and reopened probes--prompted by an independent forensic pathologist who found signs of strangulation after the victim's husband filed a (since-abandoned) product-liability suit against the Ford Motor Company--have already supported Eric Thomas' version.

While some figured that would bring some sort of closure, it served only to briefly take the case out of the headlines.

Despite the findings, Tracy Thomas' family filed a wrongful death suit this past March, hoping the lower burden-of-proof needed to win a civil case could translate to victory this time around. But in doing so, the family members appear to have invited only more pain into their lives.

Eric Thomas petitioned a Family Court judge in Cape May Court House to limit the family's visitation rights with his now 7-year-old daughter, Alix. (Eric and Tracy were driving their young daughter to an area hospital the night of the 1997 accident.)

Though there had been tension between Tracy's and Eric's families for years, their daughter, Alix, had spent more than a week at a time at the victim's sister's North Jersey home and in Tracy's family's hometown of Cape Cod, Mass. Backing Eric's request, the judge changed those conditions to limit Tracy's family to supervised day visits in South Jersey.

Tracy's family hasn't seen Alix since that July decision, and both the wrongful-death suit and a petition to award full custody to Tracy's mother remain in limbo.

"They said things had changed since we filed the suit, that we pushed the envelope by doing that," says Mahdi. "[The custody ruling] is for the time being, allegedly, but who knows."

Mahdi hopes a court-appointed guardian will change Alix's visitation conditions in the near future, but has gotten no such guarantees. Eric Thomas' attorney, David DeWeese--his recent appointment to a municipal judge post has Tracy's family crying foul--didn't return calls for comment.

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