AZALEA, Ore. — Larry Gibson worked as a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.
At 11:30 a.m. on March 18, 1991, Gibson’s youngest child, Thomas Dean “Tommy” Gibson, two years old, went outside to play while Gibson headed out for a jog.
Gibson usually carried a .45-caliber pistol in a shoulder holster because of a problem with stray cats living on his property. He claimed he shot a neighbor’s cat but thought he had missed and resumed his jog. Authorities later found a dead cat on the lawn near where his son had played in the yard.
When Gibson returned home 45 minutes later, his wife asked if Tommy was with him, but he said no. They searched on and around the property and briefly thought Tommy might have followed Gibson on his jog. When they failed to locate him, Gibson called the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Judy Gibson told police she still heard Tommy playing outside after her husband shot the cat. She further said she heard a car idling nearby around the time Tommy disappeared.
A three-day search by over 200 law enforcement officials and volunteers produced no results. The Gibsons thought someone had kidnapped their son, but no one in the area, including mail carriers, saw anyone or anything suspicious.
Detectives believed that Gibson killed his son, either accidentally or intentionally, when he shot the cat.
Three months later, Tommy’s eldest sister Karen Gibson, then four years old, told investigators she saw a man and woman in a car kidnap her brother. She was scared and could not remember details, so she remained quiet.
Gibson resigned from his deputy position after 12 years of service. In January 1992, the family moved to their native state Montana. Gibson and his wife still insisted that someone had kidnapped their son.
Two airings of Tommy Gibson’s disappearance on the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” brought no leads in the case.
Gibson and his wife separated in 1994.
Gibson was the last person to see his son alive. Investigators were suspicious of him from the start for a few reasons.
He had no mud on his clothing even though mud puddles were present along his jogging route and the property.
There were 20 minutes of unaccounted time in his story – “the difference between how far he said he went on that jog and how long it took him to return home,” wrote Mea Andrews of the Missoulian.
There were also seven miles unaccounted for on his patrol car’s odometer. Gibson claimed he drove to a rest area looking for Tommy. The police did not search his vehicle until weeks later and found nothing.
In March 1994, Judy Gibson and Karen Gibson changed their stories in Tommy’s disappearance. They told detectives that Karen had witnessed her father hit Tommy several times from her bedroom window.
She could see her father “on the porch and hear his shoes, and he brought back a bag, a big white garbage bag, with something in it, something little and black. And then Dad put it in the trunk and shut the trunk,” Karen said. Afterward, her father drove off in his patrol car.
That account differed from the one Karen initially gave in 1991 — that she saw a couple in a car abduct Tommy from the yard.
In April 1994, Montana authorities arrested Gibson at his grandmother’s home in Townsend on manslaughter charges; he waived extradition. His wife took the couple’s other children and moved back to Oregon.
The trial took place in January 1995. Meaghan Good of The Charley Project wrote, “Prosecutors argued that Gibson had a history of abusing his children and was under stress at the time of Thomas’s disappearance, as he had to care for the children while his wife was taking college classes. They theorized that, if he did not accidentally shoot his son, Gibson lost his temper and beat the child to death.”
Karen Gibson, the prosecution’s star witness, testified that she stayed inside looking for a shoe in her bedroom closet when Tommy went outside to play, followed by her father.
Tommy called out for his sister. Karen looked out the window and saw her father order her brother to pick up broken bottle pieces. Gibson then pushed Tommy and smacked him across the cheeks while holding the toddler’s hands behind his back. He proceeded to strike Tommy an additional four times, and the boy fell limp to the ground.
Karen became frightened and hid in her bedroom closet. Her father told her to never speak of what she saw but say to the police strangers had taken Tommy.
“He told me if I ever told the truth, I would be in trouble for the rest of my life,” Karen said.
Under questioning by District Attorney Ted Zacher, Judy Gibson told the court that her husband had abused their children daily. But during cross-examination, she backtracked the abuse claim a bit after defense lawyer Alan Scott repeatedly asked if her husband had hit their children more than once a day.
“Every time they got in his way, they got hit, or they got yelled at or got knocked across the room,” she replied.
Larry Gibson’s half-sister Debbie Calek told the court that Gibson frantically called her about two months after Tommy’s disappearance. During the call, he confessed that he accidentally killed his son while shooting a neighbor’s cat.
Calek also said that Judy Gibson and the children stayed with her in 1994 in Iowa. One day, Karen watched an episode of the “Flintstones” that showed a picture of a hole. She told Calek she did not want her father to “put her in a big hole like he did Tommy.”
Scott countered that Tommy Gibson’s fate was unknown, and he could have been kidnapped or drowned in a creek.
Gibson took the witness stand and denied he abused his children, although he admitted he lightly slapped Karen in the face and once spanked her extremely hard.
He also recounted his version of events on March 18, 1991, when his son vanished without a trace. Tommy was playing in the yard when he headed out for a jog. Tommy said to his father, “Goodbye, Daddy, I love you.” Gibson waved and said he loved him, too.
Gibson saw a neighbor’s cat on his property near where Tommy was playing and shot it, then continued up the road on his jog. When he returned, his son was missing.
Gibson was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. At the sentencing hearing in early May 1995, Zacher said, “Counting the time Gibson has already spent in jail since his arrest last year, he will be eligible for release in 23 months.”
He was released on September 6, 1996, for good behavior and time served. Afterward, Oregon officials closed Tommy’s case and said they were no longer looking for him.
Thomas Dean Gibson has never been found. He was the youngest missing child featured in the music video for Soul Asylum’s 1993 hit, “Runaway Train.” The video featured 36 missing children, and 24 of them were later found.
Gibson has always maintained his innocence in his son’s disappearance and set up a website in 2001 to help find him. He still lives in Montana and plays in a band.
According to their Facebook profiles, Judy and Karen Gibson both live in North Carolina. Karen is now in her 30s and married.
True Crime Diva’s Thoughts
I wrote about this case because Tommy has not been found, and I want you to remember his sweet little face. While it seems obvious who killed him, there is no evidence to prove it.
On the one hand, I think Gibson killed his son. On the other, I’m leery of his wife and daughter changing their stories AFTER he and Judy separated to say he abused and killed Tommy. Maybe they waited because they were afraid of him.
Karen’s changed version of events the day Tommy disappeared is a bit strange. She said her dad ordered the toddler to pick up broken bottle pieces. I do not know of many parents who would order their toddler to do that for fear of the child hurting himself. However, if Gibson was abusive, then he probably didn’t care.
After Tommy fell to the ground, Karen said her father put him in a garbage bag and drove off. That would suggest he intentionally killed him or had panicked. He was a cop, so if he accidentally or unintentionally killed him, why did he not call for help?
Gibson said the seven miles unaccounted for on his patrol car’s odometer was from driving to a rest area to look for Tommy. Maybe there was one close in 1992, but today’s nearest rest area is 17 miles from Azalea.
There is also the 20 minutes unaccounted for – what was Gibson doing during this time?
What do you think happened to Tommy Gibson?