GRASS VALLEY (CBS13) — It’s a nightmare that haunted a Northern California woman for more than four decades, except in this case she says it’s real.
After 42 long years, Wendy Peck is speaking publicly for the first time, saying her mother drowned her baby sister.
“She was standing in the tub, holding Cindy’s legs up in the air, and Cindy was under the water,” Peck said.
Police were suspicious about Cindy Howell’s death in 1970 but they didn’t have any evidence, until Peck came forward.
Peck was just 5 when she found her baby sister floating in the tub.
“I thought she was sleeping, and I tried to wake her,” Peck said.
But the brown-haired, green-eyed girl never woke up. The cause of death: asphyxia because of drowning.
“We didn’t talk about Cindy or what had happened that day,” Peck said.
That day was May 25, 1970, and Peck never said a word, holding it in as long as she could.
In 2011, she wrote a letter that made its way to Auburn Police Det. Dustin McLaughlin. That letter turned a closed case into a murder investigation.
“She felt she had a bunch of secrets in her family, and she wanted the secrets to come out,” McLaughlin said.
Before Peck discovered her sister’s body, she saw her in the tub, alive, and Peck says her mother was right there with her.
“When I walked into the bathroom, she was standing in the tub, holding Cindy’s legs up in the air, and Cindy was under the water. She hollered at me to leave,” Peck said.
Minutes later, she would find her sister floating in the bathtub.
“I just couldn’t wake her,” Peck said.
But it took police more than 42 years to arrest Patricia Thomas for the murder of her daughter.
The big break came after investigators secretly recorded a meeting between Thomas and Peck, where Wendy pressed for answers.
“She said she didn’t know if she could trust me, and I told her that she could. And she said she didn’t mean to, but she bumped Cindy’s head on the bathtub faucet and left her there. I asked her if Cindy was unconscious when she left the bathroom, and she nodded yes. I said you left her there for me to find, and she nodded yes.”
Police say it was the confession they needed, but their murder case fell apart since a lot of the original people involved weren’t alive.
Although prosecutors said they had enough evidence, they admitted it would be difficult to prove Thomas murdered her daughter. Thomas would plead down to child endangerment and receive just 5 years probation.
“I had to respect what the courts said,” Peck said. “It was never about my mom being convicted of murder; it was about me healing.”
Although Thomas won’t spend a day in prison, Peck feels her sister is finally resting in peace.
Thomas lives with her husband in their small Grass Valley home. She never answered the door for our cameras.
It’s likely mother and daughter will never speak again, a relationship severed by secrets, and the journey to reveal truth.
“Just wish she would’ve told the truth,” Peck said. She’s put a lot of people in a lot of pain.”
Peck claims when she tried to tell the truth decades ago, her mother would beat her, and that kept her from coming forward for so long.
She’s now writing a book about abuse and starting a foundation in Cindy’s name.
We called Thomas for a comment, and she responded through email recently.
She wrote in part, “I’m deeply sorry that my daughter has false beliefs and false recollections. As I stated to the police in interviews 43 years ago, I left my 4-1/2-[year]-old daughter in the bathtub briefly to attend to my infant son. I will forever regret that decision. I will continue … to pray for the healing of my family, including Wendy Lee. I have no comment on the false and outrageous statements of Wendy Lee.”