NewsKATC Investigates


The Disappearance of Joyce Thomas

The investigation that led to her killer
Posted: 1:40 PM, Apr 29, 2021
Updated: 2021-05-01 00:13:04-04
Joyce Thomas.jpg

About a month ago Phillip Dewoody pleaded guilty to murdering Joyce Thomas, just a few weeks after the first anniversary of her death. After lying about what happened for roughly six months, he finally confessed, and later was indicted. At the same time, he pleaded guilty to the abduction and sexual assault of another woman, and for these crimes he’s now serving three life sentences. Because his case is now closed, the investigative file has become public record.

KATC Investigates has obtained that file.

In reviewing more than 400 pages of documents, as well as photos, video and audio, a few things become clear. First, investigators with multiple agencies - small-town police officers, parish sheriffs, state troopers and federal agents - worked together around the clock to find Joyce and determine what happened to her. They used warrants, plate-readers, surveillance video, searches and even a helicopter to try to find her during the days after her daughter walked into the Ville Platte Police Department looking for help.

But something else is very clear: Joyce was dead before the sun went down on the day she disappeared with Phillip Dewoody. He lied repeatedly about that day, but the activity on Dewoody's credit card tells the story: He bought three bottles of bleach at 9 a.m. in Opelousas, got his tire fixed and bought some gas in Ville Platte around 10:20 a.m. At about 10:45 a.m., a Meals on Wheels driver saw Joyce leave her apartment with Dewoody. After 11 a.m., he bought two drinks and some gum at a gas station. The calls to her children started around 12:30 p.m. The time stamp on the ransom video was about 1 p.m. and by 3 p.m., Dewoody was at the Carencro Walmart, buying clothes to replace the ones he had been wearing. At 4:30 p.m. he was washing his car and at 8:30 p.m. he was buying his girlfriend dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Lafayette.

Images of receipts showing purchase of clothes and bleach

This is the story that more than 400 pages of documents tell about what happened to Joyce, and the investigation that led police to her killer:

Joyce Thomas lived in an apartment in Ville Platte. She had grown kids, and she liked to go to the casino. Evangeline Downs was her favorite. She was deaf, and she couldn’t speak. She communicated using hand gestures, and by writing things down.

One day she was at the Walmart near her home and was having some difficulty communicating with an employee. Phillip Dewoody saw what was happening, and went over to help. Eventually, he would murder her in a vacant St. Landry Parish lot. He poured bleach on her body to cover his tracks, dragged branches to conceal her body and walked away.

After they first met at the store, Dewoody and Joyce would see each other periodically, because she didn’t have a car and he did. He would give her rides to various places, including the store and the casino. Sometimes he took her to an Opelousas company that offered subprime loans -meaning they make high-interest loans to people without a lot of collateral or poor credit. Joyce and Dewoody communicated using an app on his phone.

In February of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, their relationship was such that he went to her apartment sometimes to pick her up, and she kept her handicap parking placard in his silver four-door Toyota.

Joyce was 72 years old, and she would not live to see March.

Philllip Dewoody’s criminal history included his first homicide at the age of 12. To read about his past, click here and here. The system worked in his case, to a certain extent. He was sitting in prison with more than 90 years left on his armed robbery and kidnapping sentences in June 2019 when the Louisiana pardon board let him out early, after a 15-minute discussion that focused almost entirely on his love of wood carving. The vote was unanimous. Less than a year later, he would murder Joyce with a knife. To hear that meeting, click here. 

The story of the investigation into Joyce’s murder starts three weeks before her death, at about 6 a.m. on February 2, when she had been at a casino for more than two days. She was trying to get home, but couldn’t get a ride. An employee of the casino was trying to help, but Joyce had only five names in her cell phone and none of those people could come pick her up. At one point, Joyce wrote “call Phil” and gave the employee a number. Phil said he knew Joyce and did give her rides, but he wasn’t available that day. Eventually, the employee used petty cash to put Joyce in a cab, but told her that if she got stuck at the casino again they’d have to call the police.

Mug shot of Phillip DeWoody / KATC

At this time, Dewoody was living in Opelousas. He’s a tall white man with a head of white hair and glasses. After a year in prison he now has long hair and a shaggy beard, but in February 2020 he was clean shaven, with a neat haircut. He had been at a halfway house after his early release in the summer of 2019, but since that time had moved in with a young woman who had an apartment on Kerr Street. He was working as a butcher at a local grocery store, where he was known for disappearing for an hour or two every afternoon and complaining about the size of his paycheck.

On February 22, a woman flagged down an Opelousas Police Officer on patrol and said she believed her mother was sexually assaulted. The victim had suffered several strokes and couldn’t speak very well, and because of lingering paralysis on one side of her body she needed help with daily living activities. She told her daughter she was walking to the store when a white man with white hair drove past in a silver, four-door car. He pulled over to talk to her, then dragged her into the vehicle and took her to an abandoned lot off the Interstate. He sexually assaulted her, cut her feeding tube, and then took her back to where he picked her up and dropped her off.

On February 26, a Meals on Wheels driver dropped off food for Joyce, as he does every day. He noticed a white man with white hair outside her apartment, holding Joyce’s purse. He watched Joyce leave with that man; they were in the man's grey four-door sedan. Within an hour, Joyce's family began receiving ransom calls from her phone, demanding $5,000 in exchange for her safe return, along with text messages containing video of her in what appeared to be an abandoned house. One message said "(Daughter’s name) you will listen to me and talk to me or something really bad will happen."

Joyce’s daughter went to Ville Platte police to report those calls, and VPPD Chief Neal Lartigue took her to Joyce's apartment, where they looked at the surveillance video there. The video showed Joyce getting into a four-door grey sedan with a white man with white hair. Lartigue got a picture of Dewoody’s face from that surveillance video, and then he called for help.

The FBI and State Police answered, with investigators and evidence experts. Investigators went back to Joyce's apartment and searched it. Among the things they found was a business card for "Cash Cow," the subprime loan business. Investigators went there with an image of the man Joyce left with, and employees there identified him as a man who had been at the business with Joyce on at least one occasion. They said Joyce had called them that very day, February 26, to ask when her payment was due. It was overdue, they said, but she didn't make a payment. Meanwhile, investigators had obtained information from Joyce's cell phone provider and determined that she went to Grand Coteau after leaving Ville Platte. Then it went offline.

Investigators got a name - Dewoody’s name - to match the white man in the picture, through serendipity. One investigator was traveling in the Ville Platte area, and spotted a silver four-door sedan that was similar to the one captured on surveillance at Joyce’s apartment. Two officers went to talk to the owner of the property where it was parked, and the car turned out to be a dead end. Just in case, one of those officers showed the owners that picture of Dewoody that was pulled from surveillance. The owners didn’t recognize him - but the other officer standing there did. He said It was Phil Dewoody, a guy who was dating a relative of his and worked as a butcher. He thought Dewoody lived in a halfway house in Opelousas, and pulled up his Facebook page.

Screenshot of DeWoody's Facebook profile

On February 27, investigators looked through that Facebook page for information, and reached out to another butcher at the grocery store to get his address. They also pulled his criminal record, and the registration of his vehicle - a silver four-door Toyota sedan. The butcher told investigators that Dewoody was at work on the 27th, but hadn't been at work on the 26th.

State police put Dewoody under surveillance and found him at his girlfriend’s Opelousas apartment. On February 27, they got a search warrant for the apartment and his car. While they were waiting for the warrant to arrive, there were at least eight investigators watching Dewoody's apartment that evening, and they arrested him when he went to the car. After the warrant arrived, they found a knife, as well as his girlfriend's debit card, in the apartment. They talked to the girlfriend, and she said he often used her card for purchases. They also found white bed linens with red spots, divided among several black trash bags. They took two cell phones and a tablet, and impounded his car. They left the apartment shortly after midnight.

On February 28, state police interviewed Dewoody, who said he dropped Joyce off at the Ville Platte Walmart on the 26th, and washed his car afterward. He said they had met in the Ville Platte Walmart a few months prior, and had become friends. He would take her places in his car, and use her handicapped placard for parking. He said after he dropped Joyce at the Walmart he went to Lafayette and did some shopping.

Surveillance video image of Walmart parking lot

That day, investigators got the search warrant for his cell phone. Investigators also obtained a search warrant for cell phone tower information and for Dewoody's bank account records. And they found he was lying. They "pinged" his cell phone and saw he had taken an almost identical route as Joyce's phone had on the 26th. Surveillance video did not show Dewoody or Joyce at the Ville Platte Walmart. The license plate readers in Lafayette did not pick up his car on Ambassador Caffery, and surveillance at the stores he said he visited didn’t show him there, either. Investigators booked him with aggravated kidnapping.

Also on February 28, the victim in the February 22 incident picked Dewoody out of a line-up, and that same day she took officers to the location where Dewoody assaulted her. When the detective in that incident tried to talk to Dewoody, he was told by jail personnel that Dewoody was "irate." Very soon afterward, Dewoody was transferred to Hunt Correctional.

After reviewing the ransom video, and comparing noises on it to the path of Joyce's cell phone, investigators began driving along I-49 between Sunset and Grand Coteau, looking for possible locations where Joyce could have been held. One investigator spotted an abandoned house, looked in the windows and found a mattress in a room that resembled the one in the video. After they got a search warrant, investigators searched the house and several outbuildings on the morning of February 29. They also flew over the property in a helicopter, looking for any sign of Joyce. They found nothing.

I said Hello? Anybody here. That's when he come out from the woods and I asked him. Do you live here? Do you own this property. He said no," she says of the man, later identified as Dewoody. He looked nervous, she said." The sweat pouring off of that man," she said. "He wasn't expecting that.

On the night of February 29, a woman called St. Landry dispatchers to report that she and her brother-in-law had visited an abandoned house on the I-49 service road and had seen a man in a silver four-door car, wearing a red shirt, come out of a barn on the back of the property. She reported hearing a woman's voice, which sounded muffled as if "she had socks in her mouth," coming from the barn. She said it sounded like the woman was deaf/mute. She heard the man say "sh, sh, sh, it's going to be ok." She told the dispatcher she recognized the man as the same one identified in a news report as having been arrested for kidnapping. She and her brother-in-law both were interviewed by investigators, and they both voluntarily provided DNA swabs for exclusion purposes.

Read that story here

The house and outbuildings that witness saw already had been searched. They were searched again on March 1, and evidence was collected, but they didn’t find Joyce.

But on March 2, at that same location, Joyce's body was found. And again, it was serendipity. One of the investigators went back to the same lot that already had been searched, with an ATV and a relative of Joyce’s. They were searching the woods nearby, and saw some birds circling.

They called the lead investigator to come back to the scene, and that’s when they found her body. It had been dragged to the location where it was found, and covered with branches.

The autopsy determined Joyce had been stabbed to death, and that bleach had been poured over her body.

Knife used to stab Joyce Thomas

On March 3, State Police began building a case. They executed a second search warrant for Dewoody's apartment. They took his banking records and his girlfriend's debit card. They were thinking that he used either his cards or hers to pay for the bleach and for the car wash, to clean up after murdering Joyce. During that second search, they seized a knife, a box cutter, clothes and shoes, gloves and Clorox. After testing, the clothes were found to have bleach stains on them.

Between March 3 and March 13, a State Police investigator visited every home or business location on the I-49 service road between Grand Coteau and Sunset. He spoke to every person he could find, to ask for surveillance video. He reconstructed the movements of the silver four-door car caught traveling in the area. He also pulled video from homes and businesses in Ville Platte, Opelousas and Carencro; from Dewoody's residence, locations where Dewoody purchased things (gloves, duct tape, bleach, etc.) and where he said he interacted with Joyce. In total, he made contact with more than 40 locations to request/pull surveillance video. He also spoke with Dewoody's fellow employees at the grocery store, and various law enforcement agencies that already had obtained video. In one case, he took someone’s surveillance system - with their permission - back to the State Police crime lab to download their surveillance video.

Meanwhile, on March 11, a detective interviewed Dewoody about the February 22 incident. Dewoody denied knowing the victim, denied having ever had her in his car and asked for a lawyer. The detective had a warrant, and took DNA swabs from Dewoody prior to leaving. In April, the crime lab let the detective know that DNA taken from the victim was mixed/partial, but Dewoody couldn't be excluded.

Months later, on May 26, investigators traveled to Hunt Correctional to interview Dewoody, again. And he lied, again. This time, Dewoody claimed that he had taken Joyce to a parking lot meeting with two men in an SUV, and that she left with them but returned later to tell him she was going to get some money. They then met the two men again, near a dumpster on the side of the road, and she left with them - telling Dewoody they were going to get her some money and take her to the casino. The men threatened him, he said. He says he never saw Joyce again.

Over the next several months, investigators put all their evidence together, preparing for a trial. And then serendipity intervened again. On August 11, the lead investigator got a call from Dewoody's father; the father said his son had sent him a letter to "come clean," and asked the father to contact the investigator. The father sent Dewoody's letter to the investigator. In that letter, Dewoody tells his dad the same lie he told investigators back in May; he said Joyce asked him to take her to meet two men to whom she owed $3,000. They took her to an abandoned house, the story being that they would take photos of her there and send the photos to her family. She was going to “play on her family for money,” Dewoody wrote.

But Joyce was "acting crazy" and not following instructions, and one of the men dragged Joyce out of the house and slapped her. That man had to call Joyce's children three or four times, because something "wasn't going right." The man dragged Joyce to a barn, and Dewoody wrote that he followed them because he didn't want Joyce hurt. That's when the witness and her brother-in-law drove up, and while they were talking Dewoody heard her scream. After the couple left and he went back to the barn, he found Joyce on the ground and the men asking him for gas. He gave them some of the bleach out of his car, and he left, taking Joyce's purse and phone to dump them at the Carencro Walmart, where he bought some clothes.

“I decided the thing to do was get rid of everything, buy some new clothes and go home. That’s what I did. If someone came and asked me questions, I would just deny anything. Well they came, and I lied about everything,” he wrote. “They sent me to Hunt and asked them to hold me for them. Four months later on May 26 I lied again. They charged me with first degree murder. Dad… they’re going to kill me.”

“I need to talk to the detective but I don’t know how to contact him. They have it wrong. I want to tell them the truth about it all.”

Dewoody pleaded with his father for help.

“Dad please don’t give up on me. You are all that I have. No one will be able to change this as far as my parole goes. I will be in prison forever. I don’t know how I seem to get involved with some of the dumbest things. I was doing really good. I loved being free. But my life is now on the limb for something I did not do. I was there in the capasity (sic) of Joyce, not a crime,” he wrote. “Dad, I don’t know anything. I’ve been in a cell by myself here at Hunt since my arrest. I’m a parish prisoner. I could make bond if I had the money. But I don’t know anything about all my stuff and (girlfriend) or anything, what happen to everything.”

“Dad I’m truly sorry I let you down. You were the one person that I wanted to please. It really tears me apart about this,” he wrote. “Just please don’t leave me. Please get in touch with (State Police investigator) and tell him I want to confess to him the truth. I need to see him as soon as possible. Dad, I love you. I’m sorry. Please help me.”

On August 14, investigators went to interview Dewoody again, this time about the letter he sent to his father. At first, Dewoody gave them the same lie he told his dad in the letter, saying Joyce offered to pay him $500 to help her get money from her family by faking a kidnapping. They met the two men in the black SUV at an abandoned barn, but a vehicle drove by and they left. They ended up on the other side of the Interstate at an abandoned house. They started taking pictures of Joyce, but she was waving at the camera and not cooperating, and the men got mad, Dewoody told investigators. They dragged her to a wooded area, and that's when the woman and her brother-in-law showed up. The men told Dewoody to "get rid" of the couple, and while he was talking to them he heard Joyce scream. When he went back to the barn, Joyce was lying on the ground, not moving. He didn't know if she was alive, because he didn't get too close. The men asked him for gas, and instead he gave them some of the bleach from his car. He then got into the car and fled. He drove to the Carencro Walmart where he bought new clothes, changed and dumped his old clothes. Then he threw Joyce's purse in the trash and broke her phone and threw it away. He washed his car at a carwash.

But after telling that lie, during the same interview at Hunt Correctional Center, things changed. When faced with investigators who had meticulously tracked his every movement on that February day, Dewoody finally told the truth about what he did to Joyce.

“You understand you’re being charged with first degree murder?”

It’s not clear how much of his story is true, but he finally admitted that he killed Joyce. Dewoody’s final version of the events of February 26 still attempts to hold Joyce responsible for what happened. He said Joyce owed someone $3,000 and couldn't pay it, so they came up with the kidnapping idea. She told him which of her children to call, and they went to the abandoned house to take pictures, but she was waving at the camera. He told her to act serious. He wanted to take more pictures but Joyce wouldn't and they started arguing. That's when the witness and her brother-in-law showed up, and after he talked to them he returned to Joyce. He didn't know what to do, and he was scared, so he stabbed her and left. He said she didn't want to go through with the plan, and was trying to leave, so he stabbed her. He poured bleach on her body to destroy any DNA and hide his identity, then tossed the murder weapon out of his car window while he was driving on I-49.

He had finally admitted that he killed Joyce, and that no one else was involved.

See more on how investigators determined that DeWoody was Joyce Thomas' killer

Investigators searched all the locations he described, but couldn't find Joyce's phone or the knife. He told them that he had hidden Joyce's debit card and EBT card in the walls of his apartment, and told police where to find them. Police got a third warrant for that apartment, and then they went looking for the knife again - and this time they found it.

Maps DeWoody drew showing where he hid items

On August 20, Dewoody was transferred to the St. Landry jail. He gave investigators in Joyce's case more details about where he dumped the evidence. He also said he wanted to tell his side of the story about the February 22 incident, so he waived his rights and consented to an interview. Dewoody told detectives in the February 22 incident that he lied to them when they talked to him back on March 11.

He wrote out a new statement - and again he was blaming his victim. He claimed he was driving to a mission house and passed a lady walking in the street, who waved at him. He said he turned the car around and went back to talk to her, and they discussed going somewhere to have sex for money. He said he showed her his wallet, with cash inside. He said they couldn't go to his house because he was living with a woman. Dewoody said he remembered a house in the woods, with a small trailer/shed on the property that he could use because no one was living there. They went there, and after he was finished, she asked for $50 but he said that was too much, gave her $15 and then dropped her off where he had picked her up.

On August 21, investigators executed the third warrant at dewoody's former apartment, and found Joyce's cards in the wall where he said he hid them.

In March 2021, Phillip Dewoody pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in Joyce’s death, and to aggravated kidnapping and rape in the February 22 incident. The judge handed down three life sentences, which will run consecutively, or one after the other.

He and his attorney both waived his right to appeal his conviction and his sentences in court, meaning this case is finally closed.