NewsSt. Landry Parish


The witness and the officer: Two involved in Joyce Thomas case speak

Joyce Thomas.jpg
Posted at 5:34 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 23:14:39-04

It's been more than a year since a Ville Platte woman was murdered.

Joyce Thomas, 72, who was deaf and unable to speak, was missing for several days before her body was found along the I-49 service road between Sunset and Opelousas.

Phillip Dewoody is serving two life sentences after pleading guilty to a number of charges, including the first-degree murder of Thomas.

We're now learning the details of the investigation that led searchers to her body, and that ended with Dewoody's guilty plea.

KATC Investigates spent hours going through the case file, and for the first time we're hearing from a woman who played an important role in leading police to the area where Thomas' body would be found.

"She's like part of my life in spirit and I've never even met her," Lisa Halkett says of Thomas.

Thomas' death haunts her to this day.

She admits that she and her brother-in-law were planning to steal from several abandoned properties one day in February 2020. What happened next is something that she can't forget.

"I made some little necklaces," Halkett says. "Some of them have the sign symbol for 'I love you,' some of them have her initials J.T."

She made the jewelry in honor of a woman who is a complete stranger.

It was Phillip Dewoody - Joyce Thomas' killer - that she ran across at that abandoned house. Thomas' body would later be found there, too.

She and her brother-in-law were looking for hot water tanks near that abandoned house on the I-49 service road. It's an area they had been to before, but this time they weren't alone.

"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."

She didn't know it at the time, but Joyce Thomas was there, too.

"My instinct told me different, where you button your pants. It was poking out and I didn't know if it was a knife or gun," she says.

Their conversation was brief, but as they were leaving, Halkett says she heard something.

"While we were leaving I heard a muff like 'mmmm.' Dewoody turned and said it's okay hunny , we're okay," she remembers.

Thomas couldn't speak, but she made the noise that Halkett heard. She didn't know what to think of the situation at the time.

"Normally if people were in need of help they'd say help help and she couldn't and that was her way of screaming for help," Halkett says she knows now.

And because she knows that now, it's a sound that still haunts her.

“It's just sad because if I would've known....I just probably would've I don't know...." she says. "I felt like should I call the law ..but I was out being a criminal and I didn't and it bothered me."

She saw a newscast, showing Dewoody's mugshot. At that time, he'd been booked with kidnapping in Thomas' disappearance. That night she called police.

"People's eyes, we're not supposed to be here right now because we're witness and he could've easily hurt us," she says. "I felt like I had if I called , I could give them a lot of information about what I seen. The man how he was and hopefully she come home or if something happened the family can be at rest and justice can be served."

She took police to the location, which already had been searched by police. And even though they searched again that day - March 1 - they didn't find Thomas.

It was the next day, on March 2, when Thomas' body was found.

Grand Coteau's assistant police chief kept up the search on his own time. He said he made a promise to help the family, who had reached out to him.

"Then he said "You mean to tell me there's no one looking for my grandmother?" and it struck a chord with me. I decided to come out on my day off and search," Assistant Chief Michael Buck says. "They conducted a search on Saturday, but there was not an actual widespread search that had taken place."

He lived just a mile away from the area, and rode his four-wheeler to the area to search.

"It was moist and I would see the area was distrubed there was two lines and apparently it's where the victim was dragged through the woods," he remembers. "And I did see her remains laying off in a wooded area and partially covered with branch and bush."

That was the tragic end to the search for Joyce Thomas.

"I pass in front all the time and I always think of her, always...and it's just sad. That's something that will never go away," Hacklett says.

Hacklett says she feels a connection to Thomas, and to Thomas' family.

"I talked to the Grandson and said I'm so sorry for what happened and he said my family is not mad at you at all. You helped, you were a big help. I just wish I would've helped more and he said our grandma's your angel... it's just sad. Because they let a killer out you know. Who does that. Somebody that was sentenced to a 100 years of prison," she says.

Halkett is referring to the state parole board, that let Dewoody out of prison 90-plus years early, just six months before he would murder Thomas.

As time goes by, Halkett keeps a reminder to never forget Thomas.

"I see Ms. Joyce as our angel," she says. "She was loved by so many. She looked like a lovely person."