Thomas Solheim, who was arrested two years ago in connection with a South Carolina cold case murder, died earlier this month before he had a chance to clear his name.
Solheim, 56, died after he was discovered unconscious and unresponsive at St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Church in Montauk on Jan. 10, according to East Hampton Town Police Det. Lt. Chris Anderson.
"His death is still under investigation," Anderson said. "However, we do not believe there was foul play involved."
Solheim was arrested two years ago, accused of participating in the beating, gang rape and killing of sailor James Horton at the former Charleston Naval Base in 1992, according to The Post & Courier. The 22-year-old's body was found in a drainage ditch on Nov. 14, 1992. He had been shot in the chest and sexually assaulted, the newspaper reported.
A former gunner’s mate in the Navy who had been given an administrative discharge, Solheim was arrested in Montauk 17 years later. He was one of four people arrested in connection to the case.
Andy Savage, Solheim's attorney in Charleston, SC, said he will move to have his client's record expunged. In the two-and-a-half years since his arrest, Solheim was never indicted on the charges, which spanned two counties in the state. "I've never seen anything like it before," the prominent defense attorney said.
Savage said there was no evidence against Solheim, who maintained his innocence. Though they fought a subpoena for DNA after his arrest and lost, the DNA did not match, Savage said.
According to The Post & Courier, agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service got a confession from one of his co-defendants, Konnie Glidden, implicating herself, Solheim, and two other men in the murder, which led to all of their arrests. Charges were later dropped against one of the men. Glidden has since said her confession was coerced and hopes to have it thrown out.
The prosecution, Savage said, decided to work on the cases against Glidden and another defendant first. He made a tactical decision to wait to see what would happen with the other cases. "I wasn't pushing it too hard, I knew the other cases were falling apart," he said. He thought the case would then be dismissed against Solheim.
It's a decision he's second guessing.
After 30 months of waiting for a trial, Solheim was under duress. "He had a grey cloud hanging over him," Savage said. "He became psychologically imprisoned because of these charges. He was living under tremendous pressure. I knew the tension was building at home," he said.
After Solheim's arrest, he was extradited to South Carolina, and initially denied bail. After about a year in prison, he was released and allowed to return to New York, where he moved in with his father John Solheim in Montauk. There were some conditions of his release, including that he attend church, Savage said. He was monitored by a global positional satellite device, until he required a surgery and it was removed, he said.
Since his release, Solheim "developed this real dedication to his religion," Savage said.
He also kept in constant touch with his defense team, calling the firm a few times a week. In the beginning he would call with leads or ideas about a way to prove his innocence, Savage said. Later, he'd call just to talk, even checking up someone in the office if he knew they were ill. They tried to build his spirits, he said.
But on the Sunday before he died, Solheim left a message with the firm's answering service saying something had happened and the police were on the way to his home. Savage spoke to Solheim and his father, separately, and he never quite got to the bottom of it.
Others in his firm spoke to Solheim in the days leading up to his death — they understood he was sleeping at the church, though that could not be confirmed.
The Rev. Mike Reider at St. Therese did not immediately respond for comment.
Savage's office received word of his death the day after Solheim died when his sister called. "It was like the loss of a friend in our office," he said. Solheim was a unique client with whom they all formed a friendship.
Savage is disappointed he didn't get to fight the charges in court, but said he will try to find vindication for Solheim. "He's entitled to it."
Did you know Thomas Solheim from Montauk? Many were shocked by his arrest two years ago. Tell us how you will remember Solheim.