The Coincidence Killer

thomason photo

It was about 4 a.m. on October 27, 1951 and Virginia Pauline Thomason, a pretty twenty-four year old defense plant worker, was driving home alone after attending a baby shower and visiting a bar with a girl friend. She was near Fairview and Vanowen streets in Burbank, headed for her Van Nuys home, when a shot from a rifle shattered her jaw. She slumped over, dead, as the driverless sedan rolled for two or three blocks before it came to rest against a railroad right-of-way embankment.


Following Thomason’s shooting William Frank Cairns, an unemployed mechanic and WWII Navy vet, walked into the Van Nuys Police Station and told the cop at the desk that he had shot at a traffic violator who had tried to crowd him off the road. He was then told that the victim of his road rage was Virginia Thomason, his former sweetheart!

Cops had a hard time buying Cairns’ contention that he’d had no idea that the motorist he’d shot and killed was his ex-girlfriend. But he refused to budge from his story no matter how hard the police pressed him. He told officers that they only reason he had the rifle in his car was that he’d planned to go deer hunting in Idaho. Cairns was booked on the shooting and released on bail.

Cairns inappropriately mugging for the camera after being fingerprinted.[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection]

Cairns inappropriately mugs for the camera after being fingerprinted.
[Photo courtesy of USC Digital Collection]

Virginia was to have been a bridesmaid at her brother Ray’s wedding, scheduled for the day after she was killed. The ceremony was postponed when her family got word of her death. The Thomason family was in deep mourning but they assisted the detectives as best they could.

Virginia’s mother told the police that her daughter had known Cairns for a couple of years and she’d dated him, but she broke up with him several months before her death. Cairns didn’t cope well with rejection and continued to make himself a nuisance. Virginia had been compelled to sign a complaint against him in the Burbank City Attorney’s office in September. He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon after he threatened her life.

A more credible tale based on jealousy, not coincidence, began to emerge as Burbank detectives questioned Virginia’s friends and relatives.

Janet Avichouser [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Janet Avichouser [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Janet Avichouser told Burbank P.D. Det. H.D. McDonald that she and the dead girl had seen Cairns in a bar on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood when they had gone out for drinks after the baby shower, but they didn’t speak to him. He bought drinks for the girls but they refused them. Janet told Det. McDonald that she thought that Cairns had “acted jealous” when Virginia danced a few times with other men in the bar.

The inquest proceedings were temporarily halted when Janet collapsed in the witness box. She had finished identifying herself when Dep. Coroner Ira Nance asked:

“Were you with Miss Tomason on the night she was killed?”

Janet answered softly, “Yes”, then put her hands to her face and fainted. Her friends ran to her, lifted her out of the witness box and took her into the hallway where she was revived with smelling salts. She was excused for the day.

Cairns at the scene of Virginia's shooting. [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Cairns at the scene of Virginia’s shooting. [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Cairns couldn’t attend the inquest, he was in General Hospital prison ward recovering from an appendectomy. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t at the hearing, he was held accountable for Virginia’s death.

At Cairn’s trial there were a few bits of evidence that were difficult to explain away as coincidence. In particular nobody believed that Cairns hadn’t recognized Virginia’s car — he had helped her paint it a very distinctive golden color.

Thomason's family photos. [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Thomason’s family photos. [Photo courtesy of USC Digital Archive]

Sadly, because there were no witnesses to slaying, jurors were stuck with Cairns’ version of the shooting. He testified that he’d fired from his moving car into Virginia’s car, which he claimed was also moving. His explanation didn’t tally with the physical evidence. The autopsy revealed that Virginia was within four feet of the gun when it was fired because powder burns were found on her left shoulder, left hand and fingers.

William Frank Cairns was far luckier than he deserved to be considering the enormity of his crime. He was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to from one to ten years in Chino State Prison.

13 thoughts on “The Coincidence Killer

    • Mireya – The guy was a total dirt bag and his sentence was a slap on the wrist. He probably did a little more than the one year
      minimum, but I’ll bet he did 3 or less. It’s sickening. I found the photo of him mugging for the camera particularly galling.
      I think he may have forced Victoria to the side of the road then walked up to the car and shot her, it’s the only explanation
      for the physical evidence which concluded that the weapon had been fired at her from a distance of about 4 feet. I hope his
      evil caught up with him in some way.

    • He went on to get married to someone who was aware he had been convicted of manslaughter, but was led to believe it was from a car accident. He was charming and good looking and fooled many people. Eventually he raped two step daughters (two different marriages), and one daughter, and who knows how many others. One daughter was never touched, he was divorced from her mother before she grew to the age he seemed to prefer (14-15). When the “lucky” daughter (at age 27 and recently “reunited” with her father) learned of these horrible acts she confronted him. He, of course, denied it, claiming that everyone lies about him, flashing that same cocky smile as in the fingerprint photo above. Later the daughter learned from his then current wife (mother of 2nd stepdaughter and natural daughter he raped) that he was brought to great grief, locking himself in their bedroom, and crying. The wife demanded to know what had happened and what was said, and when told exclaimed “Oh my God, “her daughters by name” had been telling her the truth.” So at least the truth was out, and he never saw “the lucky daughter” again, or her son who has grown into a good man.
      Frank Cairns died of a heart attack sometime around 1990… too quick for such an evil person, but at least he’s gone. A burial place is unknown, and it is presumed he was cremated.

      • Thank you for the update on Frank Cairns. He was so evil someone should have punched that cocky smirk off of his face. It’s too bad that he got the quick release of a heart attack. At least the lucky daughter escaped and bravely exposed him for the monster he was. If there is a hell, surely he is there burning for eternity.



  1. i find it hard to believe this creep only got tapped for manslaughter,even considering there was only circumstantial evidence and no witnesses,the guy admitted to firing into a moving vehicle,and it was at least proven that he did it from a distance of four feet…it would be interesting to find out,if possible,what happened to this miscreant,i seriously doubt this was his one and only scrape with the law,he sounds like a text book example of a stalker,a criminal/psychological type that only came to light years later….i’d also be curious as to the make up of his jury,at the time he was at most viewed as a spurned lover….another great miniature portrait of post-war LA and how much things have changed

    • Devlin, when I read his sentence I was appalled — it’s entirely possible that he was kicked loose after a year! My guess is that if he
      behaved himself he did from 18 to 36 months. It was clearly a miscarriage of justice, at least viewed through contemporary eyes. The
      physical evidence proved that the shooting didn’t happen as he said it had and that he was no more than 4 feet away when he fired, he
      wasn’t in another car driving down the road. The fact that he was a vet, characterized as a spurned lover, probably earned him some
      sympathy with the jury. I’d love to know who was on his jury too they really did a disservice to the victim and her family.

  2. Looking at the body in the car, it was an awful lot of blood for a drive by, IMO. This guy was a nut case and I feel sorry for any female that got involved with him after he got out of prison. A leopard doesn’t change his spots.

    • I absolutely agree. In fact the evidence showed he’d fired at her from a distance of only 4 feet. He got away with cold-blooded murder.

  3. I really don’t know why I am committed to comment I will say this I am William Frank Cairns daughter the youngest I knew nothing about this part of my father. I am sad to know that the man I adored n loved did something like this to such a beautiful women n this poor family but he kept this all away from me he was 20 yrs older than my mother and raised me to be kind n have respect and morals and he loved me I can only say God bless all the lives that affected by my father but I loved him n am still a CAIRNS

    • Whenever a crime is committed family members on both sides are made victims. Apparently you saw only the side of your father that he wanted you to see. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I learned that my father wasn’t the man I believed him to be. It must be difficult for you. All you can do is be the best person you know how to be and take comfort in whatever brings you peace.

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