The body of Joyce Thomas, a mute and deaf Ville Platte woman missing since Wednesday, was found at a property along a stretch of Interstate 49 between Sunset and Opelousas Monday morning, according to Louisiana State Police.

State Police Troop I spokesman Thomas Gossen said at a press briefing Monday afternoon that Thomas’ cause of death is undetermined and details about how long Thomas may have been deceased are still under investigation. He could not say whether a residence on the property where Thomas was found is occupied or whether additional arrests may follow.

“It’s an active crime scene. I know there’s going to be a lot of questions and I know there’s going to be a lot of details that people want to know, but unfortunately to protect the integrity of the case, we’re going to have to keep it really narrow at this time,” he said.

Thomas, 72, had been missing since Wednesday, when she was last seen at her apartment complex on Chataignier Street in Ville Platte. Phillip DeWoody, a 53-year-old from Opelousas, was arrested Friday on a count of aggravated kidnapping related to her disappearance. 

A surveillance photo captured at Thomas’ apartment depicted a man police have confirmed is DeWoody. The accused admitted he was the man in the photo but has not confessed to Thomas’ kidnapping or her death, Gossen said.

DeWoody’s charges will be upgraded now that Thomas’ death has been confirmed, but Gossen did not say exactly what DeWoody’s charges would be.

DeWoody has a lengthy criminal history, including armed robbery convictions and convictions for a 1993 prison escape that included a second-degree kidnapping charge for holding a Lincoln Parish prison guard at knifepoint. He was paroled in June , according to records from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

DeWoody has been arrested on a count of second-degree kidnapping in a separate incident in Opelousas. The victim in that case, a woman believed to be in her late 50s, told investigators that DeWoody brought her to the same property where Thomas’ body was found, Opelousas Police Department Detective Michael Hidalgo said.

That information was used to help locate Thomas’ body.

The woman was abducted while walking from her home to a nearby store around South Market and West Foulard streets on Feb. 22. She told investigators that DeWoody pulled up in a vehicle alongside her, forced her inside and drove her outside city limits, where he sexually assaulted her. After the assault, DeWoody drove the woman home. She immediately reported the incident to police, Hidalgo said.

“She was traumatized as anyone would be,” he said.

Investigators developed DeWoody as a suspect, but when they went to locate him for questioning, they discovered he was already in State Police custody in relation to Thomas’ disappearance. After collecting details from State Police, Opelousas Police detectives presented their victim with a photo lineup on Friday and she positively identified DeWoody as her abductor, Hidalgo said.

She then took investigators to the property off I-49 between Sunset and Opelousas where DeWoody took her. The sexual assault portion of the investigation was then taken over by the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office and State Police because the location was outside Opelousas Police's jurisdiction, he said.

The detective said he does not believe DeWoody is a person of interest in any other Opelousas city police investigations at this time.

According to St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, DeWoody is now being held at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. He was moved from the St. Landry Parish Jail on Monday for court appearances in Evangeline Parish and in Opelousas, before being moved to Hunt Correctional, the sheriff said. 

Thomas’ family and friends prayed for her safe return Sunday afternoon and remembered the bright woman who was kind, funny, smart and who always sought to connect with others despite being unable to speak or hear.

Lance Thomas, Joyce Thomas’ grandson, described his grandmother as a woman of high standards, who expected the best of herself and the best of others. She wanted everyone to give their all in everything they did and when she gave love and respect to others, she expected it in return, he said.

“She’s the best person to be around in all aspects,” he said.

Lance Thomas said on Monday his family was grieving and asked the public for time and space as they process the devastating news. He said the family is raising money for lodging, food and other general expenses for family members and out-of-town relatives through the Cash App mobile payment platform. Their account is $thomasfamilyexpenses if anyone cares to donate, or in-person donations can be arranged by contacting Dafnee Chatman at (337) 831-4412. 

"The Thomas family appreciates your heartfelt expressions, kindness and prayers," he said. 

Staff reporter Megan Wyatt contributed to this report. 


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com