Up From The Streets

Once homeless, this alumnus is now a top detective in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office.

Claude Thomas at work in Philadelphia. Photos by Susan Gregg.

The subway. An abandoned car. The stairwell of a housing project building. In the summer, outside near Penn’s Landing.

As a teenager, Claude Thomas slept in those places and many others. His mother’s death from breast and lung cancer in 1980 had thrust him into the streets of Philadelphia, and his refusal to sell drugs — his only option, according to his “friends” — kept him there for three long years.

“God and my mother looked over me during those years,” Thomas says, and he survived, just as he survived a childhood of poverty in a tough neighborhood, eventually fulfilling the potential he says he was not even aware he possessed back then.

Today, Dr. Claude Thomas, who received his Ed.D. from Wilmington University in January, is the chief county detective for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. His appointment was announced in February by District Attorney R. Seth Williams, who noted that Thomas has “almost three decades of exemplary experience on the local, state and federal law enforcement levels.”

Thomas and his twin, Claudette, were born in the summer of 1965, the youngest of nine children of Lula Mae and Ralph Thomas, who divorced when the twins were 2.

Thomas paints a childhood that was straight out of Dickens: “My mother raised her nine children in a crime-infested community that was full of hopelessness, despair, illiteracy — and love. We got groceries from the local church and we went for prolonged periods without heat or electricity.”

Education was not a priority. “Neither my mother nor father graduated high school — both dropped out in 11th grade,” Thomas says. And he admits that at first he had no interest in any aspect of school — academics, sports, or any extra-curricular activities. “Rarely if ever did anyone in school or in my social environment mention the importance of education,” he says.

Eventually, however, he found that he enjoyed learning. “I began to question why others didn’t see how liberating it made one feel, and I questioned educators about a lack of interest or resolve to educate the un-educated in inner-city public schools. Then again, the challenge to do so is immense.”

Thomas says he graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School “through the grace of God and his angel, Principal Dr. Norman K. Spencer, who refused to put a young homeless student out on the street.”

Despite his environment, he harbored a dream of becoming a police officer. “Police were not popular in my community, and their relationship with the community was adversarial at best,” he says. “But I always wanted to change those perceptions and right some of the wrongs that I witnessed as a child. I wanted to build bridges of mutual respect.”

After high school he enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia and received an Associate in Applied Science degree in Criminal Justice in 1987. Soon after, he joined the Pennsylvania State Police, then moved on to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office in 1990.  As a special agent, he conducted criminal investigations of secret and sensitive corruption cases, oversaw AG investigators and served as a resource for citizens, civic organizations, community groups, school districts and other organizations to help reduce drug abuse and crime in the state. He also went undercover as a narcotics agent, working cases involving fraud and organized crime.

“I am innately inspired to help others,” he says. “It’s our duty. It’s my duty.”

Thomas continued his education during those years, receiving a B.A. in Organizational Management from Eastern University in 1999 and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from St. Joseph’s University in 2003 before receiving his doctorate this year from WilmU.

He and his wife, Lillian, live in New Castle County, Del. Married since 1992, they have three children, and Thomas has two older children.

Commenting further on Thomas’s appointment, Williams said, “He has a powerful command of the work we do here in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. He is a leader inside and outside the office to his fellow detectives and community members. And he is an outstanding officer and dedicated professional who has proven himself as a consummate public servant and role model to many of the students who have come into the office to learn about what we do to keep Philadelphians safe.”

Thomas, perhaps as a result of his homeless days, says he is guided by Matthew 25:40, in which Jesus asks Christians to care for “the least of these.”

“I am innately inspired to help others,” he says. “It’s our duty. It’s my duty.” WU

—Bob Yearick