The Hustlers and the Movie Star


By William Van Meter

Ramon Novarro was the king of the silent screen. In 1968, two very uncommon criminals were arrested for his brutal slaying.

Paul and Tom Ferguson enter the courtroom for their murder trial, 1969.


San Quentin was famous for being one of the most violent facilities in the nation. One of Paul’s first jobs at the prison was picking up bodies and wheeling them out of common areas on a gurney. “There were frequent stabbings,” says Jim Parks, the associate warden at that time. “Murders everyday is a little exaggerated. One week we had five murders, but that didn’t happen every week.” Parks remembers Paul well. “For a convict, he was a pretty straight-up guy -- and not like the rest of the hoodlums,” he says. “He made a point of staying away from most of the convicts.”

Paul thrived in the harsh environment. He was the host of the prison’s radio station and conducted interviews. He studied welding and sheet metal work, and also creative writing. He received an associate’s degree from the College of Marin. In 1975, he won a P.E.N. award for his short story, “Dream No Dreams.” People wrote a small piece about Paul winning the award, and he gained an admirer, a married woman, who would leave her husband for him. They were allowed conjugal visits and were later married.

Tommy made frequent escape attempts and was often relegated to solitary. Paul was allowed out of prison to work in a forestry camp as part of his rehabilitation. “I saw Tommy the day I went to forestry camp,” Paul says. “I gave him my TV and radio. It was my third time giving him my TV and radio. He was hocking them for drugs. He was doing everything -- marijuana, cocaine, glue.” This would be the last time Paul would ever see Tommy. The brothers were paroled after serving seven years, but never spoke again.

Tommy continued his trajectory established in San Quentin. He married his prison psychiatrist, a woman in her fifties, and briefly worked in a mental institution. The marriage didn’t last. He had a daughter with his second wife, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Paul and Tommy’s younger sister, Denise Vignes, recalls of Tommy: “He was calling my mother. I guess he’d get drunk or manic or whatever. I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ It got to the point where my mom said, ‘OK, Tommy, come on down. I’ll be out in the street.’ And she went out there and he never showed up. That’s all we heard from Tommy. He never tried to rejoin the family.”

On January 18, 1987, the Associated Press reported, “Thomas Scott Ferguson, a drifter on parole after a prison term for the slaying of silent-film star Ramon Novarro, was sentenced to eight years in prison for raping a 54-year-old Chico woman.” He was paroled in 1990. In 1991, he racked up multiple charges of public intoxication, failure to appear in court, and petty theft.

Vignes says that, upon his release, he briefly stayed with one of their brothers and his partner. “Sometimes they would come home and all of the pillows would be slashed with a knife,” Vignes says. “They would look for Tommy, and he would be sleeping on the roof. He didn’t like to be by people at night.”

“I think Tommy didn’t feel loved,” she continues, “and my mom would be very mystified about this. She’d go, ‘Tommy would be six years old, sitting there watching TV, and just take a leak in his pants on the floor.’ Tom told me that he was scared to death all the time. Back then, we didn’t have all that psychology and what to do with a kid. I think Tom got lost in the shuffle of 12 kids.”

Tommy served time for failure to register as a sex offender when he moved to Palm Springs. “He felt like he was carrying this whole Novarro thing his whole friggin’ life,” Vignes says. “He was so adamant with me: ‘I was on the phone with my friggin’ girlfriend when that happened. I never touched the fucking guy.’ ” Tommy committed suicide on March 6, 2005. “He went to Motel 6 and cut his throat. No letter no nothing,” says Vignes, who had to identify the body.