"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Vanishing in El Paso

In many missing-persons cases, investigators are hampered by a lack of theories about what became of these people. Occasionally, you see an instance where there are an overabundance of theories, ranging from the somewhat-plausible to the borderline-insane.

A perfect example is the one presented in today's post. We may have little or no solid evidence about what happened to William and Margaret Patterson of El Paso, Texas, but that hasn't stopped a whole lot of people from spending a whole lot of time trying to answer that question.

The Pattersons, who owned a photo supply store, lived quiet, reserved lives. Both were unusually secretive about their personal lives. They seemed to have few friends, and even fewer social activities. For that reason, we do not even know exactly when they vanished. They were last seen on March 5, 1957, when a neighbor, Jeri Cash, brought Girl Scout cookies to their home.  An acquaintance named Cecil Ward reported them as missing on August 15--yes, five months later. This long time period ensured that the investigation into their disappearance was stymied before it even began. By the time the world realized that something extremely strange had happened to the couple, they literally could have been anywhere on the earth--or six feet under it. Whatever clues that may have once existed regarding their whereabouts were long since erased. All anyone can do is speculate. The theories about the Pattersons fall into several categories:

1. The couple was kidnapped. Kidnapped by whom? And why? No one can say. Working against this idea is the fact that their home showed no signs of robbery, struggle, or unusual disarray, and no ransom demands were ever made.

2. The couple disappeared voluntarily because they were foreign spies. Bizarre as this might sound, Leo Samaniego, El Paso's County Sheriff, believed this was precisely what happened. "The way they got up and just walked away and left everything behind," he once mused. "The Russians, or whoever sent them, probably told them to drop everything and go back. Some people said they had seen Patterson take photographs of Fort Bliss and of military shipments on the trains that came here...It's like they went out for a walk and never came back."

Was this scenario the true answer to the mystery, or just a classic slice of Cold War paranoia?

A related theory is the one arguing that the Pattersons were not necessarily involved in espionage, but simply abandoned their lives in search of a fresh start. A friend named Doyle Kirkland asserted that on the night of March 5, he received a phone call from a man claiming to be Patterson. (He explained that he could not be absolutely sure it was William's voice.) Patterson said he and Margaret would be going away for a long vacation. He wanted Kirkland to have the use of the Patterson's Cadillac. William's father, Luther, told authorities that "I always knew Pat and Margaret would take off like this some day...My boy has done things like this before." He told reporters, "Pat will come back when he's ready!" A business associate of Patterson's told police, "Pat once told me he wanted to go away, and that if he did, to convey the impression that he was all right and would return."

On March 15, 1957, William's business manager Herbert Roth received a telegram purportedly from Mr. Patterson. (It was signed "W.H. Patterson," even though his middle name was "Durrell." The message gave Roth detailed instructions on handling Patterson's business and other properties. Management of the photo store was to be given over to Doyle Kirkland. Patterson had several relatives still living, so it was considered odd that he would leave them disinherited. Some investigators have suspected that this telegram was not sent by Patterson, but that was never proven. Kirkland managed the photo store for some weeks, but then left town to attend to his own photo supply business in Lubbock. He does not seem to have otherwise benefited from the Pattersons' disappearance.  (Roth and several of Patterson's employees ran the store until 1962, when it was sold to new management.)

In June 1958, David J. Smith, the attorney for the Pattersons, received a letter dated May 29. It read:
Dear Dave, I want you to handle this matter for us. We will not be back to El Paso and by the time you get this we will be out of the country and nobody can find us. We want Art, Doyle, and Herb to each have one fourth of the business, the other fourth must be divided equal among the other employees at the store. See that Art gets the house and furniture. Doyle is to get the cabin, tools, boats, and the Cadillac. Keep the VW [the store's Volkswagen] for the business as well as the lots [plots of land owned by the Pattersons.]  I expect you to be fairly paid for all the trouble. Margaret wants her account to go to the CYO. Art Moreno, Doyle Riley, and Herb Roth should make a good trio to run the store from now on. Yours truly, W.D. Patterson.

This letter was obviously written by someone very familiar with Patterson's business and its personnel. But was this person William? The letter was typewritten, with just the signature handwritten. There was no return address. Graphologists could not say for sure if the signature was William's.

William's mistress, a 20-year old "party girl" named Estefana Marfin, told police that she last saw Patterson early in March 1957, when he visited her home in Mexico. She said he told her that something important was happening, and "when they come for me, I'll have to go in a hurry." However, she later recanted this statement, and investigators appear to have doubted her credibility. (Incidentally, Margaret apparently knew all about her husband's philandering. She reportedly consoled herself with alcohol.)

Working against the theory that the couple voluntarily disappeared is the fact that none of their belongings appeared to be missing. Their bank accounts were left untouched. Dishes were left unwashed in the kitchen sink, and items of Margaret's clothing were laid out on a bed, suggesting that the couple had not been planning a departure. Margaret's adored cat, Tommy, had been left behind to fend for himself. Friends and relatives were positive that she would never have left without providing for his welfare. A neighbor noted Margaret loved the cat "the way a mother loves a child." (Tommy was also missing at the time the Pattersons' disappearance was reported, but he turned up some days later, hungry and bedraggled.) After failing to hear from his son for several years, Luther Patterson changed his mind, saying he believed the couple was dead.

William's prized Cadillac only complicates the mystery. It was discovered sitting in a car repair garage in El Paso. A mechanic told police that the car had been driven to the garage at about 7:15 a.m. on March 6, 1957. The driver was not Patterson or Doyle Kirkland, but a complete stranger. This man was never identified.

3. Paging Giorgio Tsoukalos! Yes, there are those who argue that the Pattersons were kidnapped by space aliens.

4. Did the Pattersons never leave their house...because they are currently buried underneath it?

Now we may be getting somewhere. In 1984, one Raynaldo Nangaray came to police with a chilling story. After the Pattersons vanished, he had been hired to help clean out the house for new tenants. He said he found blood in the garage and a piece of what appeared to be human flesh on the propeller of Patterson's boat. He also saw an (unnamed) business associate of Patterson's take bloody sheets from the house. Nangaray explained that he did not tell his story at the time because as an illegal immigrant, he feared contacting authorities. Nangaray's account is certainly not improbable, but it has never been verified. Searches of the Patterson home and grounds found no trace of the couple.

The Patterson marriage was reportedly an increasingly unhappy one, and William had had more than one extramarital affair.   In 2013, Jeri Cash told a reporter for the "El Paso Times" that when she brought over the cookies Mrs. Patterson seemed "very upset," and she had the impression that Mr. Patterson wanted the visitor to leave as soon as possible.  ("He always came across as mean and unfriendly.")   Did William murder his wife, and disappear for parts unknown? Or did Margaret kill her spouse, and then successfully vanish?

What on earth became of the Pattersons? The El Paso Police Department is still hoping one day to find out.

It's a pity Tommy was unavailable for interviews.


  1. None of the theories seem to solve the mystery, which is probably why there are so many: they all fit because none actually explain anything. My favourite is the one about them being spies. Was there something they were supposed to be spying on, or did the Russians just plant them there hoping something would turn up?

  2. The middle initial in the signature (the D) could be mistaken for an H. Maybe the typographer who typed in the telegram did just that?

    Doesn't help with the mystery but may explain the H


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