The reappearance of Tommy, a 9-year-old orange tabby, on the front stoop of the home he shared with William and Margaret Patterson in El Paso, Texas, only exacerbated the mystery of what happened to his owners.
The couple had been absent (most people considered them missing under suspicious circumstances) for more than four months when an undernourished and bedraggled Tommy showed up at his house, strengthening the belief that something bad was going on.
William, 53, and Margaret, 48, had owned the Patterson Photo Supply Company in El Paso for years and were established in the community. Because they had no children, friends said Margaret treated Tommy “like a mother loves a child.” When they saw that Tommy had not been boarded at the D.L. Cady Animal Hospital as was the Pattersons’ habit when they traveled, friends went to the sheriff’s office with their concerns.
Presented with the strange circumstances (there was much more than the return of a wandering cat), Sheriff Jimmie Hicks opened a missing persons file and assigned Deputy Sgt. John Frizzell to get to the bottom of the matter.
Unfortunately for Frizzell, the Pattersons did not leave one shred of evidence that they planned to leave town. In fact, the opposite was true. Almost everyone interviewed in the investigation said the Pattersons were clearly staying put for a while.
It is possible, even likely, that Tommy was present during the Pattersons’ final hours in their home before they vanished, seemingly into thin air. Unfortunately, whatever secrets Tommy knew he would not part with, so Frizzell was forced to deal only with the humans connected to the case.
“Every phase of the case discloses that they vanished by surprise,” Frizzell said later. “Surprise to themselves as well as to every person who knew them.”
That was in March 1957 and what happened to William and Margaret Patterson remains one of El Paso’s greatest mysteries to this day.
An article in the November 12, 1957 home edition of the El Paso Herald-Post, by reporter Cliff Sherrill listed the questions that plagued authorities then and now:
Where are Mr. and Mrs. W. D. Patterson?
Why did they disappear like magic from their home at 3000 Piedmont Avenue the night of March 5?
Did they leave voluntarily? By ruse or trick? By compulsion, under threat of instant death if they didn’t go?
If they left voluntarily, what was the reason?
If they left by force or threat, who forced or threatened them?
And if they disappeared by force or threat, what was the motive of the person or persons guilty of the force or threat? Robbery? Extortion? A desire to keep the Pattersons from telling something they knew?
At first glance, the couple’s lifestyle gives no clue to the answers to those questions. But scratch a little deeper and the story gets odd.
The Pattersons spent a quiet night in their home with friends days before they disappeared. They invited Cecil Ward and his wife, who goes by the nickname “Mrs.,” over for dinner. Following the meal the men went out to the Patterson garage to apply a coat of acrylic to the wooden boat Patterson was building.
Questioned by police, Cecil Ward said William not only failed to mention a trip, they discussed plans for later in the week.
“He talked about what we would do on the boat the other nights during the week, and about plans for fishing and doing a lot of other things in the spring and summer,” the owner of the Ward Motor Clinic told investigators.
Mrs. Ward confirmed her husband’s account.
“Margaret never mentioned anything at all about plans for a trip,” she said.
The next day the couples saw each other in the afternoon.
“They drove by here (the Ward Motor Clinic) and talked to us,” Ward said. “They said nothing about plans to go away.”
When the Wards opened their place of business Wednesday, March 6, William’s prized Cadillac was left parked in the driveway of the Ward garage.
That day, Ward said, Doyle G. Kirkland, a manager of Duffy Photo Service in El Paso — a rival firm, but friend of William Patterson — came into the shop and directed Ward to service the Caddy and repair a broken horn ring on the steering wheel.
Then Kirkland said something that appeared on its face to be quite benign, but in light of what happened, is extremely suspicious.
According to Ward, Kirkland said that he had helped Patterson work on the boat on the previous evening, adding that “the Pattersons were going on a little vacation.”
Kirkland was connected to another seemingly innocuous act that later raised eyebrows.
Patterson had been using Ward’s electric sander and on Friday of the same week, the mechanic needed it back for a job. He called Patterson Photo Supply and asked that it be returned. He did not speak with Patterson. Later that day, Kirkland showed up with the sander. He had obviously been in the Patterson home some time earlier that week as Ward remembered leaving it in the Patterson garage. Ward did not say that he expected Patterson to deliver the sander, however, or that having Kirkland deliver it was unusual.
Comments made by Ward paint a picture of William as a man who only liked the best in life — and when he got it was happy to let you know about it.
“If it wasn’t the best, he wouldn’t want it,” Ward said. “Sure, he was loud-mouthed and a braggart, but a pretty good guy. He lived it up, but I guess he was making up for all those years when he didn’t have anything.”
William’s loud mouth got him into trouble on occasion. A month before he disappeared, William got drunk in a Juarez, Mexico “night club,” and when his waiter refused to serve the Mexican girl he was with because she worked at the “night club,” a fight started and William found himself outmatched by the club’s bouncers. Fortunately, he was not badly hurt nor arrested.
It turns out that the woman he was with, 20-year-old Estefana Arroyo Marfin, was his girlfriend.
Both William and Margaret were pretty much closed-mouth about their backgrounds, except to hint that each had a rough upbringing. William was a native of Chicago and worked as a carny, touring the country working the games and serving as a barker.
It is not surprising that with a pedigree like that, William would fall short of the expectations Margaret’s family had for a suitor.
Friends said Margaret never told them where she was born or even her birth date. They did not know how she and William met, or how long they had been married.
“It seemed they told her she would have to choose between them and Pat,” said one friend, referring to William’s nickname. “She chose Pat.”
They knew she had a brother somewhere, but that they were estranged.
The couple moved to El Paso from Dallas around 1940, where they built up their business. During the war, William sold nylon stockings smuggled from Mexico on the black market and made quite a nut for himself.
His father, Luther, testified in a court of inquiry (sort of a watered-down version of a grand jury where witnesses are still questioned under oath) and asserted that his son still had a little bit of carny in him:
“I always knew Pat and Margaret would take off like this some day, but I figured it to be four or five years away,” he testified. “They’re not dead; my boy has done things like this before. He made his living doing sleight-of-hand tricks.”
Although she later retracted the statement, Estefana Marfin told authorities that William told her he may have to disappear soon and do it quickly.
The El Paso Herald reported that a few years later Luther Patterson said he suspected his son and daughter-in-law were dead.
Besides not boarding Tommy, other evidence was circumstantial proof that the Pattersons did not plan ahead to leave town:
- Expensive clothes, including a fur coat, were left with cleaners and a furrier, without instructions to store them
- Utilities including telephone, gas, and electricity were not disconnected
- Mail was not stopped and no change of address was given to the post office until 21 days after the disappearance, when the post office was told to deliver all mail to the photo supply store. There is no evidence that either of the Pattersons issued the change request. Newspaper delivery was unaffected
- Dishes from dinner the night before the vanishing were left unwashed in the kitchen sink
- The Pattersons had been planning to attend the spring National Photographers Association convention in Washington, DC, but did not show up at their hotel or attend the conference. The hotel could not locate any record of a cancellation, but the Pattersons never registered at the conference.
The best clue to the fate of the Pattersons came on March 15, when Herbert Roth, the Pattersons’ accountant, received a telegram with instructions on managing some of the couples assets and their business.
Roth was directed to act as business manager of the Patterson Photo Supply Company and directed to cancel the reservations for the Pattersons’ trip to D.C. He was told to hire a new manager for the store who would replace the missing owner, to sell a mobile home owned by the Pattersons and to use the proceeds to support the store.
The telegram also indicated that the Pattersons planned to be gone for some time: Roth was instructed to rent out the Patterson home for at least nine months.
The telegram came into the Western Union office in Dallas via pay phone in an area near Love Field, possibly indicating that the couple was flying out of the area. However, the sender of the telegram was listed as “W.H. Patterson.” The 53-year-old William’s middle name was Durrell. The mistake might have been made by the Western Union agent, of course.
The manager Patterson wanted hired to oversee the operation in his absence was Doyle Kirkland, who was the self-admitted last person to see them alive.
No evidence other than conspicuous behavior linked Kirkland or anyone else to the crime. He disappeared from the police radar after he moved from El Paso in the 1960s.
In 1960 Sheriff Bob Bailey went to a resort town outside Mexico City, tracking down a rumor that the couple was seen there. He found some hotel workers who identified photographs of the Pattersons as a couple who stayed at the hotel for several months in 1957. However, there was no record of the Pattersons registering at the hotel and from there the case, for the most part, went cold until the mid-1980s, according to the El Paso Times when a witness came forward claiming to have seen blood and other signs of violence in the Patterson garage.
Freddie Bonilla, former El Paso homicide dick who is now a private eye, said that an illegal immigrant named Reynaldo Nangaray, the caretaker of the Pattersons’ home, made an official statement that he not only saw blood, but that there was part of a person’s scalp on the propeller of Pat’s boat. Further, writes Sam Stall in Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Minivans, Nangaray witnessed one of the Pattersons’ friends putting bloody sheets from the house into a car.
Bonilla said Nangaray was afraid to come forward because he was an illegal immigrant at that time.
“Nangaray told us he found blood in the garage and a piece of human scalp on the propeller of Patterson’s boat,” Bonilla told the El Paso Times. “He found a pair of jeans with a Rolex watch that belonged to Patterson, and said he also saw one of Patterson’s (associates) remove bloody sheets from the home and put them inside the trunk of a car. He did not talk to police sooner because he was an illegal immigrant at the time, but when he came to see us, he was a U.S. citizen.”
Unfortunately, Nangaray died in a car accident two years after speaking with the cops.
As for theories of what happened, it’s a you-pick-’em:
- They were kidnapped and killed
- He killed her and fled
- She killed him and fled
- They were spies and returned home
Alien Abduction Tommy killed them both
Item 4 might seem a bit farfetched until one looks at William Patterson’s behavior. He got his start in El Paso as a “street photographer,” taking pictures of everyone and everything and was reportedly seen around nearby Fort Bliss with his camera on a regular basis.
In 2009, El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego said the espionage theory was valid.
“I think they were spies,” he told the Times in a retrospective. “The way they got up and just walked away and left everything behind. 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.”
The Times did not report if Samaniego was speaking tongue-in-cheek, but reporter Diana Washington Valdez did take the next step of checking with the FBI to see if the couple was ever under investigation for espionage. The SAC for El Paso at the time said the Pattersons were not in any records going back that far.
There are many people in El Paso who think that the Pattersons never left the home. At one time, Sheriff Bob Bailey said at one time it was believed that the couple was buried on the property somewhere, but nothing was ever uncovered.
That prompted people to believe the place was haunted by the spirits of William and Margaret Patterson, which only caused problems for the police.
“When I was a city patrolman, the house on Piedmont was in my district,” Samaniego told the Times. “I would get a hundred calls … all these kids would stop by the house because they thought the house was haunted, and they would scare this poor old lady who (once) lived there.”
On March 27, 1964, the Pattersons were officially declared dead.
The Patterson mystery is regularly reviewed by the city and county cold case squads.
What happened to Tommy the cat is also a mystery. When he reappeared at his home, the persons renting the place took him to the Cady Animal Hospital where his trail goes cold. No one has reported seeing the ghostly apparition of a cat around the old Patterson house.