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True crime. Casually done.

Christmas Special: The Dissapearance of Patty Vaughan

Christmas is coming — have you noticed? By this point we’ve been suffering through Mariah Carey’s sugary-sweet wailing every time we’ve visited the shops for about 6 weeks, so by my reckoning that means it’s just another few days until the main event itself. It’s a day for coming together as a family, for splashing sickening amounts of cash… and something to do with some guy called Jesus, I’m told. 

Whether you’re a follower of ol’JC or not, there’s a good chance that you’ll be having a family get-together on his birthday. And, depending on your family dynamics, that’ll be a blessing or a curse. The Christmas dinner table can either be an altar of togetherness or a battlefield for settling all the year’s repressed grudges.

But, no matter what kind of dysfunction your family unit suffers from, you can count yourself lucky in one respect: nobody’s gonna die, right? I mean, you might feel inclined to strangle your uncle when he starts ranting about politics after one too many sherries, but you wouldn’t actually go through with it… probably. 

Apparently though, some murderously-inclined individuals can’t even suspend their violent ambitions during the season of goodwill. They turn up on Xmas with knives and guns in hand, rather than presents and candy canes. Which brings us to the case of Patty Vaughan, a mother of three in Texas who went missing under mysterious circumstances on Christmas Day 1996. 

I’m warning you, today’s story is a world away from your usual Miracle on 34th Street feel-good fare. You might want to have a glass of mulled wine on hand (or eggnog, or whatever other weird stuff Americans drink). 

Let’s get started, shall we?

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Setting the Scene

It’s Christmas Eve 1996, and with an imaginary drone shot we’re panning high over the town of La Vernia, Texas, about half an hour east of San Antonio. It’s a small place — a few main roads with pockets of housing leading off, all surrounded by sprawling miles of pasture and woodland. Yep, this is Texas all right. 

In the city park, you can still see the lights of the Christmas tree towering over the central pavilion, and the glistening of the slowly melting sledding run, made with imported snow to give the Southern kids a taste of a proper white Christmas. Some families are still milling about here. We can see them putting the finishing touches on miniature snowmen as the evening starts to darken.

But of the thousand or so people who call this place home, most are already tucked away inside, having dinner with loved ones. This is a deeply religious part of the US, after all, where family is everything. If you don’t have the whole family tree crammed inside someone’s dining room, it’s not really Christmas time at all.

One such family is just sitting down to dinner as our imaginary drone drops down, and hovers by their window. Okay, this is definitely illegal nowadays, but it’s the nineties and I don’t think any drone legislation has been written yet, so relax. As long as nobody gets naked we’re not breaking any laws.

Anyway, inside we see a table set with heaped plates of all the usual Christmas fare. Sat along one side is a woman — early 30s, blonde hair styled into a perm. This is Patty Vaughan. By her side is Gary, an ex-boyfriend with whom she’s recently fired up the old flame. This is the first time she’s ever introduced him to her family, and by the looks of things, it’s going really well. 

He’s good with Patty’s children, who are sat at the kids table with their cousins. Her sisters Barbara, Jeannie, and Cathie seem to like him too, as does their mother Patsy Wallace. But most importantly for them all: Patty looks happy. This is the best Christmas gift they could’ve dreamed of, because for too many holidays just like this one, they’ve had to watch her cry.

For that, they had JR to thank…

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Biography and Background

The husband: Jerry Ray Vaughan

JR was Patty’s estranged husband, full name Jerry Ray Vaughan. Despite having a name fit for a country music career, he actually made his living as a construction contractor. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, with his slicked back hair and black mustache, but not the best-looking in the world either.

A young Patty must have seen something in him. They met just a few years after Patty graduated high school in Okinawa, and got married in 1985 in San Antonio. Over the next five years, the couple moved around a lot, with stints in Maine, Georgia, and Virginia, before settling down in La Vernia. 

Along the way they had three kids together: a daughter then two sons. Patty doted on her kids, and did everything possible to give them a happy childhood. Her little sister Jeannie later told reporters: 

“She was the kind of mother who did everything for her children. She made them clothes, she made curtains for the house, she did everything. Even for me. She was like a second mom to me.”

By the time the Vaughans settled down in La Vernia, they had the perfect church-going, nuclear family image. A hard-working blue-collar dad, musically-talented housewife mother, and three beautiful kids filling their house with noise.

But, as is often the case with small-town suburban bliss, the joy was just surface-level. Over the course of their relationship, JR had become progressively more and more controlling of Patty. She was prohibited from working outside of their home, and he was known for dishing out demeaning comments. 

There were even rumors circulating that he had thrown a mayonnaise jar across the room in anger, when a family member was visiting. By the time the mid nineties rolled around, several people had noticed some suspicious bruises on Patty’s body.

Throughout 1996, the tensions between the couple rose beyond boiling point, and Patty eventually accepted the advice which her loved ones had been giving for years now: this guy was no good. The relationship had to end. Surprisingly, the next episode was relatively amicable: Patty and JR agreed to a six-month trial separation in October. He went off to find his own place in San Antonio, while Patty stayed in the house with the kids. 

After 11 years of stress as her relationship declined into misery, Patty was born anew. She returned to work at a local company, Quinney Electric, and rediscovered much of the woman she lost in those tumultuous years of married life. By this point it was safe to assume that she was thoroughly enjoying her trial separation, and wanted to purchase the full lifetime subscription.

If anyone was in any doubt over whether divorce really was on the cards, along came Gary. He and Patty had dated many years before, and just so happened to run into each other about a month after her separation. As it turned out, he himself had just finished up a divorce, so they would have had plenty to talk about for sure. 

And that basically brings us back to Christmas Eve 1996. Patty and Gary are sitting side by side, surrounded by loved ones with emptied plates in front of them. It looks like the next chapter in their lives is set to be far happier than the one that came before. 

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Christmas Day

Christmas Day

But of course, separations are never quite as clean and simple when there are kids involved. With this of course being the first Christmas since the split, Patty wanted to give her kids a semblance of normality, even if it meant putting up with an embittered JR. For her, the kids came first, no questions asked. 

So the plan was that JR would come round to the house to celebrate with them. They’d swap presents, have some lunch, and then Patty would take them off to her sister Cathy’s house for a big family dinner in the evening. However, there would be some empty seats at that gathering, because Patty never made it there at all.

To hear JR tell it, they had been bickering throughout the entire day, until Patty decided to take off in her car at around 6:30PM, leaving her kids at home. Patty’s sisters later told reporters that sort of thing was completely out of character for her; to be apart from her kids on Christmas Day was unthinkable. 

But nonetheless, here they were. Patty was nowhere to be found, and the last person to have seen her was JR. Sure, other people had tried to visit that day, but Patty refused to see them. Instead, they were met by JR, who told them his soon-to-be-ex wife was holed up sick inside her bedroom. 

Again, this was completely out of character for the family-oriented Patty. Judging by what her family has said about her character over the years, nothing short of a full-on heart attack would’ve prevented her from putting herself together and coming out to greet them. Maybe she really was having some sort of nervous breakdown?

At any rate they knew she wasn’t having a particularly merry Christmas. A family member had called in the morning to check in. When Patty answered, it was clear she had been crying. She said that her and JR had been arguing since he arrived. He could be heard in the background, telling her to get off the phone.

That kind of toxic environment doesn’t make for a happy holiday, which is why JR decided it was best to send the kids off to his sister’s place for the evening. There they stayed the night, blissfully unaware that they had already seen their mother for the very last time…

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A long Christmas dinner went by with no word from Patty, which got her family worried. On the 26th of December, one of her cousins filed a missing person’s report with the Sheriff’s Office, and a search began. The police started out as they always do in these cases, by putting out a call with a description of Patty’s appearance and vehicle: a light blue 1991 Dodge Caravan.

I should mention for our British listeners, I don’t mean ‘caravan’ in the mobile holiday home sense. It’s just the name of a model of minivan. And if Patty really had taken off in her minivan at 6:30 on Christmas Day, the authorities assumed she surely couldn’t have gotten very far within the 16 hours or so which had passed. 

How right they were. The day after Christmas, the Dodge was spotted along the side of the highway, near Loop 1604 in South Bexar County. It was Patty’s boss from the electric company who spotted the car, because it was located just 5 miles from their office, and only 15 miles from her home. Strangest of all, he told the police that he had driven that same road about 90 minutes earlier. The car hadn’t been there, implying that someone had parked it there in the brief interim…

With the idea of her skipping town out of the question, and her family raising concerns over the abusive character of JR, it now looked increasingly clear that the Bexar County PD were no longer dealing with a simple missing person case — the kind which is usually cleared up when the person rolls up at a friend’s house — but a highly-suspicious disappearance. 

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The Initial Investigation

So let’s take stock: what do we know so far? There’s an estranged husband and a new boyfriend on the scene. An abandoned vehicle but no sign of Patty anywhere to be found. No reports of violence or gunshots, but a suspicious set of circumstances on the day, for sure. 

In cases like this, suspicion naturally falls upon the husband, but it was too early to go making any bold claims, especially with two competing men involved. Don’t go jumping the gun and accusing JR just yet! Sure, he sounds like a piece of work, but there might yet be a twist in store to absolve him. We have to figure out where  Patty took off to that night, and why?

First let’s act like proper detectives, and look at the hard evidence. There was plenty for the police to chew on in those early days. On the 27th of December, they were told about the abandoned Dodge. Patty’s family had gone out to verify it was hers the day before, and now Deputies Ramirez and Johnson of the Bexar County PD were the ones assigned to follow up.

Their report from that day offered up some pretty worrying suggestions. The first apparent abnormality was, I quote: “a dark colored stain on the bottom portion of the rear center seat”. Johnson leaned into the minivan to take a closer look, resting his knees on the flooring between the front seats and the door.

When he stood up, they noticed dark patches on his trousers. The carpeting inside was damp, as if someone had recently scrubbed it clean. Needless to say, there were no fingerprints inside. What’s more, when they lifted out the seat itself, they noticed some of the cup holders on the doors had water pooled inside. 

And when they removed a plastic covering from one of the seats, Ramirez noticed what he described as “some red and brown stained condensation under the larger piece of plastic that holds part of the seat belt strap”. In case you’ve still not caught on to what that “red and brown” staining was, the report concludes that “Chief Forensic Serologist Lonnie D. Ginsberg positively identified human blood from an area under the rear seat of the van.”

That wasn’t the only anomaly. Inside the van was a pile of men’s clothing, most significantly a jumpsuit of the kind worn by plumbers and mechanics. It was embroidered with the initials JM, which to my keen detective’s eye directly implicates James McAvoy, Julianne Moore, and John Malkovich as potential suspects.

But the investigators were somehow oblivious to the Hollywood abductor angle, and continued gathering clues. The final strange detail was the flat tire, suggesting the outside possibility that a heavily bleeding Patty had run over a nail, cleaned her car, then hitchhiked the rest of the way? But no, A: that’s ridiculous, and B: there was no puncture mark. The tire had been intentionally deflated, as if someone had wanted to nudge the investigators towards that unlikely interpretation of events.

All of this painted a grim picture. Patty was at the very least severely injured, probably worse. Someone had made active efforts to hide that fact. And in all seriousness, who in hell did the jumpsuit belong to?

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Boyfriend’s Alibi

Now that they expected a body to turn up sometime soon, police could turn their attention towards the suspects. Gary was a relative unknown to Patty’s family — strange in a region of small towns where everyone knows everyone else. Whatever instinctive country-folk doubt that might’ve inspired in the officers was quickly assailed by his stellar alibi.

I mean, it was Christmas Day, after all. Most people had at least half a dozen people who can attest to their whereabouts. Gary was no different. He had been spending time with his own family, and had only been out of sight for long enough to slip off to the bathroom. If he had pulled off a kidnapping and cover-up within those tiny windows of opportunity, he was a true criminal mastermind.

But surely a master criminal wouldn’t go straight to the police station to take part in a lie detector test. That’s just what good ol’ Gary did, with the intent of clearing himself as quickly as possible so the police could focus their search where it mattered. He’s a good bloke Gary, I’ve always liked him.

And despite only meeting them once before, over the following days, Gary won the trust of the family too. Jeannie later recounted: “We didn’t really know him. We really only got to know him while we were searching for Patty. He was out there searching with the rest of us. Except JR. He never came out to help look for his own wife.”

That’s right. JR couldn’t even be bothered to join the crowds combing through fields and brooks for a sign of Patty. Barbara even took a stack of flyers over to him, so he and the kids could pass them out. When she returned a few days later to grab some personal effects for the search dogs, she noticed the flyers still there. Untouched.

JR was faking tasks. Very sus. / That’s a fact which is, in modern parlance, highly sus.

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Interrogating the Husband

With suitor number one eliminated from suspicion, the cops had all the more reason to suspect number two: JR. He didn’t exactly do much to win over public opinion, which almost seems like a counterintuitive point in his favor. Surely if you were guilty, you wouldn’t act so damn guilty!

I mean, he actually filed for divorce on the 26th, the same day Patty’s family were just starting to figure out that she probably wasn’t coming home. Sure, a Christmas Day bust-up might’ve been enough to tip him in favor of a full separation, but surely he could’ve waited until his wife showed up alive first.

Interviews also revealed that JR had already told his landlord that he would be moving out in December, perhaps expecting a reconciliation. Or maybe not, because Barbara revealed that Patty had asked her about how to get a restraining order while they cleaned after dinner on Christmas eve.

Despite all these shady circumstances, JR started off by cooperating with the police. He told his story of how Patty and he were fighting all day. See, he had found out about her new boyfriend on the 13th of December, and this was the first opportunity he had to really hash it out with her. Arguing isn’t illegal though, so there was nothing to directly implicate him in any foul play just yet. 

Judgement would have to be withheld until they could search Patty’s house, now legally occupied by JR, whose name was on all the paperwork. They would also need to get a hold of DNA from all parties involved, to compare against samples found in the car. So JR welcomed Deputies Ramirez and Johnson with open arms and gave them the samples they needed, eager to clear his name of any wrongdoing and set them on the trail of the real culprit. 

No, no, of course he didn’t. Jerry Ray Vaughan instead started to batten down the hatches; he lawyered up and refused to give DNA samples from himself or his children unless the deputies could present a warrant.

Okay, now you can go ahead and start accusing JR. Sorry for the delay.

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The Early Findings

Yes, with his sister and personal attack dog Marilyn by his side, JR hunkered down at the home he once lorded over as a domestic despot. The children were just 6, 7, and 9 years old at the time — old enough to generally know what was going on, but not nearly enough to understand the full implications of their new living arrangement.

The poor kids couldn’t even relax for a few days to let it all sink in, because they would have to be ferried out of the house once again. It was time to search the place. Somehow JR and Marilyn were allowed to stay in the house during the whole thing, and the investigators suspected that they were conspiring to interfere with the forensic team’s efforts. Marilyn in particular refused to leave the technicians to work in peace.

Why might that be, you ask? Well, let’s take a look at the police report, dated 29th of December 1996. The forensic technicians who attended the scene used a substance called Luminol. For those unfamiliar with this nifty bit of chemical wizardry, Luminol is a substance which radiates a blue light when it comes into contact with an oxidizing agent. 

What’s an oxidizing agent? Well, blood is a pretty good one, so much so that it will cause Luminol to light up with its signature luminescent glow even if only small traces are present. Say for example, after a crime scene has been cleaned up, leaving only amounts of blood invisible to the human eye.

It can also reveal hidden footprints, drag marks, and clean-up patterns in a crime scene, painting a clearer picture of what might have happened there. Needless to say, by the time the detectives had gotten into full swing, Patty’s house was glowing like a full moon party in Thailand. 

That’s not to say the place had been totally coated in blood. Substances like bleach can also cause Luminol to shine, and that accounted for much of the patterns in the house. Clearly someone had been very busy doing a bit of post-Christmas cleaning. I wonder who…

The greatest reactions were in the bathroom, the bathtub itself, and on the bedroom floor. Follow up tests revealed that Patty’s blood did account for much of the staining, and that it was even found in significant amounts on a mop and bucket inside the garage. It’s pretty clear that whoever cleaned up the house was not just dealing with an overturned gravy boat…

So, we have our smoking gun: a sodden mop. Perhaps not the most glamorous piece of evidence, but it should do the trick. I mean, this couldn’t be any clearer if JR had sent the detectives a card with the message  “Merry Xmas. I DID IT” inside. So… why do I have the feeling that things aren’t about to wrap up with a nice neat ending? 

I mean, look at the progress bar — apparently I’m not even halfway done talking.

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When interviewed in 2007, Barb revealed that the house wasn’t actually ever sealed off as a crime scene, even after all of these damning test results came back from the lab! There wasn’t a single strip of police tape across any of the doorways, and JR was allowed to continue living there in peace. More disturbingly, he was allowed to bring the kids back in…

Why? Why, why, why? I can hear you shout down the internet tubes. Why, even with so much circumstantial evidence, were the police reluctant to just point the finger? Well, there are a few reasons.

Barb attributes it to mismanagement in the investigation. You see, the town of La Vernia is located in Wilson County, but Patty’s car was found in Bexar County. This led to a lot of tossing back and forth between the two jurisdictions, as well as some involvement by the Texas Rangers, resulting in miscommunications and all sorts of administrative impediments which you really don’t need in the early days of a disappearance case.

The second reason was that this happened in Texas. Every country, and every state, has its own approach to murder investigation. In Texas, things mostly revolve around the mantra: ”No body? No crime.” There have only been a few limited murder convictions in the state without a body to back up the case, meaning that circumstantial evidence just doesn’t hold as much weight there as in other parts of the world. 

And so, the investigation avenue labelled “JR OBVIOUSLY DID IT BLVD” was seen as a dead end. If that sounds counterintuitive to you, wait until you hear this: the warrant which detectives acquired for DNA samples from JR and the kids even stated, in words carrying legal weight, that enough evidence had been gathered to surmise that a murder had been committed in the house.

Don’t clench your jaw like that, it’s bad for your teeth…

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So, where do we go from here? I think it’s fair to say we haven’t jumped to any conclusions, but rather, the conclusion has jumped at us — like one of those fish which leaps right out of the water and into a fisherman’s boat. Great, we’ve caught a nice bit of dinner, but we still haven’t caught the culprit.

In lieu of a body, there was little hope of any major progress, so finding Patty was the number one priority. The usual procedure of combing through the surrounding woodland continued on, but there were another few possibilities which Patty’s family believed would likely yield the devastating results they half needed, half feared.

One was, of course, the family home. Why go to all the trouble of taking a body into the woods when there’s a perfectly good burial lot out back? The other possibility was a little less conventional. Remember how I told you that JR was a contractor for construction work. Well, have you ever seen a mafia movie? 

At the time, he was working on two different projects, both of them schools. The closest to Patty’s home was Natalia High School in the town of Divine, just short of 60km away. At that site, JR was in charge of pouring the concrete for the foundations…

Unfortunately the family would have to wait several years before either of those potential burial spots were investigated properly, so we’re going to have to share their frustration, and wait a little while before we can go snooping around. 

In the meantime, a word on the aftermath. What did JR, after seemingly getting away with murder, go on to do?

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Well, after staying in the house which he once shared with Patty for a while longer, he then moved town. It must be pretty hard to go out and run your errands when everyone in town is convinced you killed your wife. His new home was down south, near the border to Mexico. I don’t want to slip into baseless speculation, but I will say that if I were anticipating a body might soon be found, I’d want to live awfully close to the Mexican border.

Of course, he took the kids with him. There was no legal basis which could force him to surrender custody, so as much as it broke their hearts, Patty’s family had to watch as her children disappeared from their lives. Although clearly a horrific and vindictive move, her sister Barbara actually saw a bit of twisted protectiveness in it. 

She admits herself that her family weren’t shy in calling JR out — why would you be? Imagine the rage of having to watch him walk around town with your niece and nephews, knowing in your heart what he had more than likely done. So JR chose to spare his kids all the gossip and animosity which now surrounded their little lives — what a saint.

He went off without even as much as an explanation, robbing the family of a  further three loved ones. Since they were so young at the time, JR and his sisters, particularly Marliyn, were able to control the narrative and bring them onto the opposing side of what became an ongoing family feud against Patty’s tribe.

Years passed like this, with the case not quite going cold, but never exactly warming too far above tepid either. The family burned through piles of cash within the first year or so, pooling their funds to hire private investigators. They hoped to catch that one key piece of evidence which would lead to justice, and more importantly, closure.

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The School Search

Now, I know I caught your attention with that mention of the concrete foundations at the school. It’s too unique a detail to just let slip by, so let’s take a look. It took five years before investigators decided they had enough due cause to investigate the site, bringing us forward to 2001. 

Thankfully they didn’t have to tear up the entire floor during class time, because modern science offers some less invasive solutions. Ground penetration radar can reveal anomalies in a solid substance, which would allow officers to identify exactly where they needed to dig, if anywhere. 

Now, there are two somewhat conflicting accounts of what happened next, depending on who you believe. To hear Detective Ruben Arevalos tell it, they searched multiple times and found nothing worth following up on. Patty’s aunt Jean Kiolbassa, on the other hand, claims that anomalies were found, but they weren’t allowed to continue looking into it further.

I’m going to go out on a limb and side with the investigators here. Often a family’s drive to find their loved one can amplify any little bit of hope — any minor piece of evidence which normally wouldn’t even register at all. That would account for the visions of another of Patty’s aunts, Cathy Greiner, who says she has vivid dreams that her little niece is buried under that school. Nothing can convince her otherwise.

In reality, official records state that the concrete pouring was completed around 4 days before Christmas. The dates just don’t quite align. This is probably why it likely took so long to pursue this angle in the first place…

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Wrongful Death Lawsuit

And so time ticked on, as it tends to do. Another 4 years of hurt, another four years of not knowing. Just as things seemed to have gone totally quiet again, JR pulled a stunt which ripped open the old scars: he had Patty declared legally dead in 2005. 

This meant that he would then be eligible to collect her life insurance money, a fact which drew a resounding “hell no” from the pro-Patty clan. They took him to court with a wrongful death lawsuit, which prompted JR to tell the media they were trying to get their hands on the cash themselves. 

His best legal gambit was to roll out his eldest, Brittany, who was now in her mid teens. She was there to tell the court what a fantastic father JR was, despite her very presence suggesting the exact opposite. This was the first time she had seen her aunts, uncle, and grandmother since her mother’s death. Either following orders or unable to bear the stress, she shielded her face from their side of the room.

The judge took one look at the family circus setting up in front of him, and decided that he wouldn’t let a young girl be exploited in his courtroom for the sake of scoring a few sympathy points. He gave JR a telling off, and had the girl sent out of the room.

And thankfully, he also blocked the ex-husband’s collection of the money too. Instead, it went into a trust, to be collected by the children when they came of age. The lawsuit itself never reached a final conclusion however, as Patty’s family chose to drop it, out of fear that the financial burden on JR might have a negative impact on the kids. 

The patience and restraint that decision must have taken is pretty superhuman. 

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Cold Case and Late Leads

So things fizzled out again, and the family had to make do with waiting for leads to trickle in little by little. Then in 2008 the detectives of Bear County received the cold case file from their neighboring jurisdiction, and decided to take another run at it. 

This time they specifically focussed on the jumpsuit found inside the car. Was this piece of evidence relevant, or just a ruse put there to throw them off the trail? I mean, an embroidered logo with someone’s initials placed inside a crime scene is pretty conspicuous, maybe too much so. At any rate, it should’ve received far more attention back in late 1996 than it did. 

Running through all the old evidence and statements, the police managed to add a bit of life back to this dying case. They surmised in December 2008 that, given the relatively short time between disappearance and investigation, and the amount of cover-up which had been achieved, the prime suspect couldn’t have done it alone.

They identified three potential accomplices who may have helped in the disposal of the body, but weren’t willing to identify them to the press as no arrests were at that point planned. I think there’s one person who we can safely assume might have made the list — a certain sister of a certain suspected murderer, who went out of her way to impede a team of forensic investigators. 

Hold that thought for a moment — it’ll soon become even more relevant. We’re jumping forward another 4 years, to 2012. Now we’re firmly in the middle of the Bluray era, following a case which began on VHS. It’s taken this long to discover one of the most crucial elements in the entire case.

16 years after he first looked inside the old 1991 Dodge Caravan abandoned off the freeway, Deputy Ramirez ran over it with a tooth comb once again. Further analysis of the DNA in Patty’s van revealed that, mixed in among her own, were traces of someone else’s. It belonged to a mystery woman, who had in some way been involved in the disappearance of Patty.

Now, Ramirez obviously had a good idea who it might belong to, and I’ve already dropped a hint heavy enough to crush you flat. But unfortunately, to get a DNA sample from the most likely suspect, he would have to demonstrate probable cause — something which he simply wasn’t able to do at this point.

Anyway that’s not exactly new information — we always suspected Marilyn — but it is a clear physical link which could implicate the alleged killer’s alleged accomplice should a body then be found. And we might yet have one last shot at finding it. It’s 2014, and finally, finally, the police are going to dig up the garden at Patty’s old home.

By this point JR is of course long gone. There’s no-one to demand a warrant or disrupt the dig. Even more significantly, the investigators have a solid tip to go on: a neighbor reported hearing equipment being moved around in the garden on the 25th and 26th of December 1996. He left the tip with authorities several times, but this was somehow the first time anyone had followed up on it.

A team of Texas Rangers went along to the house, accompanied by some FBI advisors. Together they dug up an area down at the bottom of the lawn, aaand… nothing. Again, nothing but frustration. You were likely expecting as much by now. 

Another person who shared your pessimism was Joanne Mollenkopf, one of the Vaughans’ neighbors back in 1996. She was pretty scornful of the Rangers’ efforts, which came along almost 18 years after the fact. In her eyes, if there ever really was a body buried there, it had long since been shifted. Too little, too late.

Here here, Joanne. Here here…

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Dramatic Retelling (Speculation)

I’m sorry to tell you, but our story doesn’t go much further than that I’m afraid. This is one of those cases in which the detectives seemed to do most things right, and which wasn’t obstructed by any major mysteries. For all intents and purposes, the damn thing seemed solved! 

But due to a few technicalities and a smidgeon of red tape, the whole thing faded out without any arrest ever being made. 2,000 hours of police time for no payoff. The story is left without an ending, which means that it’s either still to come or forever to be left unfinished.

But if we can’t have the story we want, let’s indulge in the story which the evidence seems to tell. Before I go any further, I’ll state that everything which follows is essentially just conjecture. Innocent until proven guilty, and that means proven in a court of law, rather than the court of online opinion.

With that little disclaimer out of the way, here’s the story of how murder suspect Jerry Ray Vaughan probably murdered his wife.

On Christmas Day 1996, JR came around to the house of his estranged wife Patty. He greeted their three children with hugs and wished them merry Christmas. The performance of normality seemed to be starting off well. After giving the kids their presents, and seeing what else Santa had brought them, the adults took some time aside to talk.

The boys went out to play basketball, while their daughter played with her new toys in the other room. JR had found out about Patty’s new boyfriend, and he wasn’t happy. The shock was probably still quite fresh, as he only discovered the fact  less than 2 weeks before. His wife had a boyfriend. Suddenly the idea that their separation was just a temporary measure became a naive and humiliating fantasy. 

Of course, for a man so used to controlling his wife’s life, a major transgression like that couldn’t go unanswered, so he raised the topic with her that morning. The discussion turned, as it always had in the dying months of their relationship, heated. Insults were hurled, past grievances renewed. It was a mess, much of it likely overheard by Brittaney, who had already grown used to blocking it all out.

At some point early on in the whole thing, the phone started ringing. Patty answered, and was hit with a cheery “Merry Christmas” — words with a bittersweet sting to them, considering how little merriness was filling her home. After a brief exchange, she hangs up the phone and goes back to the argument, trying to explain to JR that it was over.

This back and forth continued for who knows how long, with the phone ringing on unanswered in the background. It became clear that Patty was no longer the kind to bend and bow to JR’s commands. She tells him that she’s moving on, and wants to be with Gary. 

What happened next is a tale as old as time: in a blind rage, the scorned husband attacks his wife. He likely uses a weapon which would leave enough blood for the search to later find. A knife perhaps. Within a second, it’s over. Patty drops to the floor, bleeding out.

The phone rings again as the last few moments of Patty’s life slip by. On the other end is Gary, calling to see how things are going. He’s worried about her, because he knows what JR is capable of. He never expected anything like this.

With a body lying dead in front of him, JR panics. He doesn’t know what to do — caught in that moment of comedown in which a callous killer is reduced to a terrified child. He calls his sister, and has her take the kids out of the house. 

One of them contacts some other associates, and has them help with the cleaning of the house and disposal of the body. While waiting for his help to arrive, JR moves the body to the bathtub. Over the course of the next few anxious hours, he has to turn friends and family away at the door with a bogus story. Eventually, his morally-questionable helpers arrive.

Together they scrub every inch of the bedroom and bathroom with bleach, and drag the corpse of the victim out to her car. As dinner time rolls around, JR deals with all of the inquiries from concerned relatives, telling them that Patty won’t be coming round for dinner because… erm, she’s gone… yep, she took off. Goodbye now.

It’s now well into the small hours of the 26th, and whoever is in charge of the disposal drives the body to… well, if I knew then I’d be calling the police, not revealing it here — sorry to disappoint. After getting rid of this crucial piece of evidence, they scrub the car clean, deflate a tyre, and leave it off the side of the freeway.

With that, the physical practicalities were dealt with, and all that was left to do was to set up some legal barricades, and retreat into a post-murder life with full custody of the children. The woman who brought each of them into the world was gone. JR had beat the system, but faced a lifetime of knowing — knowing exactly what he had done. Who knows what kind of toll that can take on a person. I hope it’s a heavy one.

No matter how shoddy it might have all been allegedly carried out, without a body there was not nothing anybody could do to crack the case. End of. 

_________________________

Wrap-up

Now again, that’s all just conjecture but… c’mon, you’re with me, no? Maybe a few details are off, like perhaps JR had actually loaded Patty into the car alive in an attempt to save her, who knows. 

Not that it matters; unless some major development comes along to break the case back open again, it’s unlikely we’ll see it solved any time soon. All that’s left is to look at where things stand in the present, to see if there’s any hope of a conclusion.

First of all, what happened to JR? Well, he’s now living in Colorado under a completely different name, on account of all the media attention which was piled upon his head. And no, we will not be DOXing him on the show — this is The Casual Criminologist, not The Casual Vigilante.

To add to the sadness of the whole affair, none of the children have ever seen Patty’s side of the family since Brittaney was ushered out of the courtroom in 2005. By now they’re not children at all: all of them are in their 30s.

Some of Patty’s family suspect that they might actually hold some missing piece to the whole puzzle, but as of yet none of them have come forward to reveal what they experienced on that Christmas Day all those years ago. Brittany was in the next room, according to JR’s police statements, after all.

One of the family members attempted to contact her through MySpace (remember this case largely took place in the prehistoric early-internet days). But shortly after the message was sent, her account was deactivated. It seems that whatever Patty’s children think of the whole affair, it’s been colored by decades of exposure to JR’s side of the story.

_________________________

But the family still haven’t given up. In their eyes, it’s not even about vengeance any more. Patty’s aunt has gone on the record stating that she wouldn’t care if the culprit “didn’t spend a single night in jail”. Their main goal is to find her remains, and lay her to rest with a proper funeral.

As Jeannie put it in a recent interview: “It’s just devastating. To lose my sister. And to lose those children. They were like my siblings. We just want this nightmare to be over. And even more than justice, we just want to be able to lay her to rest. We want to be at peace.”

Her sister Barbara spent much of the nineties and early 2000s leading her own search for information with a website called findpattyvaughan.com. Nowadays the URL is dead, the blank 404 screen a symbol of the family’s withering hopes. 

With Patty’s mother pushing 80 years old and suffering from cancer, they hope now more than ever that a break might come soon…

_________________________

Which brings us to the final part of the show, where we ask, is there any chance that you at home might know something which could help. The Charley Project is a database of missing people across the USA, and they describe Patty as follows:

Height: 5’6 – 5’7

Weight: 120 pounds

Distinguishing Characteristics: Blonde hair, green eyes. Patty’s ears are pierced. Her maiden name is Brightwell and her last name may be spelled “Vaughn” by some agencies. She has a small mole on the right side of her chin and an appendectomy scar on her abdomen. 

If that description, or anything else in the show, rings any bells, then contact the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, who are still in control of the cold case today.

Perhaps my appeal isn’t hitting home enough for you, so I’ll wrap things up with the words of Barbara. In 2007, she sent out a message to Patty’s oldest child during a radio show, and I think it’s worth re-broadcasting now, 13 years later.

“I would tell Brittany that we love her so much, and her brothers, Ray and Tyler. And that her mother loved her more than life itself, and would have done anything for her. I promised her the last time I saw her that I would find her mother, and I still mean that today.”

Best of luck Barb. We’re all rooting for you…

_________________________

So, there you have it — a Christmassy tale of murder and the merry perversion of justice. It’s by no means a cheery story to tell while you’re sitting around the fireplace, but an interesting case nonetheless. While we wait to see if anything comes of it in the years ahead, it’s left to me to try and extract a non-depressing take away from it all. Here goes…

It took Patty’s family another ten years before they could bear to celebrate Christmas again. When they were finally able to bear the emotional strain and come together, they left an empty seat at the dinner table for her — an altar to her memory, dressed with cutlery and napkins. But unlike on that unhappy Christmas night in 1996, the empty seat wasn’t a source of anxiety — this time, it actually brought them comfort. Because acknowledging the absence allowed them to hope that, wherever Patty might be, ultimately, she was at peace.

So I guess, the next time you sit down with your family, whether on Christmas or not, let’s be thankful for the seats which are still filled.

Merry Christmas.

Dismembered Appendices

1. During the first few years of the search, a woman claiming to be a psychic contacted Patty’s mother. This woman went on to create a pretty grim and melancholy website to try to spread awareness, but the forum page descended into a vitriolic brawl between JRs accusers and defenders, and the whole thing was taken down. People acting uncivil online? Surely not. 

2. Despite the family bringing out national networks NBC, FOX, CBS, and ABC within the first days of the whole affair, they soon packed up and lost most of their interest. Why? Because the disappearance happened on the exact same day as that of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey in Colorado — a much more famous case.

3. In February 1997, Patty’s mother did something which I’m sure a lot of others have imagined giving a go. Desperate for answers, she barged into JR’s home at 3AM, and attacked him with a baseball bat. She was charged with burglary and assault, then released on a 50,000 dollar bond. All in all, it was probably a small price to pay for the satisfaction.

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