Death in the Desert

Gary Patterson flew to El Paso for a job interview--and never returned. It took nearly two years for the Texas Rangers and Waco police to unravel the bizarre web of lies and treachery that led to his disappearance.

Lisa was arrested in August 1996 and returned to Waco where she was charged with interference with child custody and granted only limited and supervised visits with her daughter.

Ironically, Lisa's sentencing hearing (at which she would receive probation) was held the day before the man calling himself Ned Wright showed up at the offices of Brazos Environmental and Engineering. And it would be months later before the Pattersons had cause to reflect on a strange request they had earlier received from their estranged ex-daughter-in-law: Lisa had phoned to ask them for a photograph of Gary. She wanted it, she said, for a locket she'd bought for her daughter.


Former Asst. U.S. Attorney Bill Johnson took time from his efforts to prosecute Branch Davidians to help solve the Patterson puzzle.
AP/Wide World
Former Asst. U.S. Attorney Bill Johnson took time from his efforts to prosecute Branch Davidians to help solve the Patterson puzzle.

Tales of a family divided and angry accusations aside, Waco police detectives Steve January and Kristina Woodruff agreed their first order of business was to learn more about the man who had visited Gary Patterson.

Veteran officers, they had investigated countless domestic squabbles and heard a litany of wild and unfounded claims during their service in the Bible Belt city of 100,000. Neither, however, had even the slightest hint they were venturing into a dark maze of criminal activity that would occupy their lives for the next year and a half.

"One of the things we'd been told by people at Brazos Environmental," says Detective January, "was that he [Wright] had arrived and left by taxi. In Waco, that's pretty unusual." It provided a starting place for the investigation.

At the local Yellow Cab company, a driver recalled picking up a fare at the Fairfield Inn and taking him to Brazos Environmental. Later, he remembered, he'd received a call to drive the passenger back to the motel.

Checking telephone records at the Fairfield, they found that several calls had been placed to Brazos Environmental from Room 105. Registration records, however, indicated that the room had been occupied not by Ned Wright but by a man named Theodore Donald Young. In keeping with company policy, the motel had made a Xerox copy of the guest's driver's license when he'd checked in.

Returning to Patterson's workplace with a grainy black and white copy of the license photo, the detectives were assured it was a picture of the Florida businessman who had earlier visited there. Ned Wright, it appeared, was actually Theodore Young, a man January and Woodruff would soon learn had been a federal fugitive since February 1995. Convicted in a $26-million fraud case in South Carolina and sentenced to serve 51 months in prison, Young had failed to surrender himself to prison authorities as ordered and had been at large since.

If the investigators had any doubts about the elder Patterson's claims that his son's father-in-law was somehow involved in the growing mystery, they were soon erased by the surreptitious efforts of Scott Settimo, the San Diego private investigator who had been hired to locate Lisa Urick Patterson.

Convinced that Lisa's father was financing her efforts to remain in hiding, Settimo had focused his efforts on tracking Urick, convinced he would eventually lead him to his daughter. "He'd done a very thorough investigation," January says, "and was convinced Sam was a pretty shady character, involved in various kinds of business scams, frauds, and money laundering activities."

During a telephone conversation with the Waco detective, Settimo described trailing Urick during one of his frequent visits to the West Coast. At one point, he said, he'd approached Urick's parked Lincoln and seen what looked like a leather-bound day planner in the front seat. What it was, actually, was a book in which its owner kept addresses and phone numbers of friends and associates.

"Want me to send you a copy of it?" the private investigator asked.

Opting not to press Settimo for details of how the phone book had made its way into his hands, January recited a Federal Express number and requested that he overnight it. What the detective would find among the numbers, foreign and domestic, that Urick had recorded were several with El Paso prefixes. One was listed aside the name Ted Young.

It was time, the detectives agreed, to follow the same course Settimo had and focus their investigation on Sam Urick.

"I placed a call to him at his trucking company in Conroe in hopes of setting up an interview," January recalls. "I tried to persuade him to come to Waco to talk to us but he insisted I come there. He made it clear he wanted me on his turf. And then, toward the end of the conversation, he began to say some really strange things. He started talking about my boys; even knew their names. 'I've had you checked out,' he said, 'and I know how much you love your kids.' And then he hung up."

Unnerved by the tone of Urick's voice, the detective quickly pushed the rewind button on the tape recorder attached to his phone, only to find that it had failed to record what he had perceived as a threat. Frustrated, Steve January kicked a trashcan across the room.

The frustration would quickly be compounded. By the time January could schedule a visit to Conroe, Sam Urick had shut down the business and fled. The "trucking company" he'd left behind showed little evidence of being a legitimate business. In the yard was a single dilapidated truck. A computer check would reveal that Southern Sales previously had operated under a half dozen names and company presidents. The only real evidence that any kind of business had been transacted out of the small office were long-distance phone bills that often ran as high as $2,000 per month. Records showed a number of calls to various numbers in El Paso, some to places as far away as Honduras.

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My dad was an amazing man, every day that I wake up I'm thankful to have known him for the little time that i did, and for those people who were supportive and helped out in any way. Nobody truly knows how much it means to have the entire community and then some to come together for one family and help out.Also for books like this that help get my story out. Thank yall


I knew Gary, a good guy and hard worker. He used to work the night shift in the convenience store during the week and still get up and go to school.


I know a number of people involved in this case and went to school with both Detective Woodruff and Gary. They are/were incredible people of integrity.

I am thankful his story can be told and that Kristina was one of those who brought his murderers to justice.My heart goes out to his parents and especially to his daughter. Gary was well-liked by those who knew him. He lives on in his precious daughter. I pray she knows how much he loved her.


I was the child's teacher during all of this. I experienced the situation first hand. It was devestating to the child and family of Gary. Such a sad story!