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.

Another longtime Urick associate, owner of 600 isolated desert acres east of El Paso, admitted that Urick had been a regular visitor in his home, sometimes staying for weeks.

Then, there was an old buddy of Sam's who had left town before they had a chance to talk with him. He'd recently been indicted for defrauding the Royal Bank of Canada of almost $200 million.

And, on a hardscrabble road leading past a maze of plywood shacks and cardboard lean-tos, the home of a man named Ollie Martinez. Yes, he said, he knew Ted Young. In fact, Sam Urick had come to his house looking for him on several occasions.

Solving the mystery of Gary Patterson's disappearance required the cooperation of multiple law enforcement agencies. Clockwise, from upper left: Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon and Waco detectives Kristina Woodruff and Steve January each played key roles in the investigation.
Michael Hogue
Solving the mystery of Gary Patterson's disappearance required the cooperation of multiple law enforcement agencies. Clockwise, from upper left: Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon and Waco detectives Kristina Woodruff and Steve January each played key roles in the investigation.
Solving the mystery of Gary Patterson's disappearance required the cooperation of multiple law enforcement agencies. From top: Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon and Waco detectives Kristina Woodruff and Steve January each played key roles in the investigation.
Peter Calvin
Solving the mystery of Gary Patterson's disappearance required the cooperation of multiple law enforcement agencies. From top: Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon and Waco detectives Kristina Woodruff and Steve January each played key roles in the investigation.

"We explained how important it was that we locate Ted," Cawthon says, "and he immediately volunteered to take us to where he was living."

"He's in Honduras," Martinez told them.

Yet when the Waco investigators passed the information to U.S. Marshals in El Paso, they were quickly warned that Martinez was also a known hustler most likely just looking for a free ride back home to Central America. Another lead cut off.

Despite some progress during the next few months, the detectives knew that if real progress was to be made, a dramatic breakthrough was needed. That event would be set in motion in Waco in June 1998 when Lisa Urick Patterson, having failed to pay ordered court costs and fees in the aftermath of receiving her probated sentence, was arrested and placed in the McLennan County jail.

Before returning to try to talk with her, however, Cawthon wanted to play a hunch. For weeks he'd been reading accounts in the local papers of dozens of discarded bodies of young female factory workers found in the deserts outside nearby Juarez. What, he wondered, were the odds that Patterson had met the same fate? It was time, he decided, to get a look at the ranch east of town.

"When we arrived out there," he remembers, "this old Dodge Charger comes racing down a hill, spewing dust 20 feet into the air. The driver was head of security for the property, ex-military, and, it turns out, a real police buff. When we gave him a general idea of what we were up to, he said he was glad someone was looking at the place because he was pretty sure whatever was going on there wasn't legal. To my surprise, he agreed to meet with us when he got off work."

That evening, Cawthon would subtly try to turn the conversation to the landscape of the ranch.

"I've walked every inch of that 600 acres," the guard assured him.

"Ever find any bones out there?"

The guard nodded. "I've got some at home on the work bench in my garage," he said.

In short order they were at his house, collecting two bleached pieces of bone, explaining they would like to have a Baylor University anthropologist examine them. The guard shrugged. "Be my guest," he said.

Back in Waco, Dr. Susan Mackey-Wallace needed only a quick look at the first piece of bone Cawthon pulled from his briefcase to identify it as part of a human arm.

The time now seemed right to visit the county jail and talk with Lisa.

A STEP FORWARD,

TWO BACK

Lisa Urick Patterson made no secret of her instant dislike of Detective Woodruff. Rolling her eyes at the officer's shoulder-length blond hair, she immediately dubbed her "Barbie doll" and refused to speak to her.

"At first," January says, "she wouldn't say anything. I explained to her that the window of opportunity was closing pretty fast and had, in the past day or so, gotten even tighter. I said, 'You're never going to believe what we found in the desert out in El Paso.' That seemed to get her finally attention."

A human bone, he told her. "She just leaned forward, the veins on her temples popping out. She was shaking, holding her stomach like she was cramping." Twenty-four hours later, she talked.

Yes, she finally admitted, she had known that her father was planning to lure Gary to El Paso. "But only to beat him up," she insisted. "He knew Gary would come as soon as they offered the new Suburban. Gary loved new cars and toys like that." And, yes, it had been her father's idea that she lie to the Pattersons about the need for a photograph of her ex-husband. "The man who was going to approach Gary needed to know what he looked like," she said.

Slow moving and cautious to that point, U.S. attorney Johnston listened as the investigators outlined the new evidence to him. Almost exactly a year had passed since Gary Patterson had disappeared. It was time, he said, to get arrest warrants for Sam Urick and Ted Young and a search warrant for the ranch where the bones were found.

"But, for every step forward," Cawthon says, "it seemed we took two back. We go out to the ranch, waving our warrant and looking like the Sugarland Express come to town, and start searching all over the desert for a body. ... And, sure enough, we find one. But it isn't the one we were looking for." It was, it would turn out, another murder victim from an El Paso homicide case.

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4 comments
CEP
CEP

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

JEM
JEM

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.

DJM
DJM

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.

dv
dv

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!

 
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