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.

It had been harder than either had expected. First, the Florida plan fell through when Patterson insisted on bringing his girlfriend. On another occasion, Young, posing as Ned Wright, had called Gary Patterson and asked that he meet him at the Waco airport one morning. He was to then drive Patterson to an area near China Springs where Urick was waiting to kill him and stuff his body into a waiting oil drum. "Something happened and Patterson didn't show up at the airport when I arrived," Young recalled.

Then they had come up with the El Paso plan.

For much of that May day, Young said, he had been forced to keep Patterson occupied, delaying the "meeting" until dark. They had lunch and visited several bars. By the time he finally announced it was time to go meet the CEO, Patterson was tipsy. "I told him that on the way I had to drive out to this development site and pick up a soil sample," Young said. "As I drove Paulson's pickup out into the desert, Gary kept dozing off."

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.

When they arrived at the pre-arranged location, Young had pulled a .22 pistol from beneath the driver's seat and pointed it at a now wide-awake Patterson. Sam Urick pulled open the passenger door, smiled, and said, "I've got you now, motherfucker." He began wrapping duct tape around Patterson's arms and legs, then yanked him from the truck.

"Sam told me to go on back into town," Young said. "He said, 'Get out of here and don't come back until tomorrow. This is going to take all night.'" Young said he immediately returned to the Red Roof Inn and placed a call to a local escort service. "When I saw Sam the next morning, I asked where Gary was. He said, 'He's in the desert.'"

Cawthon pushed a notepad across the table. "Show me where."

"The original plan," Young said, "was to do it on that old ranch east of town. But they had these security people wandering around. So, we decided on a spot adjacent to it."

Later that evening, Steve January, who'd earlier arrested Clark Paulson, was packing to leave his El Paso hotel room when Cawthon reached him with the news of Young's arrest. "Get a search party together," the Ranger said. "I'm faxing you a map to where Gary Patterson's body is buried."

Coordinating activities from Bill Johnston's office, Kristina Woodruff reacted to the news with her own expression of satisfaction: an ear-splitting scream.

CLOSURE

On August 3, 1998, digging at a spot located by a search dog, authorities discovered a body buried in a shallow grave. January halted the digging and ordered that the area be roped off. A helicopter was summoned to take aerial photographs, and a video cameraman was lifted onto a hydraulic "mule" to document the excavation. Dirt sifters and metal detectors were ordered to search for bullets or shell casings in the event the victim had been shot. The medical examiner was summoned.

A lieutenant with the El Paso County sheriff's department, alerted to the plans for the search, had angrily insisted January was out of his jurisdiction and demanded that the case be turned over to local authorities. "I tried to explain to him that this was a federal investigation," the detective says, "but his response was that he didn't give a shit and was going to take over."

Alerted to the problem, the U.S. Attorney in El Paso offered a simple solution: Place an officer at the road leading into the area, she said. If the lieutenant shows up, arrest him.

"I knew the body was Gary Patterson," January says, "and all I wanted was to be absolutely certain we did everything as perfectly as possible. We'd come too far to take any chance of messing something up." The body that was finally unearthed and taken away to the medical examiner's office was still dressed in the white shirt, black jeans, and boots that investigators had been told Patterson wore on the morning of his trip to El Paso.

Although it would not be until the following day that the coroner would rule the body was, in fact, that of Gary Patterson, January had known. He was certain from the moment the grave was discovered that the lengthy search had finally ended. After 15 months, everything had come together in 10 days.

Calling the weary and sun-drained search crew together, he thanked them--for the Patterson family, for the Waco police department, and the Texas Rangers. There was more he thought of saying, but his voice had begun to break. With a silent nod he excused himself to the privacy of one of the SUV parked nearby.

There, for the first time in his career as a law enforcement officer, he cried.

EPILOGUE

In a Waco courtroom late in September 1999, Sam Urick and Ted Young pled guilty to the murder of Gary Patterson. Urick, 59, received a life sentence, thereby heading off Bill Johnston's plan to seek the death penalty if the case went to trial. In the days following his arrest, he told of beating Patterson repeatedly with a pipe before burying him that night in the desert. He would not admit, however, knowledge that he had likely buried his victim while still alive despite the coroner's findings that sand had been inhaled into the thorax.

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5 comments
nancyalfred0089
nancyalfred0089

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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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