Longform

Death in the Desert

"Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. There is no such thing as concealment..."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

PROLOGUE

The search had been under way for three days in the early summer blast furnace of the El Paso County desert, and, finally, the young female detective in charge was experiencing the feelings of anticipation that homicide investigators sometimes get: The victim's body, she was certain, was somewhere nearby. Today, after a year of frustration, false leads, and blind alleys, they would finally find it.

There were dog teams, high-tech equipment, and volunteers from the military base and the nearby prison on hand, along with a veteran Texas Ranger. He had been the first to discover what appeared to be a human bone that had been unearthed by foraging animals. Then he had found a weathered tennis shoe. Then another bone.

They were getting close, and the detective could feel an anxious flood of adrenalin fueling her optimism.

Suddenly, they came upon, almost as if a mid-day mirage, a neatly formed pile of rocks. Beneath it were skeletal remains. Despite the grimness of the discovery, everyone began to cheer and exchange high-fives. "I think," the detective proudly announced, "that we've finally found what we've been looking for."

Armed with photographs and dental records, she accompanied the remains to the El Paso coroner's office to await confirmation that her case finally had been solved. While she sat, sipping from a cup of bitter coffee, a fellow officer wearing the badge of the local police department walked past without so much as a nod. Also holding a folder of pictures and dental records, he huddled briefly with the coroner, then walked away with a broad smile.



The woman tried to stand but instead felt herself slowly wilting to the concrete floor, where she sat silently for several minutes, hoping the sudden wave of nausea would go away. Finally regaining her composure, she dialed the number of her partner, who was anxiously waiting hundreds of miles away.

"We finally found a body," the detective said. Then, after a pause, she added, "But it's not ours."

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

When the man calling himself Ned Wright first appeared in the offices of Waco's Brazos Environmental and Engineering Services in mid-April 1997, talking of a hush-hush development his Florida-based Fortune 500 company had in mind, some of the employees thought it strange. Tanned, gray-haired, and in his late 40s, Wright offered few details of his company's plan, saying only that it involved construction of a large modular home community and a great deal of money. He and his partner, he said, had heard good things about Brazos Environmental and were considering hiring members of the Texas firm to do some of the groundwork on the project.



Although he would not divulge the name of his company or even provide a business card, Wright asked to review résumés of all Brazos Environmental employees. Sensing the possibility of a high-dollar contract, the firm's executives quickly extended their best Central Texas hospitality to the mysterious visitor. When he later suggested that he would like to personally meet everyone in the office--"I like to shake a man's hand and look him in the eye before I hire him," he explained--his hosts readily obliged.

Among those he met on his handshake tour of the offices was Gary Patterson, a 33-year-old draftsman too far down the company pecking order to have a résumé on file. For reasons neither Patterson nor his fellow employees quite understood, the Florida businessman took an immediate interest in him.

Before leaving Waco, Wright placed several calls to Patterson, explaining how impressed he'd been with him during their brief meeting. Would it be possible for him to get away for a few days to come to Florida for a visit with his partner, the company's CEO, to discuss the possibility of coming to work for them? Patterson, struggling with a series of personal problems and more than a little weary of Waco at the time, was flattered by the attention and said he'd think it over.

The courtship, which both agreed was best kept secret, went on for three weeks. Ned Wright continued to phone Patterson regularly at his work number, sometimes giving a phony name, sometimes refusing to give a name at all. "Gary," the receptionist had begun to joke when Wright phoned, "it's that strange guy from Florida who doesn't want me to know who he is."

Finally, much to Wright's delight, Patterson agreed to fly to Florida for an interview. What the divorced draftsman would like to do, he suggested, was bring his new girlfriend along and tack a short sun-and-sand vacation onto the visit.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers