A Woman’s Place
Note: This story contains depictions of violence, including sexual violence.
In prison, Patty Prewitt has learned the shower room is the best place to cry. She can release the grief and frustration that comes with living behind bars, wash the tears from her face and into the drain. Inmates might assume from her puffy eyes that she got lucky, that for once the water was hot.
Dressed again in a gray prison jumpsuit, eyes dry, keeping it together, Patty emerges from the shower as the other Patty, the five-hour energy drink, as one con calls her—a teacher and a coach, a mom to many women who never had one. Patty knows who she is, and who she was before she landed in prison.
“I come from oak trees,” she likes to say, “and our roots go deep in the ground and that sets me apart. Most of the women here are willows; they’ve been bended and bandied about in a whole number of different ways.”
As an old-timer, convicted of murder decades ago, the girls, as she calls her fellow prisoners, look to Patty for guidance, perhaps wisdom. Thirty-six when she went in, she’s seventy now. Yeah, she’s learned a few things. Courts are not your friend, that’s one. Two, the mere act of living means each of them has reason not to give up. “You’re alive,” she says. “Hold your head up.”
Patty doesn’t know how many times she has said that, hold your head up. She repeats it as much for herself as for the girls. Hold your head up. She scolds without shaming, her voice cracking like a hinge, rusted over with a southern Missouri accent. Don’t slump your shoulders. Don’t be embarrassed. You can do it. You’re just stopping through. Use this place for your own good. You are not the person people say you are.
Thirty-six years ago, the state said Patty was the kind of woman who would kill her husband for lust and money. The prosecutor didn’t have much to go on. She was married to the deceased. There were footprints that an expert said bore a resemblance to a pair of boots she owned. There was the damning testimony of a controversial pathologist, and of an ambitious deputy sheriff. But what the state’s case really turned on was this: more than five years before his murder, she had cheated on her husband.
“I ask you to keep an open mind,” Patty’s attorney, Robert Beaird, told the jury in his opening statement. “Listen, wait until I come back at the end of this case and talk because nothing is black and white.”
Beaird, however, was unable to sway the jury. Patty was sentenced to life, with no chance of parole for fifty years. She still denies she shot and killed her husband, Bill Prewitt, on the night of February 18, 1984, in Holden, Missouri. She denies it now just as vehemently as she did when she was first charged.
Patty is currently the longest-serving woman in prison in Missouri. Her first chance for parole comes in 2036, when she’ll be eighty-six. There are more than two million people currently incarcerated in the US. Many of them, as many as 120,000, according to estimates from the New York-based Innocence Project, may be wrongfully incarcerated. Racial disparities, always a feature of the American justice system, are rightly coming under increasing scrutiny, but Patty’s case reflects another disturbing trend: the meteoric, 834 percent rise in the number of women in state prisons over the last forty years. Missouri has the fastest-growing female prison population in the nation.
During Patty’s incarceration, she has mentored and encouraged other prisoners—many of them credit her for their rehabilitation—and was a founding member of Prison Performing Arts at the women’s prison in Vandalia, Missouri, where she is serving her sentence. A play she wrote was performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. She has earned multiple diplomas.
“Miss Prewitt is a very charismatic person and certainly her conduct inside, in the Department of Corrections, from all reports has been very good,” said Robert W. Russell, the current prosecutor of Johnson County, Missouri, where Patty was charged. “She’s been very helpful to a lot of people, done a lot of things, very positive. And I think that the fact that she was essentially the room mother, the PTA person that everybody knew in the city of Holden, it’s hard to believe that someone like that could commit murder.”
Donna May, a St. Louis, Missouri woman who served time with Patty from 1990 until her release in 2002, told me she still thinks of Patty.
“The word Barnabas in the Bible means encourager and that’s what I would call Patty. My Barnabas,” Donna said.
I learned about Patty from reading posts on Facebook advocating her release. She has garnered the support of many Democratic and Republican Missouri lawmakers, artists, lawyers, academics, and even the retired director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, George Lombardi.
“The state will spend upwards of $350,000 to keep Patty behind bars through 2036,” Lombardi wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 2, 2019. “It’s hard to imagine a justification for spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to continue to imprison a sixty-nine-year-old grandmother and model prisoner who has already served over three decades.”
I mentioned Patty to Kansas City criminal attorney Sean O’Brien, who has been a source of mine on wrongful imprisonment stories. He knew of Patty. In the late 1990s, Patty began writing to O’Brien to keep him apprised of the health of another inmate, Faye Copeland, whom O’Brien had represented after she and her husband were charged in the killing of five men in the 1990s. In 2002, the eighty-one-year-old Faye fell and broke a leg and was taken to the infirmary, unconscious. Patty called O’Brien. He contacted the governor’s legal counsel, who processed a medical parole, and Copeland was transferred almost immediately to a nursing home. O’Brien remains convinced that if Patty had not called him, Faye would have died in prison, because medical paroles are notoriously hard to get in Missouri. It’s remarkable to him that someone in Patty’s situation would contact him on behalf of someone other than herself.
“Patty is not an innocence case that’s slam-dunk,” he said. “There’re a lot of questions about it. What disturbs me about her trial is the slut-shaming. That’s how they convicted her. When evidence relies on circumstance it’s not like an eyewitness, where you can discredit the witness with other testimony. The circumstantial inferences are tougher to tackle. Sort of like shadow boxing. You’ll never knock out your shadow. I look at her conduct in prison as reason to doubt her guilt of her crime. If she’s that calculating a person, she’s not going to be calling me about Faye. She’ll be calling me about herself.”
Intrigued, I looked up Patty online. Photographs showed a lean woman with shoulder-length gray hair, posing with her family in a prison visiting room. Smiling, lines threading her face, pleasure and weariness in her eyes. I wrote to Patty, and as I waited for a reply I spoke to several women who had done time with her. One of them, Jane Ponte, served two years in Vandalia for felony drunken driving in 2009 and participated in an exercise class Patty taught. When inmates sat down or walked off, Patty stopped them, Jane recalled.
“No, no, not in my class,” she said. “We’re going to finish. We started something and we’re going to complete it. Get up! Get back here.”
Jane would see Patty in the chapel sometimes, singing her heart out. It reminded her of the autobiography of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wondered how this woman could be singing with so much joy and openness in such a place. One day, walking with Patty around the track in the prison yard, Jane asked her, “Do you even believe in God anymore?”
Patty laughed and said, “There are days, absolutely. God and I have gone round and round.” She had to cope, she continued. She had to keep her faith and not let prison break her.
Three weeks after I wrote to Patty, I received her response. She agreed to talk to me by phone, three times a week, for the fifteen minutes allowed by the prison. “We’ll have to talk as fast as chipmunks,” she said. In our first conversation, she recalled growing up on a six-hundred-and-forty-acre farm with horses and cattle in Lone Jack, Missouri, about thirty miles southeast of Kansas City. She was the daughter of Frank and Ann Slaughter and she had a sister, Mary, and a brother, Frank Jr. Everyone in her family played guitars, fiddles, and banjos, although no one liked her Uncle Casey’s banjo picking because he played too loud. Before school, her father milked the cows and Patty and her siblings bottle-fed calves and piglets rejected by their mothers, raised them, and ate them. Her first prison roommate, Susan, whom Patty described as a recovering heroin addict and hilarious biker broad, used to call her “Walton,” after the 1970s television series about an American family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II.
When she was in the sixth grade, Patty’s father rented a small house in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, which he considered a better school district than Lone Jack, and in seventh grade she first met Bill, though no sparks flew. Six years later, however, they had a class together their senior year in high school. They started talking, double-dated a few times, and hit it off. After graduation they enrolled at Central Missouri State University, now the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg. Young and in love, they married in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, moving faster than they had planned to prevent Bill from being drafted. Patty’s father gave them a small house on three acres in Lone Jack. In time they would buy five acres near Lee’s Summit and build their own house there.
Realizing they could not afford for both of them to go to college, Patty dropped out her sophomore year. Bill graduated with an education and industrial arts degree and worked part-time in a lumberyard. He also taught industrial engineering and driver’s education in Kearney, Missouri. He had a flare for furniture making and carpentry, a real passion he did not feel for teaching, and Patty encouraged him to make a change. He quit teaching and started working at the lumberyard full-time. By then they had three young children, Jane, Sarah, and Matt.
In 1974, their marriage experienced a traumatic shift, the consequences of which the state would use against her at her trial. One weekend that May, she and Bill drove to Sedalia to buy paint and supplies. Patty had never been to Sedalia except for the state fair, and looked forward to wandering around the three-story Victorian homes with stained glass and wrap-around porches, which reminded her of gingerbread houses. Bill dropped her off and she explored the town. After a short while, she headed toward a park where they had agreed to meet. She heard footsteps behind her but didn’t think much of it. Then, she said, and would later testify, three young men grabbed her, dragged her behind some bushes, and raped her. An elderly woman walked out of a nearby house and the men fled. The woman seemed to know what was going on, Patty recalled, because she or someone she knew went to the park to meet Bill. He picked her up. Crying, looking at him and then away, she told him in a choked voice what happened. They agreed not to tell anyone, including the police, because, Patty said, she did not want to live with the stigma of being a rape victim. Bill, Patty continued, was very sweet and helpful, but in the following days and weeks he became standoffish, and she felt isolated.
“We went through a rough patch,” Patty said. “Nowadays I would have gone to counseling. In the ’70s, we didn’t have counseling.”
Two years later, Bill and Patty noticed a lumberyard for sale in nearby Holden, a picturesque town of just over two thousand people between Lee’s Summit and Warrensburg. Despite the strain in their marriage, they were both excited about owning their own business. They borrowed $60,000 from a bank, family, and friends, and bought it. Although they worked together, they began living apart. Patty and the children stayed in a house on forty acres of land they bought in Holden while Bill lived in their old home while he got it ready to sell.
“We both worked at the lumberyard,” Patty told me. “Coping is just what you do. A house full of kids, a lot to do and constant work, and you put the other stuff at the back of your mind.”
The “other stuff” included the rifts in the marriage. A fourth child, daughter Carrie, was born in 1975, but their relationship remained strained and, according to Patty, she and Bill both began having affairs.
“I felt alone, lonely,” she would testify at her trial. “I needed someone to be nice to me. I needed someone to hold me.”
An affair with Ricky Mitts, a Lee’s Summit man who sometimes worked for the Prewitts, led to Patty becoming pregnant in 1977. Patty had not seen Ricky for a long while when she realized she was pregnant, and did not tell him about the baby. She put off saying anything about it to Bill until one quiet night when they were together in Holden. Bill was reading and Patty said she had something to say and he wouldn’t like it. He looked at her and waited. Patty hesitated, then said she was carrying another man’s baby. Bill remained quiet, Patty recalled, for what seemed like hours, before he said in a low but steady voice that he wanted everyone to believe the baby was his and he’d raise the child like his own. He never asked who the father was and they never spoke of it again. Whatever Bill thought or felt he never said. They named the baby boy Morgan.
About two years later, Patty said, she and Bill were in the Holden house when their problems came to a head. Bill wasn’t speaking to her. “Do you want a divorce?” Patty said she asked him. He didn’t answer and she threw dishes at him, “Very out of character for me.” That got his attention and he started crying. According to Patty, she said she loved him, and he said he loved her, too.
“In those days,” she told me, “you split up or stayed together. We got over it. Some say you can’t, but you can. If you love each other and really want to then you can. I’m not saying every day was roses, some days were hard, but for the most part we were doing good.”
Between phone interviews with Patty, I spoke to her two oldest children, Jane Watkins, now fifty, and Sarah Lewis, forty-eight. Jane recalled her parents mortifying their children by dancing down aisles in an IGA supermarket. Her father would smack their mother on the bottom when she was cooking and the children would crawl into bed with them Sunday mornings.
But it was also clear to Jane that sometimes her parents weren’t getting along. One day she heard her father tell her mother to get out of the house, which she did. Jane doesn’t know where Patty went, though she wasn’t gone long. Her father spent much of his time at the lumberyard and at the Lone Jack house, fixing it up to sell, so it made sense to Jane that he was often gone. Her mother, she said, never spoke about it. Jane also understood that Morgan wasn’t her father’s child but doesn’t recall how she knew. When she mentioned it to her maternal grandmother, she was told not to speak of it again.
“They were great,” Jane said of her parents. “Most of the time best friends, and they were great with us kids.”
Sarah, born in 1971, was quite young when her parents began having difficulties in their marriage, and doesn’t remember that time. Holden was a place where her family knew everybody and everybody knew them, and they could leave their house with the doors unlocked. She and other children were always outside playing, and happy. Many days after school, Sarah walked to the lumberyard. She liked spending time with her father while he worked on trucks, listening to Royals games on the radio.
There was nothing notable about February 17, 1984—a typical wet, rainy winter day. It was a Friday night, and Bill and Patty went out with their friends Jerri and Paul Austin. Jane was sleeping over at a friend’s house. Sarah, Carrie, Matt, and Morgan stayed at home, and their parents left them pizza. The family had a busy weekend planned. Sarah played the flute and had a band competition Saturday, and Bill and Patty belonged to a volleyball team and had work to do at the lumberyard.
The Prewitts and Austins stopped for barbecue in Pleasant Hill, and at a bar for drinks afterward, but the bar was dead and they went back to the Austins’ for snacks. They talked about traveling the Mississippi River on a paddleboat tour. Paul and Bill played guitar, and then Paul took out his fiddle. It grew so late they ate breakfast. About two in the morning, on February 18th, the Prewitts returned home. Bill checked on the children and went to bed while Patty put dishes in the sink. When she walked upstairs she found Bill already asleep. Thunder crashed outside.
About 3:00 a.m., neighbor Cliff Gustin, who lived about a mile from the Prewitts, woke up to pounding on his front door. He found a “hysterical, crying” Patty with her four children, standing in the rain. She told him that someone had dragged her out of bed and attacked her and that Bill was hurt.
Gustin, a former Colorado police officer, called Holden’s police chief, John Scott, who then contacted Johnson County Sheriff Charles Norman. Once Scott arrived at the Prewitt home, he and Gustin entered the house with two other officers, rushed upstairs, and found Bill lying on his left side in bed, his face, head, and shoulders covered in blood. The lights were off and didn’t come on when the officers flipped the switch. Gustin, according to a police report, discovered that the breaker in a utility room had been shut off. When he reset it, the lights came on in the living room and at the top of the stairs. They never dusted the breaker box for fingerprints.
In fact, no fingerprints were ever collected from anywhere in the house. The lead investigator was Kevin Hughes, a twenty-seven-year-old deputy who’d risen rapidly through the ranks but had, according to Johnson County prosecutor Tom R. Williams’ memoir about the case (published posthumously by Williams’ family after his death in 2014), little significant experience with homicide investigations. Hughes would later claim he dusted for prints, but nothing in the record supports this other than his word.
Hughes had received a call from the police chief about 4:00 a.m. When he arrived at the Prewitt home, he went upstairs and confirmed that Bill was dead from a gunshot wound above his right ear. A later search of the bedroom revealed two .22-caliber rounds in Patty’s jewelry box, and a box of .22 ammo in a chest of drawers. At trial, Patty explained that for fifteen years she had been putting things Bill emptied from his pockets, including ammunition, in the jewelry box. According to Hughes, Patty said Bill owned two guns that they kept in the bedroom closet, and she knew how to use them to kill rodents. The police only found one gun and assumed the other was missing. Had Patty herself not mentioned two guns, the police might never have bothered looking for a missing one. Patty said she had not seen the guns since the summer of 1983.
Hughes collected Bill Prewitt’s insurance policy, which listed Patty as the beneficiary, and took a special interest in the dozen or so Alfred Hitchcock novels on the nightstand. In a deposition three months later, he said that the backs of the books advertised “for another book, another novel of some kind that said something to the effect of how to commit the perfect murder,” which he thought pertinent to the case. At the time, Hughes recalled in the deposition, he knew that family members or friends were often involved in a murder. “[Patty] wasn’t a prime suspect in my mind,” he said, “but then again I hadn’t totally excluded her as being a suspect.”
From the Prewitt house, Hughes drove to the Gustin home. Shortly before 5:00 a.m. he spoke to Patty in a back bedroom for about ten or fifteen minutes. He testified that she wore a reddish-brown, coat, pajamas, and sneakers—no socks—and had horizontal cuts on her neck.
Patty spoke rapidly, not crying but “excited,” Hughes would say. She told him that after she’d gotten in bed she had fallen asleep almost immediately. Later she was awakened by what she thought was thunder. Then a man yanked her out of bed by the hair, got on top of her, held something sharp to her throat. She said she could not see him because the room was dark. He pulled off her pajama pants and threatened to rape her. Patty now says she was raped that night, but did not mention it to the police at the time.
“Nobody asked me about being raped and I didn’t tell them,” Patty told me. “I did not ask to see a doctor. Mrs. Gustin, I told her I need a Kotex. ‘Are you on your period?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I’m bleeding.’ I didn’t say anything more. I wasn’t the victim, it was Bill. I wasn’t thinking of me.”
During the trial, Patty’s attorneys did not bring up her conversation with Mrs. Gustin.
After the attacker left, Patty said she checked on Bill and found him unresponsive but breathing in a “rattling type manner.” She then looked in on the children. Finding them unhurt, she returned to Bill, who was still breathing but would not wake up. She tried the lights but they did not come on, and the phone didn’t work, so she went outside to their pickup to get a flashlight, then returned to the bedroom and shined it on Bill and saw he was bleeding. She then woke her children. Telling them there was a small fire in the house and they had to leave, she got them dressed and hurried them out to the family car. She then ran back inside and checked on Bill. This time he did not appear to be breathing. That’s when Patty left the house and drove to the Gustin’s for help.
Later that morning, the Gustin house, Patricia Gustin testified, was in “total chaos,” with as many as sixty as people—mostly police officers and friends of the Prewitts, she assumed—coming and going. Rumors were rife. A neighbor called at 9:00 that morning to say Bill Prewitt was dead and his wife had killed him. No one knew if the caller got this information from the police or someone else. Eventually, around 10:00 a.m., the Austins picked up Patty and the children and took them to their house.
Hughes interviewed Patty again at the Holden police station shortly thereafter, and wiped her hands with nitrate swabs to determine if she had recently shot a gun. The results came back negative. Patty’s children met with two other officers but Hughes said they revealed nothing of importance.
Sarah remembered the officers gave her and Matt donuts. At trial, she testified that she told the police that on the way out of the house she ran into the living room to retrieve her flute because she was participating in a band competition that morning. On the way, she saw a light beneath the closed basement door and heard a loud noise, “like tin going together.” The light moved, as if someone held a flashlight.
“Matt and I told [Hughes] about coming around the corner and seeing the light,” Sarah said to me. “I guess he thought we were lying.”
He did. In interviews about the case, Hughes has accused Patty of planting stories in her daughter’s head, but Sarah insisted to me she saw that roving light under the door.
“Mom said a fire, she didn’t say where,” Sarah said. “I assumed it was in the basement because I saw the light down there. I assumed dad was down there fighting the fire. I remember it. I remember getting mad because no one believed me.”
On February 19th, one day after the murder, Hughes called a meeting of the Rural Missouri Major Case Squad, twenty-five officers from across central Missouri, to assist in the investigation. Hughes made clear he considered Patty the lead suspect. Hughes’ “soldiers,” as Williams described the officers in his book, “set out like a swarm of scandal sheet reporters” for information on Patty’s affairs, including second-and third-hand accounts.
“Well, the wife’s good for it,” Williams wrote in Practice to Deceive, his memoir, recalling what Hughes told him after the meeting. “Couldn’t have happened like she says… I think she has a boyfriend. She had insurance on her husband. I’m going to talk to her again. We ought to have it wrapped up in a day or two…”
Patty’s relationships with men outside of her marriage convinced Hughes of her guilt, but according to Monica Gray, a sexual assault survivor who works with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault in Kansas City, Missouri, Patty’s affairs were a natural response to her rape.
Rape survivors, Gray told me, engage in risky sexual behavior and report more sexual dissatisfaction and dysfunction than those without a rape history. The reasons vary but include issues of self-esteem and the desire for approval. Survivors often form relationships with men who are physically and sexually aggressive themselves.
“Back then,” Gray said of 1974, “rape was brushed under the rug and considered shameful. You did not tell police or your own family. But it affects relationships. The survivor’s demeanor has changed. She’s been traumatized.”
Speaking of her own experience, Gray told me, “After my assault, I was looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Brian Reichart, an attorney who has advocated for Patty’s release for ten years, believes Hughes assumed Patty’s guilty early on in the investigation and focused on her regardless of other possibilities. For instance, years after the murder, Hughes would say he had immediately assumed the cuts on Patty’s neck were self-inflicted. However, there’s no evidence any medical expert examined the cuts in person to determine if that was the case.
“One thing we learn from wrongful convictions is the theme of tunnel vision, focusing on a suspect while ignoring evidence that points away from guilt,” Reichart said. “He spends time collecting mystery novels and insurance policies, items that weren’t going anywhere, rather than collecting time-sensitive material like fingerprints and hair. This is very, very damaging. That’s not Patty’s fault, but she’s paying the price for it.”
In Practice to Deceive, Williams wrote, “The business of a criminal investigation is to ‘reconcile’ the facts of the case. It’s a word more commonly used by accountants. But the officers use the word in relation to fitting the facts gleaned in an investigation to the criminal charge sought to be filed. Sheriff Norman wanted every fact considered on its own merit. Hughes had successfully set a different effort in motion. The facts would now be ‘reconciled’ to fit the Hughes theory. The investigation at that moment took a definite and direct course toward Patty Prewitt.”
Hughes, Williams believed, had ambitions beyond Holden.
“His unorthodox style, behavior… had brought first criticism, then resentment and finally opposition from the public sector. Hughes didn’t care. He had a plan, to move up in his career. Since he had gone as high as he could in Johnson County, moving up necessarily meant moving out. He wanted to join a top state investigative bureau, and what he needed was another ‘break.’ Precisely, he needed a major case, something spectacular, preferably a murder, one with plenty of mystery, a lot of media interest, a case where he could take the lead and get publicity.”
Hughes refused to discuss the case with me.
Missed opportunities marred the investigation. Hughes would later testify that he searched the bedroom carpet for hair to confirm Patty’s account of being pulled by the hair. He said he found hair that looked to have been in the carpet for a long time and did not collect it. As with fingerprints, no hair samples were taken from any part of the house.
On Monday, February 20th, two days after the murder and with permission of the police, Jerri Austin and Mary Englert cleaned the Prewitt house so that Patty and the children could return. Mary had known the Prewitts for years. Their children attended school together and Mary and her husband had played on a volleyball team with Patty and Bill. Mary recalled finding a great deal of hair. She also discovered a .22-caliber shell casing that the police had not found. An officer had recovered another shell casing the afternoon before, when it popped out of a wicker loveseat when he sat down.
Mary’s husband took photos of boot prints from under the basement stairs. She recalled the prints led to a window that overlooked the driveway. Not like, Oh-somebody-had just-been-in-the-basement-and-back-up-the-stairs sort of tracks, she told me. Police said the footprints likely belonged to an officer and claimed they were not there the day of the murder. Investigators did not evaluate the many footprints near the house, either.
Despite this, prosecutors and investigators doubled down on their belief that Patty killed her husband by focusing almost to the point of obsession on Patty’s infidelity. In his book, Williams, condemned Patty’s behavior in harsh, moral terms and refers to gay men in derogatory language: “She knew all men except fruits want the same thing of a woman. The anthropological male desire could be turned to a lady’s advantage. The sex of a woman serves only three real purposes: a lady’s amusement when the lady desires amusement; producing children when the lady desires children; and the manipulation of men.” Elsewhere in the book Williams refers derisively to Patty as “the little doe.”
Jane Aiken, the dean of the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has worked on Patty’s clemency petitions and she told me that in a weak case prosecutors try to smear the character of the defendant.
“When you don’t have evidence then you need to make a jury not like the defendant, and when you have a bad crime they are eager to find someone to blame for it,” said Aiken. “When they don’t have enough to tie the defendant to the crime, they start tarring and feathering her, and sexual behavior is a wonderful way to tar and feather a woman in a small community.”
On February 20th, Patty met with police again and was interviewed from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 the next morning, about sixteen hours. She never asked for a lawyer. Hughes himself talked to Patty that afternoon, starting about 4:00. He advised her that she was a suspect and read her the Miranda rights. Hughes then asked her if she’d had affairs, which she denied, then admitted to after Hughes and another officer mentioned specific men.
“I was embarrassed, ashamed,” Patty testified. “I didn’t see what it had to do with this. I didn’t see what it had to do with Bill’s murder.”
Hughes would later testify that Patty told him she’d had sex with one man, Jon Hancock, the son of the Holden mayor, about “a million times” in the year they saw each other. Hughes said he asked her for a more realistic figure and Patty allegedly answered, “at least once a day, sometimes three to four times a day.” Hughes also said Patty asked him if he’d take her to dinner before she went to prison.
To explain the frequency of her sexual encounters, Hughes claimed Patty said that, “my fire burns hotter than others,” a comment that, “raised several eyebrows on the jury and became a favorite with the newspaper reporters,” Williams wrote. This was the claim Judge Koffmann would remember over thirty years later, before denying the effort to test for DNA.
Hughes said he did not tape the interview because he ran out of batteries for the cassette recorder, but he had typed notes. Missouri law now requires the recording of custodial interviews of murder suspects.
“All these wild things that Patty said—where are they at?” Beaird asked in his summation. “They are conveniently unrecorded.”
Hughes caught the attention of the media again when Williams asked him if Patty had said anything about being warm- or cold-blooded. In response, Hughes said that after the hours-long questioning, he drove Patty home. Patty complained of being cold. Hughes told her he had turned the heat on.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I’m cold-blooded.’” Hughes told Williams.
The line of argument here was that if she was cold-blooded, meaning that she often felt cold physically, she was also cold-blooded in the sense of being cruel and emotionless.
Patty, Hughes alleged, also said she had “a different set of values.”
On February 21st, police used a magnet to search a shallow pond on the Prewitt property and recovered the missing rifle. It matched the kind of gun Bill had been killed with—a .22. The police then drained the pond and examined a set of boot prints near its edge, and another pair in the pond bed, near where the rifle was found. Fresh tire tracks led to the pond but were not examined.
The bootprints allegedly matched red rubber boots belonging to Patty. The gun was found under 11 inches of water, in a relatively shallow spot—the water was deeper between there and the shore. The ground was so muddy, Sheriff Norman testified, that police built a ramp to the spot where the rifle had been discovered, fifteen feet from the bank. Williams would argue that Patty left the house in the rain and threw the gun in the pond. But Patty’s boots were only eight inches high, and no mud appeared near or at the top of them. No mud was found on Patty’s white pajamas, either, or inside the Prewitt home.
Jerri Austin and Mary Englert testified that they had seen the boots with only a little mud on them when they were at the house. They’d been left outside the front door, next to a pair of green gumboots and a pair of cowboy boots. The red boots weren’t spotless, Mary said, but they were not caked in mud. However, when they were exhibited at a preliminary hearing, the same boots, Mary said, had about an inch of dried mud on them. To this day, Mary believes someone tampered with them.
“It was ridiculous, there was so much mud on them,” Mary said. “She could not have gone back to the house with that much mud. There would have been mud on the porch. I said, ‘Jerri, should I go ahead and take them?’ and Jerri said, ‘No,’ so I set them back together where they had been.”
Patty’s daughter Sarah and son Matt testified that they had been on the pond with their father when it was frozen over, a few weeks before his murder. While wearing her mother’s red boots, Sarah told the jury one of her feet broke through the ice. The defense suggested it was her boot print that was found near the rifle.
Investigators never determined whether the rifle was the murder weapon. No evidence was presented at trial that Patty’s fingerprints were found on it.
Police also focused on Bill Prewitt’s two life insurance policies, which listed Patty as the beneficiary. The couple didn’t have enough money in the bank in January 1984 to keep up the premiums, and at her trial, Williams suggested to the jury that Patty had killed her husband in part to collect on the insurance policy before it expired.
That they couldn’t keep up with their premiums, however, did not mean they were on the verge of losing their insurance. At the time of his death, Bill Prewitt was covered by two insurance policies. Both listed Patty as the primary beneficiary. One policy required a monthly payment of twelve dollars. If the insurance company didn’t receive the money by February 23, 1984, the policy would lapse. The other policy, however, would stay in force for three years even without additional payments, according to testimony.
Patty testified that the lumberyard was struggling financially and that she would still be in debt after any insurance payout, anyway. “It is evidently the state’s theory that Patty Prewitt planned this murder to save twelve bucks,” Robert Beaird told the jury.
On February 24, 1984, three days after investigators found the gun, Patty was charged with capital murder. Before the trial, Williams offered a plea deal that would have reduced the charges and required Patty to serve no more than six or seven years. Patty refused, she said, because she was innocent, and did not want to be taken from her children.
“If you’re innocent, what do you do when offered a deal? That’s the tragic part of it,” Aiken told me. “A prosecutor makes an offer based on what they think you can get at trial. If you don’t take it they charge you with everything and see what the jury will decide. In this case they charged her with capital murder. [Williams] charged her up. It’s punishment for not pleading guilty.”
Williams recognized that the case against Patty had problems. There were no fingerprints, and no gunpowder residue was found on Patty’s hands. “No jury would walk in wanting to convict Mrs. Prewitt. If she could just get around the boot prints at the pond, there would be a good chance of her winning,” Williams wrote. Later he added, “there was also the troubling little item of the kids seeing a light and hearing noises from the basement.”
In addition to these concerns, the behavior of Hughes and Sheriff Norman in another case had raised cause for concern. In June 1984, ten months before Patty’s trial began, Hughes and Sheriff Norman came under sharp media criticism for delaying the arrest of a rape suspect for nearly a month so the man could fight in an amateur boxing bout. When he was finally arrested he denied the allegations, claiming instead that he was forced to sign a confession. Hughes told the media the case was more complicated than people thought. Norman, according to news accounts, worried the controversy might affect his reelection that fall.
Despite the questionable behavior of Hughes, a lead witness for the state, Williams stuck with him in part because Hughes had outmaneuvered him. Hughes, Wiliams wrote, believed he had a solid case against Patty but wanted “a little insurance” to guarantee the prosecutor’s support, so he had Patty arrested without telling Williams.
“The press would pick up the fact of the arrest and would supply pressure on the prosecutor,” Williams wrote, speaking of himself in the third person. “It would make it harder for him to refuse to file the charges after the arrest had occurred.” But by then Williams didn’t need much convincing. He considered Patty’s affairs to be strong evidence of guilt. He had also concluded that Patty wanted to enrich herself through Bill’s life insurance policies.
Williams filed the charges.
After her arrest, Patty, released on bond, continued working at the lumberyard. She recalled being “ruthlessly” prepared for the upcoming trial by Beaird and her other attorney, Phil Cardarella. Patty, however, had one condition: under no circumstances would they mention that Bill had also had affairs. She did not want him criticized in front of their children.
“She told us if we said anything at all disparaging of the father of her children she would fire us on the spot,” Cardarella said.
At home, Patty tried to have a normal life for her children, but it was far from that. As the family awaited the trial, their three dogs disappeared. A farmer found them on his property, dead, perhaps poisoned. They found a dog given to them as a replacement hung by its collar. Anonymous callers breathed heavily into the phone. One threatened, “When I get a hold of you I’ll fuck you like bunnies.” Someone broke in and took their TV, some electronics, lamps, and a curling iron. Patty and Bill’s friends helped replace some of it. Strangers wandered through the yard.
Bill’s family, Jane recalled, rarely came around, but the Prewitts occasionally heard from them. Patty took them to their paternal grandparents and dropped them off. Jane remembered they gave her and her siblings soda pop. The kids talked about school, band, and sports and then Patty would pick them back up. Once, Bill’s parents took them to a football game to watch their cousin Bobby play. The kids could tell things were uncomfortable between Bill’s parents and their mother. No one asked about Patty. My calls to members of Bill’s family were not returned.
The trial of Patricia Anne Prewitt began on April 16, 1985, and would last four days. It was presided over by Judge Donald Barnes. Dozens of Patty’s family and friends, and Bill’s parents and relatives, attended. Patty anticipated the tone the trial would take. Since Bill’s death and the resulting investigation, her affairs had become the talk of the town.
“The evidence will be that Mr. Prewitt’s life was feloniously taken from him, his children, his family, without justification or excuse, with premeditation, deliberation ongoing for years for the purpose of producing financial gain, satisfying sexual lust by the defendant, Mrs. Patricia Prewitt,” Williams declared in his opening statement.
Beaird countered that the evidence would show “a man walked into [the Prewitt] house and took his .22 rifle, reached across the bed and blew [Bill Prewitt] away.”
Patty’s daughter Jane still remembers thinking how the gray courthouse appeared to her. She recalls the round windows in the doors that opened into the courtroom and the wood pews, like a church, where people sat. Wood railings enclosed the areas where the defense team and prosecutor sat and the shine of the wood, she thought, was beautiful. The judge sat above everyone and had to climb a couple steps to reach his seat.
Jane and her siblings stood in the hall and listened to the muffled sounds coming through the courtroom doors. Williams spoke in a loud, boisterous voice, but she couldn’t make out the words. Beaird was quieter but insistent. It was difficult to stay in the hall; she and her siblings wanted to run away. They would go outside to clear their heads. During breaks, Jane and her brothers and sisters ran in and hugged their mother. Patty looked small and had no strength when she held them, her arms limp. On one occasion, crime scene photos, including those of a dead Bill Prewitt, fell off the assistant prosecutor’s desk while the children were standing nearby. Jane threw herself over them so her brothers and sisters wouldn’t see. She felt she had to take on the role of an adult. If her mother couldn’t be there, she could.
At trial, Williams dismissed Patty’s account of her reconciliation with Bill after their years of estrangement as unbelievable. Because Bill withdrew from her, Williams said, with evident sarcasm, he “forced her to be an adultress, had to have others for sexual delight and comfort, not clear which,” and then “they worked it out and their wounds started to heal. Everything was fine.”
Patty, however, insisted that they had resolved their problems.
The state’s witnesses included three men with whom Patty had sexual relations: Hancock, Mitts, and Richard Hays, who worked across the street from the Prewitt Lumberyard. Hancock testified that he and Patty had an affair for several months in 1978, and that she told him she wished Bill would die in a car wreck or some other type of accident. He also testified that Patty had told him she knew where the gun was in the house, and had mentioned killing Bill in his sleep. Under cross examination, Hancock said he did not take Patty’s comments seriously. He also testified that the police had advised him he was a prime suspect, and that if he didn’t cooperate he would be locked up.
Hays, who’d begun seeing Patty in 1979, said Patty offered to give him money if he got rid of Bill. Responding to questions from the defense, Hays said Sheriff Norman told him on May 4, 1984, that if he signed a statement prepared by the police with his allegations against Patty he would not have to appear in court. He signed it. Hays was also facing a pending assault charge. After signing the statement, the assault charge was dropped that summer.
Hays also claimed that Hughes had told him to pressure another potential witness, Michael Brown, not to cooperate with the defense. Hughes allegedly wanted Brown to stand by a statement he had made in August 1984, in which he claimed Patty had offered him $10,000 to kill Bill. In September 1984, however, in another signed statement, this one for the defense, Brown said Hughes threatened to place him in “protective custody” until the trial should he talk to any member of the defense team. He added that Bill himself was present when Patty “bullshitted” about having him killed, part of a conversation in which she’d been joking.
Hays testified that on two occasions he and Patty had sexual encounters at her house while the children were home, prompting Williams to accuse Patty of abandoning them, a matter he followed up on when he questioned her later: “Wasn’t it necessary for you to abandon the children’s interests when you were with these men?”
“No, sir,” she replied.
“Is it your testimony that you could continue being a good and proper mother and be at a hotel with Jon Hancock?”
“I was always a good mother,” Patty said.
Mitts gave perhaps the oddest testimony against Patty. When first questioned by police on February 22, 1984, Mitts said he had been at the Prewitt home two weeks earlier with his wife. He denied having an affair with Patty. But that was a lie, and the interview weighed on his conscience, he said, leading him to visit his pastor for advice. The pastor encouraged him to tell the police what he knew. Meeting with the police again, Mitts said Patty offered him $10,000 to kill Bill. According to Mitts, Patty suggested he set fire to the family’s barn and kill Bill when he went out to check on it. However, in a deposition for the defense, Mitts said he had not taken her seriously. Under cross examination, he also admitted that when police had asked if he’d ever had problems with the law, he did not tell them he had paid a fine for a burglary and had legal troubles with drugs.
After Mitts spoke to the police, he said, he met Patty at the lumberyard. There he offered to leave his wife and marry her, to avoid testifying against her.
“You said, ‘I will go home, I will divorce my wife, I will marry you, then I won’t have to testify,’ isn’t that correct?” Beaird asked him.
“Right,” Mitts said.
Under Beaird’s questioning, Mitts revealed that he knew how to shoot a .22 caliber rifle and had shot Bill’s gun in the past. He also admitted that he had been late to his job as a bread delivery truck driver the morning Bill died. Mitts’ shift was from 2:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. On the day of the murder, Mitts arrived at work between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. No documentation has surfaced to suggest Hughes or anyone else sought to confirm Mitts’ whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Mitts did not return my calls or respond to a certified letter requesting an interview. He was never charged, nor implicated in the crime by authorities
“I think by the time the police got through to these guys who would have been suspects themselves, expressions like, ‘I wish my husband was dead’ turned into, ‘Why don’t you kill him for me?’” Cardarella said. “I don’t think any of that was serious. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean one of them didn’t do it.”
Patty denied asking anyone to murder her husband.
“I never talked about killing Bill,” she insisted to me. “These plans they say we made are absolutely stupid. I never said any of that, ever.”
Anticipating that the defense might claim Bill had killed himself, Williams hired Kansas City pathologist James G. Bridgens to review the autopsy of February 18th, which found Bill had died from a single gunshot to the right temple. Hughes advised Bridgens that Patty claimed Bill was still breathing after the attack. Bill’s body was exhumed less than three weeks before the trial for a second autopsy, without the defense team present. At that autopsy, on March 28, 1985, Bridgens concluded there were actually two gunshot wounds: one to the right temple and one to the back of the head. The latter, Bridgens found, would have resulted in instantaneous death. Williams used this finding to discredit Patty’s account of hearing Bill breathe. He also made the assessment, based on photos taken of them, that the cuts on Patty’s neck were self-inflicted.
In his book, Williams called Bridgens a “doctor-cop,” who reached conclusions by considering the evidence of the crime scene, statements of witnesses, and police reports. “The doctor-cop travels perilous terrain. There is risk involved in testifying to theories which go beyond the secure, absolute scientific facts of the lab. There is far greater chance of mistake and therefore, embarrassment. Bridgens had walked in the mine field for years and had sustained no serious injury.”
But Bridgens was no stranger to controversy. In 1979 his testimony about the cause of a four-year-old boy’s death helped convict a man of murder. That man served nearly four years in prison before someone else confessed to the crime and was convicted. Even then, Bridgens refused to change his opinion. Three years later, he lost his position as deputy coroner in Johnson County, Kansas as a result of his testimony. But he continued to testify on behalf of prosecutors. In 1985, Bridgens found that a woman was murdered by strangulation, but other pathologists determined not enough evidence existed to call the death a homicide and the case was dismissed. A Kansas judge accused Bridgens of “fashioning ultimate conclusions about death itself and not concerning himself to medical causation.” Still, he continued testifying. In 1988, he determined a woman was shot in the head from behind, but three other pathologists later found she was shot with the gun near her mouth. In 1990, a year before he died, Bridgens performed an autopsy on a Leavenworth woman and ruled that she had been stabbed to death. X-rays later showed the woman had been shot at least four times.
Patty’s defense did not call for a forensic expert to dispute Bridgens’ findings because by the time Bridgens issued his report, Cardarella said, it was too close to trial to exhume the body again for a third autopsy by another pathologist. “There is a reason prosecutors used [Bridgens] a lot,” he told me. “He was a go-to guy when they essentially needed to refute a potential defense.”
The trial ended on Friday, April 19. In his summation, Williams accused Patty of disregarding “her marital vows and the noticeable obligations of motherhood,” and finished by declaring, “Your duty is to convict her of capital murder… The dignity of marriage and the state and our communities requires it.”
Unable to reach a verdict, the jury asked Judge Barnes to declare a hung jury, but he urged them “to try harder,” and sent them back to continue deliberations. At 4:40 that afternoon, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict. Patty broke into tears, her head in her hands. Her children screamed. Sarah ran into the street, chased by family and friends.
“The echo of the screams continued as each juror affirmed the verdict individually at the request of defense attorney Robert Beaird,” wrote a reporter covering the case for The Kansas City Star.
Jane heard fifty years, no parole, capital murder—things that sounded like forever. She punched a cameraman who got in front of her maternal grandmother. The TV station billed the family for broken equipment, but her grandfather refused to pay. Bill’s family, Jane recalled, clapped. However, Bill’s father, William Prewitt, now deceased, may have felt conflicted. “I was hoping for a reduced sentence,” he told the Star after the verdict.
After the courtroom settled, Judge Barnes thanked the jury. “I think the verdict, my personal opinion is, now that it is over, is proper under the circumstances.”
Juror Joy Cooper told me that she and all the jurors wanted to believe Patty was innocent, but that Williams had been very convincing. “The prosecutor was pushing and pushing she was having affairs to kill her husband, and I don’t know if I believe that now. There was nothing to dispute what he was saying, the moral judgment the prosecutor was suggesting.”
Joy still thinks about the case and has checked to see if Patty has been released. The screams of Patty’s children when the verdict was read still haunt her.
“She had her whole life ahead of her,” she said.
Patty spent a night in jail, then was released on bond as her attorneys appealed. About a week later, a Holden woman named Juanita Ethel Stevens, now deceased, contacted the Prewitts to ask why Patty’s lawyers had not spoken to her. She explained that when she heard about Bill’s murder, she told Sheriff Norman she had seen a white car parked down the road from the Prewitts’ house between 12:15 and 12:30 that morning. She was driving in from work and the car followed her on to her home a short distance away. She didn’t recognize the car, and felt nervous because there had been break-ins and robberies in the area. It pulled into her driveway, but backed out when she turned on the outside lights. The car then headed in the direction of the Prewitt home.
At a hearing for a new trial, also presided over by Judge Barnes, Norman claimed not to remember the conversation with Stevens. He said he searched his files five times and found no indication a report had been made to him or anyone else. But in a February 19th, 1984 entry of a “Lead Assignment,” a police log that lists the tasks of an investigation for a given day, one entry marked “void” stands out. This lead refers to a car parked on a road at 3:30. It does not indicate whether that was morning or afternoon. The lead was issued to speak to a Raymond Pine, a neighbor of the Prewitts, about a car on the road. The word “void” appears again, followed by, “not Issued.” Why the lead was voided and not pursued and who voided it remains a mystery.
“No way they didn’t just sit on the report and hide it,” Cardarella told me. “They did it intentionally. It doesn’t make sense unless the sheriff knew it was that important and hid it.”
Under cross examination, Norman testified that there was one place from the road a driver could have seen the Prewitt home, but foliage would have obscured it, preventing a potential intruder from scoping it out from a distance. Bill Prewitt died in February, however, when there would have been no leaves on the trees.
Judge Barnes, who had earlier expressed his opinion on Patty’s guilt, ruled that the information provided by Stevens would not have altered the verdict because of the “substantial evidence linking [Patty] to the killing and the relative weakness of her contention that an intruder was the murderer.” He denied the motion for a new trial.
“Mom would say, ‘I wish I would have been a little more demanding [of the sheriff],’” Stevens’ daughter Shannon Williams told me. “She had regrets she wasn’t more forceful and gone to someone else. But there was nobody else to go to. They were the authority.”
While she was free during the appeals process, Patty lived on autopilot, cooking and cleaning and trying not to think. One afternoon the phone rang and the caller, a man’s voice, said, “You’re an asshole.”
“You’re right,” Patty said, “thank you,” and hung up.
Something in her snapped, an understanding that there was little she could do to control events. She’d win her appeal or she wouldn’t. In the meantime, she needed to get on with living. So Patty put in for a Pell grant and attended college in Warrensburg, majoring in education. One day, the director of the education department called her into his office and made it clear that he did not want a convicted murderer in his school.
“I’m out on an appeal bond,” Patty fired back. “I have every right to go to your school.” She kept her head down and finished the semester.
One day, Patty didn’t come home from school on time. As the evening wound on, Jane, then sixteen, recalled thinking, This is it, it happened. Her mother, she assumed, had lost the appeal and the police had picked her up. Jane and her brothers and sisters lay on the floor and cried. They were about to call their maternal grandparents when Patty arrived. She’d had a flat tire.
During her second semester, Patty was diagnosed with cancer, and dropped out to have a hysterectomy. She felt the family was just getting back on its feet when Beaird’s office called one Friday night in April 1986; her appeal had been denied. Patty could be picked up any time and taken to prison. She bundled her children into the car and spent the weekend at her sister Mary’s home in Lone Jack, gathering friends and family and saying her goodbyes. That Monday morning, her parents drove her to the prison in Chillicothe, Missouri, where she understood she was to be incarcerated, but officials at Chillicothe didn’t know what to do with her. After some initial confusion, authorities from Johnson County picked her up and took her to Renz Correctional Center, now the Central Missouri Correctional Center, north of Jefferson City.
Her first call to her family ended in tears. Patty and the other inmates stood around a desk with a phone like it was some kind of totem, waiting their turn. Nothing was private. The guards and other inmates heard her children crying. Some of the other inmates, and even the sergeant, strict as she was, broke down hearing them.
“There was no plan about what to do if mom went to jail,” Jane told me. “When she left we didn’t know where we’d live.”
The children stayed with Patty’s sister, Mary, in a broken old rental house. But Mary was single with children of her own, and surviving by bartending and painting houses. Before long the kids moved into a trailer behind their maternal grandparents’ home.
Six years later, in July 1992, Matt Prewitt, then 19, was stopped by Johnson County Missouri deputy sheriff Glenn Hite on suspicion of drunken driving. At one point during the arrest, Hite recalled, Matt said he knew who killed his father. The seriousness on his face impressed Hite, but the deputy thought better of taking a statement from someone so intoxicated. Matt was released on bond and Hite asked him to come back the next morning. He escorted Matt to the front door of the police station and watched him walk down the street toward a friend’s house. The next day, July 19th, Patty’s father and her son Morgan discovered Matt’s body beneath a tree on his grandfather’s property. He was under a blanket, along with a revolver. Authorities ruled it a suicide.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have taken his statement,” Hite, now retired, said. “He seemed like he knew what he was talking about, but you take a statement from someone as intoxicated as he was, it’s not going to hold up. I never dreamed he’d kill himself.”
Patty’s father called the prison and arranged to meet with her. When she saw her parents, the look on their faces, she knew something awful had happened. The three of them burst into tears before a word was spoken. Her father could barely get the words out. Patty cried so hard her eyes swelled shut. Her family visited her every day for a week. She was not allowed to attend the funeral.
“She was broken but had to hold it together because if she didn’t they’d put her in the hole and on some crazy meds, Thorazine, where she’d not be able to function,” Donna May, a former inmate who did time with Patty, told me. “So she had to learn how to move forward with this pain. She still had the other children and had to be okay for everyone else. They were worried about her, so she had to say, ‘I’m okay.’”
About Matt, Patty wrote to me in a letter, “There are no words for how it feels to lose a child under any circumstance but my handsome Matthew… I’m always without my family. I’m always alone in this crowded prison. One of my old cellmates said I was the friendliest loner she’d ever met. She’s right.”
Patty’s father died in 2014, her sister in 2017, her mother in 2018, and her brother in 2019. “Everyone is dead but Patty,” Glenn Hite told me.
Jerri and Paul Austin divorced. Jerri remarried and is now Jerri Campbell, and lives in Lee’s Summit. Because she was making a new start, Patty didn’t think it was a good idea for them to continue writing to each other. The letter carrier might comment to one of her new neighbors that Jerri was receiving mail from a prison, and that might create problems. Jerri didn’t see it that way but Patty stopped writing. She had been such good friends with her and Bill. Now, Jerri, said, she had lost them both.
Patty’s daughter Jane and her siblings still love their father and think of him often. On Father’s Day, they stop by the Lee’s Summit cemetery, where he’s buried, and share what they remember about him with their children. They’ll ask, “How did grandpa Bill get into the Beach Boys?” and Jane will explain that he had a cousin who lived in California and he used to visit and bring their albums with him.
The family thinks of Matt, too.
“He used to say there’s too much pain with all of this about mom and what happened to dad,” Jane said of her brother. “And he’s right. There was and is.”
When she considers her mother, whom she visits every two months, Jane feels exhausted. It never ends.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of these kids need a mom,” Patty has told Jane about some of the young women in prison. She had never met people who had lived such hard lives. Not just poor people. She’d always known poor people. No, Patty was talking about girls who had been raped by their uncles since they were little. From the way some of these women interacted with her mother, the way they called her mom, Jane realized that Patty was parenting them. She could tell it was good for her and for them, but she still resented it. Patty, raising so many young women, but not her own daughter.
Over the years Patty has applied for clemency four times to no avail, in part because Bill’s family has been vocal in its opposition. In a 1999 letter, State Senator Roseanne Bently wrote to Patty that she could not support her request for clemency due to her own relationship with Bill’s family who, she said, were still grieving. Bently ended her letter with the request that Patty not contact her again.
In 2000, officials from Governor Mel Carnahan’s office showed interest in Patty’s case but received numerous complaints from Bill’s family. Later that year, the governor died in a plane crash before a decision was reached.
Kevin Hughes, who went on to become a private detective in Wyoming, wrote to Governor Bob Holden’s office in 2001 arguing against clemency. “Mrs. Prewitt,” he said, “has not shown any contrition or remorse for her cold, calculated and premeditated murder,” then repeated the accusation that she had been motivated by lust and greed.
In response to Hughes, Jane Aiken, the Wake Forest dean, cited the anomalies of the case as reason enough for Holden to release her. “A commutation of Mrs. Prewitt’s sentence does not require a finding of innocence,” she wrote. “These same irregularities, the flawed investigation, the failure to pursue leads or collect evidence that could have exonerated Mrs. Prewitt, the prosecutor’s plea offer and the problems at trial, suggest that her sentence should have been significantly less, thus justifying a commutation to time served.”
Missouri’s current governor, Mike Parson, has more than three thousand clemency petitions to review. Patty submitted hers in 2010 and is still awaiting a response.
“There’s no question about the integrity of that prosecution,” Robert W. Russell, the current Johnson County, Missouri prosecutor, said. “As for clemency, the family of Mr. Prewitt needs to be consulted and they need to have input into the decision that is made by the governor’s office.”
Bill and Patty’s children want to be heard, too.
“I always believed my sister saw the flashlight under the basement door and I know mom was hurt that night,” Jane said. “It was easy to believe mom and each other about what happened. She didn’t do it.”
Williams’ depiction of Patty as a lustful, unfaithful wife intent on killing her husband has had lasting consequences. In 2018, Judge Robert L. Koffmann heard a request to test evidence gathered during the murder investigation for DNA. At the hearing, he said he recalled Patty testifying that “her sexual engine is hotter than most other people, or some words to that effect. That’s in—that was testified to, because I remember that.”
In fact, that statement came from Hughes, not Patty, who claimed she had made the comment during an unrecorded interview—one of several provocative and sexually suggestive statements he attributed to her, but that she denied having made. Attorneys for Patty informed Koffmann of his error but he insisted he remembered the moment correctly. “I heard that testimony and that—that’s been remembered because that makes this case unique,” he said, later ruling that the appeal did not sufficiently challenge the evidence against Patty, and denying the request for DNA testing.
The denial did not surprise Phil Cardarella, who still thinks about the case, the trial that unfolded like a morality play.
“What you had were people who wanted to punish the adulteress,” Cardarella told me. “These were not people who refused to throw the first stone. They were lined up to throw the first stone.”
Jane Ponte, who so admired Patty’s singing, and Donna May keep in touch with her by email. Jane, who was released in 2012, now lives in Dickinson, Texas and has a job as a social worker. She says she’s living clean and sober. She looks at Patty’s case this way: If a man cheats on his wife and sleeps with a group of women, he’s a stud; if a woman does it, she’s a whore, or worse. There’s just a different standard. If Patty had been a man she wouldn’t be in prison. Can’t prove it, Jane concedes, but that’s how she sees it. She has begun noticing signs of discouragement in Patty’s notes. Her health has deteriorated and she has a shake in her hands and chin. Jane’s no doctor but she knows something’s going on. Patty gets bronchial and nasal infections, and her teeth are breaking. She fainted during a fire drill. All that has to take a toll; she can’t be a rock for others all the time.
Donna, who is also a social worker, worries about Patty, too.
“I went back to visit a couple years ago and saw Patty and it broke my heart,” she told me. “We’re all getting old. She has a little tremor. Everyone wants grace and mercy but no one is willing to extend it. That’s not right. She has to come home. She needs to come home.”
Patty knows people would still think she killed Bill even if she received clemency. Even if DNA testing showed someone else had shot him, there would still be people convinced she had done it. There’s nothing she can do about that. But does it bother her?
“Hell yes,” she told me.
Last winter, after Patty had finished teaching an exercise class, she looked out the gym’s door and, through a square window, four inches long and four inches wide, and saw that it was snowing. Watching the flakes come down, she remembered when she, Bill, and the kids would go sledding, and then she thought back to when she was a child and she would sit on an old truck hood that her father pulled behind his tractor around the field. She blinked back tears, returned to prison and the numb place. After all this time, she wouldn’t think those things would hit her like that, but they still do. She wonders how long it will be before that feeling goes away.
Every prisoner is different, Patty has learned. Some want to tell their story, others say absolutely nothing. Very few of the women ask her for her story. They assume Bill was abusive, that’s what most them say. Patty corrects them. “No,” she says. “He was not abusive. He was the sweetest man ever.” She speaks no more about it. What does she care what they think, so long as they don’t say anything bad about Bill? She’ll step in then and draw the line. Patty sees her marriage as the bridge across that great divide of time between her innocence and youth and who she is today: convict 822667, Missouri Department of Corrections.
When she was first locked up, Patty had a recurring dream. She and her children were at a general store, where her father would get truck parts and other spare odds and ends. Then aliens would land in the parking lot, and Patty would rush her children out to an old F-150 to get them away before the aliens took them. More recently, she dreamt she bought what she called a “hobbit house,” one of those homes that has a big arching front door. It had three bedrooms, two baths, and hardwood floors. All of her family came to stay.
April 2020 marked her thirty-fourth year in prison, her anniversary, she told me with a resigned laugh. She can cuss like she never would have imagined. She’s become harder. You’ll get out, her children always say. She doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t dwell on her chances. When she first got locked up, she believed that any day a guard would call her name and say it had all been a big mistake. Now, if someone says the sun’s shining, she’ll look out the window first. There are a lot of good liars in prison.
Patty knows some people on the outside assume she’s one of them. She can’t stop anyone from believing the worst. If she dies in prison, well, so be it, but she hopes it won’t be a slow death in front of her children. She ducks into the shower when it gets too much. Then towels off and begins again, singing, with her head up.
The coronvirus began to spread across the US as I reported this story. In May 2020, Patty sent me an essay she wrote describing the pandemic’s impact in prison. “On March 12th news echoed down the concrete halls that visitation was suspended for thirty days,” she wrote. “That announcement prompted exclamations like, ‘This shit’s getting’ real!’ Every day or two after that something changed. Rumors swirl between staff and inmates, so far no one knows the truth. I do know for a fact that I’m seventy-one with a heart condition and compromised lungs from over thirty years sucking in thick second-hand prison smoke. And I’m hardly the only prime candidate to die in this prison. We who have been distanced from society by razor wire fences cannot socially distance ourselves from one another.”
Two months later, Patty was transferred from Vandalia to Chillicothe Correctional Center, about one hundred forty miles south. “What a shocker,” Patty wrote me in a July email. “I was packed out at around midnight and after the laborious strip searches of thirty-eight of us, then tons of shackles and cuffs and belly chains, we got on the road around ten a.m. All the way here I dreamed of freedom as the countryside whizzed by.” In Chillicothe, she devoted herself to new inmates who had never been in prison before. They were scared, as she had once been.
“I’m busy keeping the kids’ spirits up,” she wrote. “You know I am resilient.”