On first appearances, 52-year-old William Durrell Patterson and his 42-year-old wife Margaret lived fairly normal lives. They owned a photo supply shop near their home in El Paso, Texas, and seemed to be content and well-liked by their neighbors. They were fairly wealthy, owning a nice Cadillac and a boat, and there doesn’t seem as if there was anything out of order or amiss in their lives. Yet, on the evening of March 5, 1957 the couple left their home to seemingly vanish off the face of the earth. Thus would begin a strange unsolved mystery that has remained completely evasive to this day.
When no one could find or contact the Pattersons and they failed to show up for work, authorities were notified and they were reported as missing persons. When police entered their residence, they found clothes lying out on the bed, dirty dishes piled up in the sink, and the family’s cat, Tommy, wandering around. It seemed as if all of their possessions had been left behind, an expensive fur coat was found to have been left at the cleaners, and it seemed as thought they would come home at any moment. At first police thought that perhaps they had taken an impromptu vacation, but the cat hadn’t been boarded, the utilities were left on, and they had not cancelled a reservation at a hotel for the National Photographers Association convention in Washington, DC that they had been planning to go to a few weeks later. It also turned out that they had had dinner with friends just a few nights before the disappearance, and it was claimed that the Pattersons had made no mention at all of taking a trip anywhere. Neighbors claimed that the couple had left sometime that night and had simply never come back.
In the meantime, a family friend of the Pattersons, a man named Cecil Ward, was surprised when the Pattersons’ Cadillac drove up to his automotive business with another family friend named Doyle Kirkland behind the wheel. When asked why he had the Cadillac, Kirkland claimed that William Patterson had told him that the two were going on a trip and had asked him to bring the car in for some repairs while they were gone. This was odd, since they had not mentioned any trip to anyone else. Another odd clue was one neighbor who claimed to have visited the Pattersons on the afternoon of the day they vanished and said that they had seemed agitated and upset over something. What did any of this mean?
Things got a bit stranger when on March 15, the Pattersons’ accountant, Herbert Roth, received a telegram postmarked from Laredo that announced they would not be returning, along with instructions as to how to manage their assets and business, as well as instructions to cancel the hotel reservations in Washington DC, rent out the Patterson home, sell a mobile home they owned, and, most curiously of all, put Doyle Kirkland in charge of their business. This was a bit weird, as although Kirkland and William Patterson were friends, they owned competing photo supply shops, making it a little eyebrow raising that he would be put in charge. Another oddity on the telegram was that it was signed “W.H. Patterson,” when William’s real initials were “W.D. Patterson.” Why would he make this mistake? Handwriting analysts would later cast doubt over whether the signature had even been made with Patterson’s hand at all. It didn’t matter anyway, as because only William had signed it and not the co-owner of his business, Margaret, as well as the fact that the signature had not been witnessed, made it legally worthless. This and the Cadillac fiasco seem to raise suspicions towards Kirkland, but police would never find anything to firmly link him to any wrongdoing and he was never charged with anything to do with the disappearance of the Pattersons.
As all of this was going on, authorities were uncovering some rather unsavory details about William’s private life. It would turn out that he had had a Mexican mistress named Estefana Arroyo Marfin, who lived in Juarez and who he would frequently go to covertly visit. Indeed, it turns out that she claimed to have seen him on March 6, the day he disappeared, and that he had expressed that he felt someone was coming for him, that he had to “disappear soon and do it quickly.” She would later recant the statement, but it is one more oddity. Other than this, police found it surprisingly hard to dig up any background information on the couple, as Margaret had been estranged from her relatives and family for years, and William had always been tightlipped about his upbringing. Indeed, no one even seemed to know how the two had even met or when they had gotten married.
As the months and years went by with no further answers, there would be occasional reports of sightings of the Pattersons in Mexico, where they owned land, and there was even a promising lead from a hotel in Valle del Bravo, where staff claimed the Pattersons had stayed for several months, but ultimately none of this led anywhere. The Pattersons would be officially declared dead in 1964, although the case remained open. It would not be until 1984 that any real promising new lead would come in, when a man named Reynaldo Nangaray came forward with some shocking new information. Nangaray had been a caretaker at the Patterson house at the time, and he claimed that not only had he seen blood in the Patterson garage and what seemed to be a piece of scalp on the propellor of the boat they kept in there, but that he had witnessed someone whisking away bloody sheets from the scene into a waiting car. Homicide detective Freddie Bonilla would say of Nangaray’s claims:
Nangaray told us he found blood in the garage and a piece of human scalp on the propeller of Patterson’s boat. He found a pair of jeans with a Rolex watch that belonged to Patterson, and said he also saw one of Patterson’s associates remove bloody sheets from the home and put them inside the trunk of a car. He did not talk to police sooner because he was an illegal immigrant at the time, but when he came to see us, he was a U.S. citizen.
Unfortunately, Nangeray would die in a car crash not long after this startling confession, no proof can be found that it ever really happened or who the “associate” was, and it has never led anywhere. There have been plenty of theories as to what happened to the Pattersons. One is that they were murdered, either by an outside party, possibly Kirkland, or the culprit even being one on them, who killed the other and ran off. They might have also just decided to run off and start a new life somewhere, likely Mexico, and there is even the theory that they were in fact spies. This would tie into the difficulty of finding any background information on them, and perhaps they were just done with their mission and went back off the grid. Even the El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego has endorsed this angle, saying in 2009:
I think they were spies. The way they got up and just walked away and left everything behind. The Russians, or whoever sent them, probably told them to drop everything and go back. Some people said they had seen Patterson take photographs of Fort Bliss and of military shipments on the trains that came here.
Despite all of the speculation and theories over the years, we are not much closer to solving the mystery than anyone has ever been. This couple simply stepped out to walk off the face of the earth, leaving an intriguing mystery that stirs discussion to this day. What happened to them? Was this a murder, kidnapping, or something else entirely? What role did the various players have in all of this? What are we to make of the various clues and leads that have trickled in? In the end, there is a very good chance that we will never know for sure what happened to this couple.