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Prosecutors start the ball rolling: Bank teller smelled something fishy

Melissa Patterson murder trial underway

I11-gotten gains worth $400,000? All within a period of less than two weeks?

That’s the length of time it took capital murder defendant Monica Melissa Patterson to convince the man she’s charged with killing, 96-yearold Martin “Marty” Knell, to hand over to her his $400k. In cash, no less. He had lots more, of course, and in the end, she would find a way to get it all. The $400,000 was just the beginning.

This, according to Hidalgo County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Joseph Orendain as this high-profile trial kicked off Monday morning inside the 370th courtroom of state District Judge Noe Gonzalez after the 12 jurors and four alternates had been seated. Of the 16, nine are women, and seven are men.

By the time Knell was murdered Jan. 28, 2015, Patterson had control of the old World War II vet’s entire (approximate) $1.1 million estate; his power of attorney; his do-not-resuscitate order; her name on his last will and testament; and last but not least, she had her name listed on his bank accounts as the pay-on-death beneficiary should he die.

At the time of Knell’s murder, Patterson had only known him for four short months.

The prosecutors’ case, so far, has gone like this: Patterson is a cold-and-calculating master manipulator; a thief of the highest rank, stealing from both Knell and the hospice (McAllen-based Comfort House) where she worked; and her alleged murder victim deserved far better than he got – death by asphyxiation while sitting at his kitchen table. To take advantage of a feeble old man who had just lost his wife the previous October, and had been showing signs of dementia since at least 2012 (according to the civil lawsuit filed later by Knell’s estate), is, well, criminal.

On the prosecutors’ side, Orendain is joined by Assistant DA Cregg Thompson. Standing in opposition to represent the defendant, four high-profile criminal defense attorneys: “Rick” Salinas, taking the lead role; followed by O. Rene Flores, Calixtro Villarreal, and Fernando Mancias.

Orendain made the opening statement Monday for the state. Salinas said the defense would postpone its opening statement (presumably until after the state rests its case, and it’s time for the defense team to present its own evidence).

“Marty” Knell, said Orendain, was not only a World War II vet (he trained paratroopers) who had worked hard his entire life to build up his sizeable estate by investing in the stock market, living frugally, and retiring from the USPS, but he was also a man deeply in love with his wife, Thelma Mae “Penny” Knell. So much so, said Orendain, that he would dote on her night and day. When she died at the Comfort House in October of 2014, his world basically fell apart.

What makes this trial so high-profile is that Patterson’s maiden name is Palacios. Her dad is a former Hidalgo County precinct commissioner, former San Juan mayor, former PSJA board trustee; her mom, a former PSJA ISD administrator who has a school named in her honor; one of her uncles is a former longtime Pharr mayor and city commissioner; her brother is an Hidalgo County Court-at-Law judge; her cousin is a former PSJA ISD board trustee; another uncle (related through marriage) is a longtime Pharr municipal judge; and across the county, the PSJA-based Palacios name has been synonymous with political power and strength ever since the family patriarch got into politics back in the mid-20th century.

Besides the charge of capital murder, Patterson faces three other felony counts: misapplication of a fiduciary (she allegedly failed the Comfort House while serving there as its chief administrator) and two counts of theft. With consent by the victim’s family that met with the DA, the death penalty isn’t at stake in this trial. If convicted, Patterson faces life in prison with no chance of parole. In other words, if she’s convicted, she’ll die in prison.

During court testimony presented to the jury during the first two days of this capital murder trial, Monday and Tuesday (at least up until the latter day’s noon hour), three people have testified: the former board president at the Comfort House; the former finance manager at the Comfort House; and the victim’s former pastor. As expected, none of them had anything to say about Patterson that might help her beat the rap. They were all there, sworn to tell the truth, and the testimony they gave on the stand was what they said they had each encountered through their dealings with the murder defendant.

On numerous occasions, Defense Attorney Rick Salinas objected to their testimony. Judge Gonzalez sustained some objections and over-ruled others. During cross-examination by Salinas, he did the same with objections made by lead Prosecutor Joseph Orendain: some were sustained; some were over-ruled.

The highly adversarial trial is expected to last more than two weeks.

So far, the three people called to take the stand, along with the opening statement presented by the state (made by Orendain), includes the following testimony/remarks, as presented below. After the state rests its case, it will be the defense team’s chance to present their own evidence amounting to Patterson’s presumed innocence, and they will be given equal space on this front page:

• When Patterson was hired at the Comfort House, it took her less than six weeks to get the hospice finance director to resign. The finance director said Patterson changed the locks on the office door without letting her know she was going to do it; took away her job writing up the board’s minutes; and told her not to leave her office except to go to the restroom. She once threatened to go through the finance director’s office with “a fine-toothed comb,” and “I will find something.” Patterson had made no bones to Comfort Hospice staff about having “police connections,” so the finance director was pretty certain that Patterson would indeed find something if she searched her office; but it would be something that she herself had planted. In the end, the finance director told the jury, she took Patterson’s threat seriously and decided to resign. After that, Patterson brought in two other staff members to handle financial matters.

• The first time Patterson met Knell, she called the cops on him, claiming he was creating a disturbance. She didn’t want him anywhere near the Comfort House. Knell’s son worked out an agreement: if his dad went to the hospice accompanied by a police officer, would she let him in? She said, yes.

• Knell was proud of his success and wasn’t shy in talking about it. While at the Comfort House, he let staff know about how much money he was worth. After that, Patterson soon became his BFF (best friend forever).

• The first time that Patterson accompanied Knell to his bank, the teller at the desk knew Knell, but had never before seen Patterson. When Melissa began asking the bank teller to give her some info about Knell’s bank accounts – how much money does he have in them – the teller told her, “I can discuss that with Mr. Knell, but not you.” The teller later called Adult Protective Services (APS) because she was worried about what she had just witnessed.

• Patterson had manipulated Knell into thinking that his son, “Mark,” was out to get his money, and it would be better protected if he turned it over to her. In return, she promised to take care of him for the rest of his life and make sure that he had a place to live.

• In an attempt to elicit the help of Knell’s pastor to get the future murder victim to turn over all of his money to her, she promised to give half of the $1.1 million to his church. He said, no, that’s not right. He finally convinced Knell that he needed to see a competent attorney if he really thought that his son was out to steal his money. Patterson had planted that thought in Knell’s head, said the pastor. At the time, however, his pastoral duties prevented him from contacting the son.

• Knell’s pastor finally got him to go see an attorney, and he went with him. It looked like things were on a roll, but then the pastor had a heart attack, was laid low for about three months, and when he got back with Knell about his experience with the attorney, Knell told him that he had found another.

• After Knell’s murder, the pastor contacted Knell’s son and told him that he thought that Patterson had manipulated his dad, and he had been wronged.

• On the day of his murder, Knell was checked out by a nurse inside his own home and was told that he was in good physical shape. He could indeed make his doctors’ appointments scheduled for later that day. The nurse heard him talking on the phone with Patterson, arguing over money. The nurse left. Patterson then came barging into Knell’s home, and the housekeeper/caregiver heard him say to her, “Young lady, I want my papers.” The papers could have included his stock certificates, but most assuredly included his power of attorney and his last will and testament.

• Patterson told the caregiver to step outside where she observed a guy she knew as “Mario” sitting in Patterson’s car. Patterson motioned to him to come forth. As he drew closer, the housekeeper saw him start to don plastic gloves as Patterson told him, “Do what you have to do.” The caregiver then heard sounds from inside the home – the sound of a man struggling to breathe, howls, the sounds of a man fighting for his life; his last breath. Then, finally, all was quiet.

• Patterson told the caregiver to “keep quiet and don’t tell anyone about this.” Wait 35 to 40 minutes, Patterson told her, and then call 911.

• “Mario” is Angel Mario Garza, also since charged with Knell’s murder, who has already confessed to the murder in a sworn confession. According to Garza, it was Patterson who held a plastic bag over Knell’s head while he held down the victim in the kitchen chair. The reason he would commit such a despicable act? Patterson had promised him part of the proceeds from Knell’s estate. Monday’s opening statement clearly contradicts Garza’s confession in terms of who actually killed Knell.

• According to Knell’s caregiver, who was employed by Patterson to watch over the old vet, when “Mario” came outside, he told her that if she said anything about what she had just witnessed, “something will happen to you.” He also told the caregiver that he would be watching her.

• Patterson drove off in her car, and “Mario” left the premises on foot.

• After the caregiver waited approximately 30 minutes, she called 911. Sirens came rushing to the scene where CPR began to be administered on Marty Knell. When paramedics began to ask her questions she couldn’t answer, the caregiver called Patterson. Within a very short period of time, Patterson raced to the scene with Knell’s do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order in hand, demanding that all efforts being made by paramedics and fire-and-rescue to revive Marty Knell immediately cease. Knell’s DNR was checked, vetted, everything seemed to be in order, so any further efforts to revive the victim went no further. A short time later, a JP declared him dead of a heart attack.

• Patterson attended the funeral of the man she’s now charged with murdering.

• Ordering one’s murder is the same as if you fired the bullet, or in this case, placed a plastic bag over the victim’s head.

• The murder took place on Jan. 28, 2015. On Feb. 9, Patterson went to Knell’s bank, presented his death certificate, alerted bank staff that her name was indeed listed on Knell’s bank accounts as the pay-on-death beneficiary, and literally cleared out all of his accounts.

• A week later, Patterson was at the Hidalgo County Courthouse filing a claim to Knell’s estate because her name was on his last will and testament, listed as the beneficiary.

• On Feb. 24, approximately a month after Knell’s murder, the housekeeper/caretaker couldn’t take living with a lie any longer and went to the Texas Rangers with her story about what really went down Jan. 28.

• During an interview with the Rangers on Feb. 26, Patterson failed to tell them that she and Angel Mario Garza had been at Knell’s residence prior to her arrival at his house with the DNR in hand.

• The caregiver later identified Garza out of a photo lineup as being the hands-on murderer while Patterson stood with her outside the home cooling her heels after telling him to go inside and “do what you have to do.”

• The Texas Rangers later arranged a meeting between the caregiver and Patterson, which was recorded. While Patterson doesn’t come right out and admit guilt in the matter, she doesn’t deny it either. She does admit that she and Garza were at Knell’s home the morning of Jan. 28, but that they had come to fix a shower.

• Garza was arrested Aug. 25. Patterson was arrested Aug.

26. Patterson made bail; Garza never did.

• Knell’s body was exhumed, an autopsy performed, and the medical examiner ruled his death a murder by asphyxiation.

• Immediately after Patterson’s arrest, the board president at Comfort House conducted an internal audit, which included an inventory of Patterson’s office. Inside office cabinets, there were zip-lock bags containing personal receipts tied to Patterson, all paid for with Comfort House money (debit card).

• Every time the hospice board would ask to see “the books” a financial reckoning, if you will, Patterson told the board that “Quick Books was down,” but that she was working on it.

• When the board president was asked during court testimony why the board took Patterson’s word that the hospice was in good shape financially, even though, meeting after meeting, no proof of financial stability was ever delivered by Patterson to board members, he said, “Because we trusted our chief administrator.”

• Unbeknownst to the Comfort House board of directors, Patterson had opened up a bank account in the name of the hospice without the board’s knowledge or approval. In doing so, she used fictitious/falsified board minutes to meet banking regs that demand if someone wants to create a new bank account for a non-profit, for example, they have to provide the minutes that reflect board approval. Patterson didn’t have the real deal, so she created her own.

• Patterson would provide the board with sheets of numbers, but there were no bank statements that went along with them. Just a list of meaningless numbers. When asked about that, the board was met with the usual Patterson response: “Quick Books is down, but we’re trying to repair it.” At the time, Patterson had two people working with her in the office.

• At the time of Patterson’s arrest, the Comfort House hospice was basically broke. There wasn’t even enough money in the bank account to meet payroll or pay the light bill. If a benevolent board member hadn’t offered to loan the hospice $50,000, the board would have had to immediately shut down the place and start moving the terminal patients to another hospice.

• Patterson rang up huge overdrafts on the Comfort House debit card, and used it to rack up thousands of dollars spent for her own personal pleasures. Every bank overdraft cost the hospice $38. These overdraft receipts were found in some of the zip-lock bags discovered in Patterson’s office following her arrest.

• The list of Patterson’s personal expenses, courtesy of her Comfort House debit card, included expensive restaurant meals up the wazoo, limo rides, trips to Vegas, a stay at one of Austin’s priciest hotels, tens of thousands of dollars spent on her son’s lavish high school graduation party, and the list goes on, to the point where Patterson was actually using the Comfort House debit card to withdraw money from ATMs.

• In 2014, she used the Comfort House debit card on personal expenses that added up to approximately $31,500, of which the board knew nothing.

• In 2015, that number dropped (she was arrested in August) to approximately $17,000.

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