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By G. Romero Wendorf

Out of all the years I’ve been covering this county, 30, never have I heard so many people exclaim in unison:   “I just can’t believe it. No way.”

To those who know Melissa Patterson, from her years growing up in San Juan, through her adult years as a therapist, business owner and executive director of the Comfort House hospice, no one who knows her can believe she’s capable of what she’s been charged with: capital murder of a feeble 97-year-old man to get at his estate valued at close to a million dollars.

In other words, murder for greed.

Now, people are asking themselves this question: could my child ever be capable of something like this?

She’s still innocent until proven guilty, as her attorney, well-known Criminal Defense Legal Eagle “Rick” Salinas, reminded reporters Monday morning after her bond-reduction hearing had been concluded inside the courtroom of Justice of the Peace Bobby Contreras, precinct 2, place 1. (Patterson didn’t appear in person.)

“The (non) transport saves the taxpayers money,” Salinas explained.

According to Contreras, Salinas wanted her bond reduced from the initial $1 million that he had set the week prior, following Patterson’s arrest Wednesday afternoon, down to $100,000, but he wasn’t buying it.

“I’m going to treat her the same I would anyone else,” Contreras said. “And if I do sign off on it (the bond reduction), it will be 500 thousand dollars, not a hundred thousand.”

What Contreras means when he says “anyone else” is actually three-fold: he’s personally known Melissa Patterson since she was a little girl; he’s known her family for most of his adult life; and she’s the daughter of a prominent political family. Her father is former Hidalgo County Commissioner, San Juan Mayor and PSJA Board Trustee Hector “Tito” Palacios. Her mother, Berta Palacios, is a longtime PSJA high-ranking educator who just recently had an elementary school named after her. Her uncle is longtime Pharr Mayor “Polo” Palacios. Her brother, Jay Palacios, is an Hidalgo County court-at-law judge. And she also has a cousin who was a former PSJA school board member.

Case against her

According to the criminal complaint made public after her arrest last week, it’s going to be an uphill battle in court for Patterson’s attorney, Rick Salinas, despite his sounding cautiously upbeat Monday: “I see a flipside to this. A B side, if you will. I’m a little bit concerned by some of the things I see in the affidavit (criminal complaint).”

But looking at the affidavit, the criminal complaint, the evidence against Patterson, 48, seems overwhelming. That, and the fact that her alleged co-defendant, Angel Mario Garza, 37, an illegal immigrant with a prior felony drug conviction who somehow escaped the Comfort House’s background screening check to become a handyman there while Patterson was its executive director, has already confessed to the murder, fingering his former boss as the mastermind behind the murder plot. Saying, she promised him money in exchange for his complicity in the murder.

According to the criminal complaint, Patterson and Garza arrived at Martin Knell’s home at 3817 Ellis Drive the morning of Jan. 28, 2015. The caretaker, who worked for Patterson, told investigators that she had heard the two of them – Patterson and Knell – arguing earlier that morning about the old man’s will. Over the course of approximately three months, Patterson had become not only the executrix of the Will but also its chief beneficiary (according to a legal claim made against Patterson by Knell’s son three months after his death).

According to the affidavit, Patterson barged into Knell’s home at which time, the 97-year old WWII vet said, “You know what, young lady, I want my Will.”

It was at that point, that the Comfort House executive director allegedly told the caretaker to step outside. She saw a man she knew as Mario sitting in Patterson’s vehicle and watched her boss wave him inside. As he passed, he allegedly asked the caretaker if Patterson had told her what was about to go down. She saw him slip on some medical gloves as he entered the residence. The caretaker told investigators that Patterson could be heard telling Mario, “Do what you have to do.” And then both of them went to work on the old man, according to the caretaker’s later statement to investigators. Sounds of a struggle could be heard.

When the dirty deed was through, according to the criminal complaint, both left, but not before telling the caretaker to wait 30 minutes and then call 911 and say that the old gentleman had simply expired while sitting up. And if you don’t….they warned.

Suspecting no foul play, the JP, Homer Jasso, showed up on the scene, believed what the caretaker told him, natural death, and signed the death certificate. Case closed. Or so everyone thought at the time, according to the criminal complaint.

At first,the caretaker went along with the ruse, she later told the Texas Rangers approximately a month after the murder, because she had been personally threatened with bodily harm by both Patterson and Mario Garza right after the murder took place. But her conscience got the best of her…the murder playing mind games with her head…and so here she was this past February, talking to the Texas Ranger stationed in McAllen, spilling the beans on what went down. 

An approximately six-month investigation followed, during which all the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place, according to the criminal complaint. Through investigative resources (cell-phone technology perhaps), the Ranger and the criminal investigator (Hidalgo County sheriff’s department) working with him were able to place both Patterson and Garza at the Knell residence on the day of the crime within 30 to 45 minutes of the 911 call.

Last Tuesday, according to one source, the victim’s body was exhumed. The medical examiner worked the case all night, all Wednesday, and then laid down the verdict: this man has been murdered. The means: suffocation.

Mr. Martin Knell was re-interred last Friday, with a full-blown funeral service in place, much like the one the family had conducted for him this past January. With one exception. At the funeral Friday, as opposed to the one in January, Melissa Patterson wasn’t in attendance. She was in the county jail, charged with his murder as he was laid to rest.

Estate battle

Perhaps one of the most telling pieces of evidence against Melissa Patterson is the legal claim made against her by Knell’s son, “Mark” Knell. A local kid who graduated from McHi, and then toured Europe on the pro tennis circuit for awhile in the 1970s, Knell the younger finally returned to Texas, settled down in the Hill Country, where he lived a responsible life with a wife and three kids.

But prior to and immediately after his dad’s death, things just weren’t adding up. Not when it came to Melissa Patterson.

He employed the services of Atlas & Hall in April 2015, and none other than the well-known Daniel Gurwitz handled his case as he filed a claim, contesting Patterson’s right to his dad’s estate.

If it’s all true, it’s a sad case indeed because it shows how an old man who’s lost most of his memory and cognitive functions can be so easily manipulated by someone with a greedy motive.

But like Attorney Rick Salinas will remind everyone, Melissa Patterson remains innocent until proven guilty. This, despite what the mean-spirited posters have to write on social media, most of whom he likens to people without a life.

“They sit in Starbucks all day with a laptop.”

If, however, the contested Will claim filedby Mark Knell is indeed true, contesting Patterson’s claim to his father’s estate, valued in excess of $1 million, perhaps at some point in time, investigators will comb through the records of those who passed away at the Comfort House hospice while Patterson was its executive director and see how many other Wills she might have seized upon as both executrix and beneficiar.

Mark Knell’s claim reads like a sad tale. His mom died in the fall of 2014 during a time when his father was clearly becoming more and more delusional and out of touch with reality. He couldn’t take care of his wife, but refused to admit it. Finally, they got her admitted to the Comfort House. At first, Patterson, according to the son, paid them little mind. And then one day, she discovered the amount of his dad’s assets and suddenly became their new best friend.

When Mrs. Knell died in October, according to the son, Melissa Patterson basically took over the old man’s entire affairs. Keeping him away from friends and family, having his house locks changed, and even convincing a local well-known attorney, that even though she had only known Mr. Knell for less than 90 days, and he was 96 years old with a history of mental problems, it was perfectly reasonable and understandable to let the old guy sign over the bulk of his estate to her. No questions asked. Two witnesses signed off on the deal, and Patterson was good to go.

According to the son’s legal claim against her legal right to his dad’s estate, written up by Atlas & Hall, Patterson also gained sole power of attorney, had the son’s name removed from all of his father’s bank accounts and records and the locks changed at his home.

During this period, Knell claims that he discovered that Melissa Patterson had a federal tax lien against her in the amount of approximately $400,000.

After his father was declared dead Jan. 28, Melissa Patterson, the former Bearette, was already at the courthouse door in early February, filing a petition to gain access to Knell’s entire estate, which by this time, according to one source, was already approximately $400,000 short from its original approximate $1 million value.

The missing cash has apparently never been recovered.

The future

As of this Tuesday, JP Bobby Contreras sounds like a man taking some heat for even considering a bond reduction. Patterson’s alleged accomplice, Mario Garza, he’s still sitting up in the county jail with a $1 million bond still hung around his neck. So why should Melissa Patterson’s bond be reduced to $500k?

“Because she’s not a flight risk,” said Contreras, who’s up for re-election next year. “And she has some medical issues (she reportedly suffers from Lupus), and I’m going to lay down some conditions. But, too, she’s got no priors. Never been in trouble before.”

And what are the conditions?

“If she has a passport, she’ll have to surrender it. She can’t leave the county. She’ll have to wear a GPS ankle bracelet (monitor). She can’t go near the Comfort House, and in fact, she’s got to resign from it, and she can’t talk to the defendant’s family.”

Contreras swears he’s treating Melissa Patterson no differently than he would any other defendant in similar circumstances.

“I think the million-dollars (bond) was about right for a capital murder charge,” Contreras said. “Now you show me someone else like her, never been in trouble before, not considered a flight risk, and I don’t care who her family is, then I’d possibly be looking at reducing their bond as well. But the guy sitting in the county jail now (Mario Garza). He’s here illegally, and he’s got a prior drug felony conviction. You think I’m going to reduce his bond? No way.”

If Patterson and/or her attorney comply with the conditions laid down by the JP, she should be out of jail this week. For the $500,000 bond, the family will have to raise at least $50k cash and collateralize the rest.

The capital murder charges against her and her alleged accomplice are expected to move through the grand jury process in no more than 30 days.

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