Pastor Max Grubb being questioned Tuesday by Defense Attorney "Rick" Salinas.

Patterson Murder Trial, Sept. 28, 2017

Grilling Dying Pastor: Good defensive move?

Grilling a dying church pastor, Max Grubb, on the witness stand Tuesday; shooting him with rapid-fire questions; trying to paint him out to be a money-grubber who wanted to get his hands on part of murder victim Martin “Marty” Knell’s approximate $1.1 million estate: was it a good move on the part of Melissa Patterson’s defense team?

Only the jurors can answer that question. No doubt that will play into jury deliberations once this trial ends. How long will this trial last? Who knows.

After day three, this capital murder trial, with the exception of Assistant Criminal District Attorney Joseph Orendain’s opening statement, has only focused on the theft charges facing Patterson. Prosecutors have yet to get into the murder testimony and evidence. So what? Three weeks from start to finish? More? Anyway you cut it, this is going to be a long trial.

Looking at the 16 jurors (12 plus four alternates), it’s impossible to tell how they’re soaking in the testimony/evidence so far. For the most part, to their credit, they sit with poker faces as they work to absorb all of the testimony and evidence presented to them.

The big story based on Wednesday’s testimony, which will be posted online in its entirety tomorrow as a strict news story, vs. this opinion column, is that the Pharr-based CPA firm handling the 2014 financial audit for Comfort House had a woman working there in clerical fashion, related to the family that owned the CPA firm, who was also working part-time for the Comfort House, while failing to disclose that to the firm’s partners. As the firm’s chief auditor explained Wednesday, had the firm known that there was such a conflict in place, it would not have been able to do the financial audit of the nonprofit. An auditing firm can’t have one of its employees tied to an entity it’s auditing, the auditor explained to the jury Wednesday.

The day before (Tuesday) brought more than a little drama inside the courtroom of state District Judge Noe Gonzalez (the 370th). On the stand, the longtime McAllen pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Max Grubb. Now in his mid-80s, he testified Tuesday that he is suffering from a terminal illness (lung-related) and is expected to enter hospice care next week.

Grubb was one of the few, if not the only, local church pastor who took part in the anti-war rallies at Archer Park in 2002, protesting George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq, which took place the following year. For him, he said at the time, it was immoral for a country to invade another that hadn’t attacked it; and he thought all the talk about WMDs was a lie, an excuse, to get the U.S. into yet another war he said, we had no business fighting. He was passionate then, and even though he’s now dying, that internal passion was still evident Tuesday as he and Patterson’s lead defense attorney, “Rick” Salinas, engaged in a verbal back-and-forth volley.

In his own right, Grubb is a marvel. After years of working in business, he first entered seminary at the age of 69, ready to take on a new challenge.

During his testimony, not only did Grubb call some of Salinas’s questions the most “ridiculous thing” he’d ever heard, but he also suggested that the attorney would have been great in a high school drama class, to which Salinas responded: “Actually, I was pretty good.”

Grubb’s Story

According to Pastor Max Grubb, he first met the murder victim, 96-year-old “Marty” Knell, in the early 1990s when Knell and his wife first started attending First Christian Church. Over the years, Grubb and his wife had remained close friends with Knell and his wife, nicknamed Penny, despite the fact that the Knells eventually left the church Grubb led because someone in the congregation had said something that had hurt the old WWII vet’s feelings – “He never would tell me what was said,” Grubb told the jurors.

Whenever someone left the church he pastored, he always blamed himself, Grubb said, but despite Marty Knell’s departure, “We loved one another, and I was his pastor until the day he died.”

So much so, that in the early part of 2014, when Penny was in a local hospital on life support, and it looked as if she wasn’t going to pull through, it was Max Grubb that “Marty” Knell called to discuss the moral dilemma of whether or not he should let the physicians “pull the plug.” In the end, however, Penny pulled through. She later took a turn for the worse, however, and ended up at the Comfort House hospice, which is where Max Grubb first ran into the capital murder defendant, Monica Melissa Patterson.

According to Grubb, that first meeting wasn’t pretty. Patterson told him that he couldn’t accompany “Marty” Knell into the room where his wife lay dying.

“In my 15 years as a pastor, I’ve never been denied admission (into a room) to see a congregant when they’re sick,” said Grubb.

Over the years, the Knells had left Grubb’s church, then returned, then left.

At the time Knell’s wife was at the Comfort House, Grubb was listed as her pastor, but Patterson refused to budge, said the dying clergyman.

“She said that she had been instructed not to let me see Penny,” Grubb told the jurors while being questioned by Assistant DA Joseph Orendain. “When I asked by whom, she didn’t say. I told her I had every right to see Penny. Then she told me that it was Marty’s son who had told her not to let me in.”

After Knell had gone into his wife’s hospice-care room, Grubb said, Patterson told him something he found odd while the two stood together in the Comfort House foyer.

According to Grubb, Patterson asked him if he knew that Knell was worth millions. Grubb said, yes, he knew that. During the time that Knell’s wife had been hospitalized, he had revealed to the pastor how much money he had made in the stock market, in addition to how much money he had saved up over the years. Standing in the hospice foyer, Patterson told Grubb that Knell was concerned that his son, “Mark,” was after his money.

“I told her that Marty should hire a lawyer to protect his money.”

It was after that remark, said Grubb, that Patterson allowed him entrance in to see Penny Knell.

Grubb said that he knew Knell and Patterson had previously clashed when Penny Knell was first admitted to Comfort House. In fact, Patterson had called the McAllen police to the scene, demanding that he never return. During Orendain’s opening statement, he said it was Knell’s son, Mark, who had called Patterson and struck a deal: if a police officer accompanied his dad to the Comfort House, would she then let him in to see his wife? Patterson agreed to the arrangement.

“So I told Mrs. Patterson, said Grubb, ‘Look, Marty’s a nice guy. If I come with him when he comes to visit, will that be okay?”

Meaning, the police escort could be called off. Apparently, according to Grubb, Patterson agreed to that condition.

The second time that Max Grubb accompanied Marty Knell to see his wife, the visit went well, according to court testimony. “Penny had recovered considerably. The two of them (at that time, married for more than 70 years) sang love songs to each other. She looked like she was getting well.”

During that visit, Grubb didn’t speak to Patterson. Apparently, she wasn’t around.

The third visit was indeed very strange, said Grubb. “She proposed taking care of Marty’s money for him. It would be taken out of the bank and given to her so she could keep it in a secret place for the rest of Marty’s life; away from his son.”

Grubb said he told the murder defendant, “No.” What Knell needed, said Grubb, was a good lawyer to protect his financial interests, not Patterson.

Another time, said Grubb, Patterson had proposed the two strike a deal. She would get half of Knell’s money, and Grubb would get the other half. “I told her no,” said Grubb. What he needed was a good lawyer.

According to Grubb, “Marty (hated) lawyers with a passion. Don’t blame him.”

At one point in time, said Grubb, Knell had asked him what he thought he should do with all of his money. “I told him that he should see an attorney because that was way above my pay grade. I was a pastor, not a financial counselor”

Given Knell’s apparent dislike of attorneys, it took Grubb some time to convince him to indeed visit a competent attorney schooled in financial matters. In the end, it apparently worked. Grubb went with Knell to the McAllen-based law firm Kittleman, Thomas & Gonzalez, PLLC, where they met with attorney and firm partner Oscar Gomez, who has since moved on to start his own firm, as have the other partners.

“While we were there,” said Grubb, “I told him (Gomez) that Marty needed help with his financial interests so they couldn’t be taken from him.”

Grubb said he stayed for most of that visit, but left before it was concluded. It was understood, however, that Knell would hire Gomez and the firm for which he worked; give the firm a retainer; and draw up two holistic wills.

Then things, unfortunately, went south, said Grubb. He had to have open-heart surgery and lost touch with Knell for several months. The next time he spoke with Knell, the old vet told him that he hadn’t hired Gomez after all.

It was at some point after that, said Grubb, Knell told him that instead, he had re-written his will and had left everything to Melissa Patterson, and had left him $100,000.

“I told him that he had made a terrible mistake by leaving everything to her,” said Grubb, asking him to reconsider; and instead, think about the people he loved, such as his grandkids. Grubb also said that he told Knell that he couldn’t accept the $100,000.

The two agreed to meet the following week so that Grubb could continue to try and convince him to change his mind.

“Did you meet the following week?” asked Assistant DA Orendain.

“No,” said Grubb. “(By that time), he was dead.”

Grubb told the jury that he had misgivings about Patterson and her claim that Knell’s son was after his dad’s money, but he didn’t think his pastoral duties allowed him to make contact with the son. After Knell’s funeral, however, Grubb said he approached the son, Mark Knell, and told him that in his opinion, his dad had been badly manipulated by Melissa Patterson, so she could lay claim to his money. Grubb said that he also told Knell’s son that in his dad’s will, $100,000 was supposed to go to him (Grubb) personally. Something about which he had known nothing.

“I told him I thought that was wrong as well. I couldn’t take it; and I never received it.”

Neither did Grubb’s church, said the pastor.

Cross-Examination

Then came the heat – in the form of Defense Attorney “Rick” Salinas – who started cross-examining Grubb as he remained sitting in the witness box strapped to an oxygen tank that sat by his side. He may have looked old and feeble, but listening to his testimony, it didn’t take long to see that he still had some fight left in him.

The point that Salinas would try to make to the jury was that Grubb knew Knell had approximately a million dollars, and he wanted to tap into some of it.

Grubb called that allegation absurd, saying that he had even turned down the $100,000 in the will. Meaning, if he was indeed a money-grubber, why wouldn’t he have just taken the $100k or the half-a-million that he claimed Patterson had offered him if they could separate Knell from his money.

Salinas also made the point that Grubb remained distant from the Knells until he learned during Penny Knell’s hospital stay that Marty Knell had an approximate million-dollar estate.

“No,” said Grubb, “a pastor takes interest in people when they are in need, and I did that.”

Salinas tried to make the point that Grubb’s church had fallen on hard times, financially speaking, the congregation had declined in numbers, so the pastor wanted some of Knell’s money to prop up McAllen’s First Christian Church.

“You’re missing the point, counselor,” said Grubb. “He said he had left the money to me personally, and I said, that wasn’t right.” Grubb also said he never suggested that Knell leave all of his money to the church.

Grubb told Salinas that in his opinion, there is a right way and a wrong way to do something. A moral way to do something, and an immoral way to do something. What he saw coming from Patterson was both abusive and immoral.

Doing the job of a criminal defense attorney, “Rick” Salinas kept peppering Grubb with questions, trying to swing the money grab in his direction away from his client.

“No,” said Grubb, nodding toward Melissa Patterson, “she ended up with the money in the will.”

At one point, Assistant DA Orendain accused Salinas of badgering the witness.

Grubb told Salinas, after being asked a question about Knell’s money, that Patterson had approached him with several scenarios, all of which he thought misguided. First, Knell would give her all of his money, and she would guarantee that he had a place to stay and live out the remaining years of his life without having to worry about his money. Then, according to Grubb, during another visit to the Comfort House, she told him that his church could get half of Knell’s estate, and Comfort House could get half.

Grubb said that wasn’t a good solution. Instead, Knell should see a competent attorney.

Salinas continued to try and make the point that Grubb’s interest in Marty Knell took a decided turn for the better once he discovered the money in the murder victim’s bank accounts. Grubb continued to deny that money had anything to do with it. Taking care of a parishioner in need was his one and only goal, he said. “And that’s what I did.”

As the cross-examination came to a close, Max Grubb told Salinas, “You have a wild-eyed imagination.”

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