Patterson Murder Trial, Sept. 30, 2017
Former Comfort House caregiver and administrative finance liaison Melissa Chavez made no bones about the fact that she didn’t want to testify in the Monica Melissa Patterson capital murder trial Friday (Sept. 29).
“I don’t like public speaking,” she said shortly after taking the stand in the courtroom of state District Judge Noe Gonzalez (the 370thDistrict Court). “And I’m the sort of person who likes to keep to myself.”
After she received a subpoena approximately 11 days ago from the DA’s office, however, she had little choice but to take the stand.
At issue regarding her testimony: Who prepared the board minutes that authorized Patterson to open up a bank account at Falcon International Bank in early 2014?
In other words, the account that was never submitted for the hospice’s 2014 fiscal year financial audit, according to court testimony given Wednesday by the CPA who conducted the audit.
A copy of hospice board minutes from early 2014 that indicated that the Comfort House board of directors had authorized the opening of the Falcon Bank account was submitted into evidence and shown to Chavez. Prosecutors asked her if she had typed it, as so indicated on the paper document.
Chavez said she couldn’t re-call if she had typed it.
If she had typed it, who would have given it to her to be typed? asked the state.
“Mrs. Patterson,” said Chavez, working hard to calm her nerves. For a person who doesn’t like public speaking, taking the stand in a murder trial, under oath, with 16 jurors sitting to her left (12 plus four alternates) staring at her, not to mention a room full of attorneys, their support staff, and a packed gallery, clearly, Chavez looked as if she wished that fate hadn’t led her down this dark road.
“If I had typed it,” she said, “I probably would have typed Melissa R. Chavez because that’s how I sign my name.”
The board minute document before her contained no R.
She did, however, make clear that during her time working in the front office as the financial liaison for the hospice, she was never aware that a Falcon Bank account existed. At least to the best of her recollection.
Later during cross-examination, one of Patterson’s four defense attorneys, Ricardo “Rick” Salinas,” asked her if she “always” typed her name with an R.
“No,” she said, “not ‘always.’”
“So it’s possible,” said Salinas, “that you could have typed this particular document (leaving out the R.”
“Yes, it’s possible,” said Chavez.
Chavez Had Other Plans
Melissa Chavez didn’t really have plans to work at the Comfort House when she first went to work there in approximately 2011. After all, she had a college bachelor’s degree in business, and expected to find a job in that field, but couldn’t find a job. She had to work, had to eat, she said, so she took a job at the Comfort House for $8 per hour caring for the dying.
Things went well during her first approximate three years there. It wasn’t until murder defendant Monica Melissa Patterson showed up on the job in late 2013 that things began to change. Within six weeks, the former Comfort House staff member in charge of finance had quit, three long-time caregivers had been dismissed and/or quit, and so Patterson asked Chavez if she could come up to the front office and help with the hospice’s financial matters.
According to her testimony Friday, however, the understanding was, the move up front was going to be only a temporary move, and once Patterson found a full-time person to work the finance, Chavez would move back to being a caregiver. It didn’t quite work out that way, however, which is why she testified to the fact that she voluntarily quit in July 2014. Not only did she go to work for another health-related business, but she took a cut in pay. She didn’t want to work at the Comfort House any longer, she told the jury on Friday.
To manage the Comfort House financials, Chavez said she had to learn QuickBooks in fairly rapid fashion, which is a software system that incorporates a spread sheet with data entry. It didn’t take long for odd things to pop up, she said. One day she noticed that Patterson had charged a gym membership to the Comfort House debit card. When she questioned the murder defendant about it, Patterson told Chavez that she had made a simple mistake and had used the wrong (debit) card. She would reimburse the charity, but as far as Chavez knew, the money was never reimbursed, and the gym membership dues kept popping up on a monthly basis.
With regard to the typing up of minutes, Chavez testified that she never attended board meetings, so there was no way for her to know if the board minutes being submitted to her for typing were in fact a true and accurate account of what had transpired behind closed doors. If the board had indeed authorized Patterson to open a new Falcon Bank account, she had no clue about it, based on her memory of what transpired in 2014.
According to court testimony, Melissa Chavez was already feeling the stress of working as the administrative/finance liaison with her limited knowledge of accounting and finance, even though Patterson had given her a pay increase – from $8 per hour to $12 per hour.
“It was overwhelming and stressful,” said Chavez, “to do the accounting with all the other stuff I had to do (working in the front office).”
In addition to handling the Comfort House’s finances, entering data, checking bank accounts and reconciling them, handling receipts, Chavez also had to answer the front-office phone; take visitors on tours of the hospice; and handle new admissions.
The stress grew even worse in approximately July 2014 when Patterson limited her time working finance to only two days a week while moving her back to her old job as caregiver the other three days of the week.
“She (Melissa Patterson) never said who else was going to do it (handle the financial matters) while I wasn’t there,” said Chavez. “I felt that with my limited knowledge of accounting, (working on financial matters for only two days out of her five-day work week) would have been a disservice to the Comfort House.”
Patterson told her, according to Chavez’s sworn testimony, that the previous finance officer did it, so there was no reason why she couldn’t do the same.
According to Chavez, direct communication with Melissa Patterson, the Comfort House’s executive director, was also problematic.
“(She was) not there very often (on Comfort House grounds),” said Chavez. “I (had to) call her or text her a lot.”
It was also around that point in time, July 2014, that Patterson completely removed Chavez from the front office where she was only working two days a week, and sent her back to her earlier full-time job as caregiver, five days a week.
Shortly after that, Chavez quit Comfort House. She told the jury that she didn’t feel comfortable working as a caregiver for $12 per hour (Patterson hadn’t cut her pay) when her peers were still making $8 per hour. Plus, her paycheck still had on it, her previous title, “Administrative liaison/finance,” and she didn’t feel comfortable with the title.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with that title,” she told the jury, “because it’s linked to something very delicate (financial matters), and if I wasn’t doing it, I preferred not to be linked to it.”
Chavez told the packed courtroom that working finance can get people “into a lot of” trouble if things aren’t done properly. “And I didn’t want my name attached to it (the title) if I wasn’t doing (the work).”
Here Comes the Cross-Exam
After the state passed the witness, Patterson’s lead defense attorney, Rick Salinas, got the opportunity to question Chavez. He took off the gloves.
He started his “cross” by asking Chavez why it was she was having trouble remembering so many things asked of her by state prosecutors?
Because a lot of time has passed (approximately three years), she said.
“Some things I don’t remember, some things I do,” she said.
Making reference to state prosecutors, Salinas said, “(But) they helped you remember (certain things, right)?
“No,” said Chavez.
Prior to the trial, Chavez had met with state prosecutors for approximately two hours to discuss what she knew about certain facts related to the case.
Isn’t it true, asked Salinas, speaking to Melissa Chavez, “that you needed a subpoena to show up here; you don’t like public speaking; and you felt pressured to be here to avoid problems with your family.”
Chavez said she felt that, yes, because she had been subpoenaed, she had no choice but to appear, and if it had been left entirely up to her, given her aversion to public speaking, she probably would have chosen not to testify. Since she was indeed on the witness stand today (Friday), however, her only intent was to be completely honest and truthful about what she had witnessed during her time working at the Comfort House.
According to Salinas, the fact that Chavez had failed to initially mention that she had gotten more money when she moved to the front office indicated a problem.
“I didn’t care about (the) money,” said Chavez. “I wouldn’t have taken a position (at another place of employment) that paid me less if it was all about the money. I just wanted to get out of there (the Comfort House). I didn’t like getting paid $12 (per hour) when I was only a caregiver. I just didn’t feel right about it. The other caregivers weren’t getting paid $12 per hour. It wasn’t right (to cheat anybody), especially a charity.”
Instead, Chavez went to work at DHR making $11 per hour. Now, she said, she plans on taking courses to get into radiology tech work. She still likes working with patients and in the medical field, she said.
“It’s more work, but I feel comfortable doing it,” she said, “because it’s more honest. How could I still have the (finance liaison) title at (the Comfort House) when I wasn’t doing the work?”
Salinas continued to try and rattle her cage, but it didn’t appear as if was working. After approximately three hours on the witness stand, Chavez made the same comment on several occasions --- all she was here to do was to be as honest as truthful as she could, based on what she could still remember after the span of three years had passed since she had left her employment with Comfort House.
In fact, said Chavez, when Patterson told her that she was going to keep the same finance liaison titled attached to her name even after moving her back to work as a full-time caregiver, she told her boss (Patterson) that she didn’t feel comfortable with that situation.
According to Chavez, Patterson asked her why she just couldn’t be happy and “just keep playing the part.”
QuickBooks: No Call?
A big part of previous court testimony had to do with QuickBooks and how the Comfort House board of directors couldn’t gain access to hospice finance records during board meetings because the financial software system had crashed, or was having trouble. At least that’s what murder defendant Melissa Patterson was always telling her board, according to former Board President Omar Guevara who testified in court earlier in the week.
If that were indeed true, however, as the prosecution team –Joseph Orendain and Cregg Thompson – pointed out, why didn’t Melissa Patterson simply pick up the phone and ask Chavez for help?
“(Mrs.) Patterson never called me, texted me, or emailed me,” said Chavez. “She called me once but it had nothing to do with finance.”
Patterson did have her phone number and email address, however, asked the prosecution team.
“Yes,” she said.
So as brought forth in the form of a question by the state: If QuickBooks had indeed crashed, or was always having problems, why didn’t Patterson simply pick up the phone and give her former finance woman a call?
“I let them know that I didn’t want to leave them (high and dry),” said Chavez. “They were a charity. If there was anything I could have done to help them, I would have. I told (Mrs.) Patterson that if she ever had a question (about QuickBooks or anything else related to financial matters), she could call me. I was always willing to help if they had a question about anything. (Patterson) could easily have called me, and I would have been more than willing to help out.”
Salinas threw those comments right back in her face: But you never did go back to the Comfort House once you left, did you? You never called, he said, acting shocked over her apparent lack of concern.
“How could I,” asked Chavez. “I worked nights.”
“But you didn’t (ever) go (back),” said Salinas, emphasizing his point.
“Not because (I didn’t want to),” said Chavez, defending herself. “But I couldn’t.”
As state prosecutors pointed out, however, as Chavez’s testimony came to a close: a phone call to Chavez made by Patterson would have been simple enough. So would an email sent to her if Patterson had indeed had problems with QuickBooks or any other questions related to the charity’s financial operations.
One thing that Patterson’s defense team could never get Melissa Chavez to refute: To the best of her recollection, and her effort to tell the entire truth as she remembered it (to the ladies and gentlemen of this jury), she never knew that a Falcon Bank account existed, nor had she ever seen the board minutes that authorized Patterson to open that bank account, about which the hospice board knew nothing.
“No,” she said.