Patterson Murder Trial Testimony, Oct. 11, 2017

Comfort House caregiver was defendant’s personal errand boy

EDINBURG -- Taking the witness stand under oath last week in state district court, former Comfort House caregiver and front-office administrative liaison Michael Merinos said he once warned the murder defendant, his former boss, Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson, that if she continued to get personally involved with murder victim “Marty” Knell’s finances, it was going to one day “come back and bite her in the @$$.”

By the looks of things, Merinos has what it takes to open a Curandero shop and tell fortunes, so spot on was he in his prediction about the fate that would one day befall his former boss who now stands accused of Knell’s capital murder.

Even though Patterson has pleaded not guilty to capital murder and theft, and her legal-eagle dream team comprised of four high-profile attorneys is working hard to convince the 12 jurors of her innocence, Merinos’s testimony last week, if it’s ultimately deemed truthful by the jury, was the first inside look into what Patterson was doing while no one else, other than Merinos, had his eye on her.

Take It from The Top

Michael Merinos started out as a Comfort House caregiver in 2011; even had a passion for the job, he said. After all, his mom had died from cancer at the very same hospice, and he thought that he could use his own painful experience to help other families get through the same horrific, emotionally draining experience that he himself had managed to survive: watching a cherished loved one die. The process isn’t for the faint of heart. You put down your dog due to old age, that’s bad enough. You cry. Watching a parent die, well, that’s something that will stay with one forever.

Despite the hardship of the hospice caregiver job, both mentally and emotionally draining, as well as physically demanding (turning bed-ridden patients so they don’t develop bed sores; cleaning up feces, urine, and vomit), Merinos testified that he loved what he did because he knew he was helping people cope with the reality of death; both the dying and those left behind.

His $8 per hour pay wasn’t much, he said, but he wasn’t there for the money.

Then along came Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson in late 2013, hired as new chief administrator for Comfort House, and things slowly went totally downhill from there, Merinos said. In fact, he said under oath, it reached the point that Patterson was using him as her own personal gopher (go-for): “Go for this, Michael; go for that.”

In a later attempt to discredit his testimony, Patterson’s lead defense attorney “Rick” Salinas asked him why he went along with it if he didn’t agree with what he was being asked to do.

“Because she was my boss,” he said.

Patterson wasn’t shy about letting Comfort House staff know who ruled the roost, Merinos said during his testimony last week. At one point during 2014 (Patterson arrived to assume her new duties in late 2013), he said, he woke up sick, running a fever, feeling un-well. According to hospice protocol, if an employee is sick, he or she is supposed to call the boss (in this case, Patterson), and let him or her know that they’re sick and can’t come in to work.

Only one problem, said Merinos: Patterson was nowhere to be found. He couldn’t reach her via text or get her to pick up her cell, so he said he had no choice but to show up for his night shift: 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Unfortunately for him, not only was he sick, but that particular night was brutal in terms of the work load.

The day before, Patterson had told him to let the morning shift know to be on the lookout for Marty Knell. At that point in time, Patterson had deemed him a danger to the hospice. He had already had a run-in with her shortly after his wife had entered the hospice, and she had called the cops on him. She wanted him nowhere near the place even though his dying wife was occupying one of the beds.

Unfortunately, said Merinos, because he worked his eight-hour shift feeling like something the cat had dragged in, and because it was an unusually busy and difficult night, his mind felt fried and he forgot to tell the morning shift about Knell. Nor did he show Knell’s picture to the staff, which Patterson had also asked him to do.

When Patterson learned that he had failed to follow her directive, she called him up on a Sunday and gave him the news: He was being placed on a four-day suspension, and it was going to be without pay.

According to Merinos’s testimony, when Patterson began work at the Comfort House, she was there most of the time; but as the months began to fly by through the spring of 2014, he saw her less and less. To get in touch with her, he’d have to either text her or call her. There was little face-to-face contact.

Then, the front-office administrative/finance liaison, Melissa Chavez, quit the Comfort House in the summer of 2014, fed up with Patterson’s management style (as previously testified to by Chavez), and because Merinos had previously pulled front-office duty, Patterson brought him from the back, where he was working as a caregiver, to the front, and named him Comfort House’s new office administrative/finance liaison, bumping his pay from $8 per hour to $12 per hour.

Before long, in Kumbaya fashion, the two were having lunch together, courtesy of the Comfort House Falcon Bank account, the very existence of which the Comfort House Board of Directors knew nada.

Asked later by state prosecutors who paid for these lunches, Merinos said, “(Miss) Patterson paid for them,” apparently unaware she was allegedly scamming the charity organization for which he worked.

In fact, based on personal receipts admitted into evidence during this trial, not only was Patterson letting Comfort House pay for her lunches, she was also letting the charity pay for the clothes she frequently bought at high-end stores like Dillard’s.

During trial testimony by a Texas DPS financial analyst who looked over the receipts that Patterson kept hidden from her board members inside zip-lock bags inside her office cabinets, the receipts were seized after a search warrant was issued after her August 2015 arrest for the murder of Marty Knell, some of the Dillard’s receipts registered approximately $170 and $370.

Therefore, based on the receipt records admitted into evidence, it may not even be too much of a stretch to suggest that while Patterson was treating Merinos to lunch on the Comfort House dime, she was chowing down while decked out in high-end clothes paid for by her employer as well, which was funded solely by private donors or public and charitable entities that kept the hospice afloat.

If the evidence stands, charitable donors and some public entities were also helping keep Patterson afloat via expensive travel excursions, such as the one she took to Las Vegas where she booked a room at Motel 6. No, scratch that. Caesar’s Palace.

Merinos Looked Scared

By the look on the face of Michael Merinos as he gave his testimony last Wednesday (Oct. 4) during the capital murder trial of Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson, there was no doubt that if given the choice, he’d rather be anywhere other than where he was: on the witness stand.

Under a rock. Anywhere.

His face gave it away. Its skin kept changing color, from a shade of pasty white to beet red as both the prosecution and the defense asked him pointed questions about what he knew with regard to Patterson’s ties to Knell.

If Merinos lied under oath during the Patterson trial, and the state could prove it, he would be committing aggravated perjury, which is no small walk in the park. In Texas, aggravated perjury is considered a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in state prison and a $10,000 fine.

Merinos was served with a state subpoena last November, and he admitted during his testimony that he had been keeping up with the case by reading published news stories, so he presumably knew that prosecutors were going to dig from him everything he knew about the Patterson case.

On the witness stand, the guy appeared relatively sharp and indicated that he wasn’t suffering from a poor memory. Plus, he said during his testimony that he had watched enough “cop shows” over the years to know how law enforcement worked. The last thing you wanted to do was screw with the facts if prosecutors got their hands on you, because you had no clue what they knew and what they didn’t know; and if you did lie to somehow save your own skin and/or reputation, you had no way of knowing if there wasn’t some surveillance tape or secret recording that could prove you to be a liar. So while under cross-examination by Patterson’s lead defense attorney, Merinos said that even though he was willing to admit that he wasn’t in the courtroom on any sort of voluntary basis, he was still going to tell the truth no matter how it might make him look.

In response, Patterson’s defense team tried to discredit his testimony; tried to suggest that he might lie to save his own skin from some sort of criminality; might perjure himself and tell the jury what the prosecutors wanted him to say, because he was fearful of not playing along with them (the prosecutors). Merinos, however, continued to maintain that all he was there (in court) to do was tell the truth. He left the Comfort House’s employment in early March of this year.

Presumably, before appearing in court, Merinos had been smart enough to look up the penalty for committing perjury.

There is an old saying in the legal world that goes something like this as it pertains to criminal defense attorneys: If you can’t beat the facts, beat up on the witness(es).

There is another criminal defense attorney strategy called the “Last Resort Rule.” It reads like this: “If you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts. If you have the law on your side, hammer the law. If you have neither the facts or the law (on your side), hammer the table (the witness).”

So far, as it appears in this case, that seems to be the game plan on the part of the defense mounted by Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson’s legal dream team, which is comprised of four seasoned criminal defense attorneys: Ricardo “Rick” Salinas; O. Rene Flores; Calixtro Villarreal; and Fernando Mancias.

Standing in the opposite corner, two seasoned assistant criminal district attorneys: Joseph Orendain and Cregg Thompson.

Refereeing the match: state District Court Judge Noe Gonzalez of the 370th.

The state has yet to rest its case as we move into this, week 3 of the trial; but based on its slow pace thus far, it looks like this complex, convoluted trial, with so many twists and turns, could well last past five weeks, considering that the defense has yet to have its chance at calling witnesses to the stand to testify.

At stake: Patterson’s fate. Will she be convicted of the January 2015 capital murder of 96-year-old McAllen resident Martin “Marty” Knell? Will she be convicted of basically two counts of theft? Or will she be found not-guilty of the whole enchilada and walk away a free woman?

During Michael Merinos’s testimony, here is some of the evidence (testimony) he presented to the jury:

  • • He got to know both of the Knells, Thelma “Penny” Mae and Marty Knell and liked them both.

  • • Marty Knell, the nonagenarian and WW II vet, was in good health and could do squats better than he could do them.

  • • One night, while Patterson wasn’t on the premises, Marty Knell showed up with a bag of cash and placed it in his wife’s hospice room. Merinos couldn’t remember the exact amount, but it was either $100,000 or $150,000. Shocked that such a thing had occurred, Merinos and a co-worker took the cash to the front office for safe keeping. Together they counted it and catalogued the amount. Later, when Patterson showed up and discovered what they had done, she grew furious. She was angry, yelling, and upset at Merinos for taking the money to the front office. Knell later left the Comfort House with his bag of money after agreeing that there was no missing money from the bag, and signing a letter to that effect.

  • • When Penny Knell died, Patterson got involved in the funeral arrangements, which Merinos had never seen her do before.

  • • When Merinos told Patterson one day that she shouldn’t be getting herself involved in Knell’s personal financial affairs, she told him, “What would you do if you were in my place?” Merinos told her he didn’t know, because he had never been in that situation.

  • • When Merinos learned of Marty Knell’s death in late January of 2015, he was shocked. He had seen him the day before and he had looked fine and relatively fit.

  • • At the funeral of Marty Knell, Merinos said he saw tensions mount between Patterson and Knell’s son and family. It wasn’t a friendly dialogue. He overheard Patterson tell Marty Knell’s son, Mark, that he couldn’t go into his dad’s home (by that time, she had gained complete power of attorney over his estate and had been named the executrix to his will). The conversation between the two parties was very argumentative, said Merinos, and he left as soon as he could because he “didn’t want to stay there.”

  • • Patterson told Merinos that Knell had left her some money in his will but he had also left some money to the Comfort House and his church. She just didn’t say how much was going to whom.

  • • Merinos said he had met Patterson’s alleged murder accomplice, Angel Mario Garza, while he was working odd jobs around the Comfort House. After the death of Knell, however, Garza was no longer around the premises. When Garza would call Comfort House looking for Patterson, she would tell Merinos to tell him that she wasn’t around. In other words, buzz off. This time period was approximately February and March of 2015, a month to two months after Knell’s murder by asphyxiation.

  • • Around that same time period, the world turned decidedly weird, said Merinos. Patterson took him aside so she could speak to him privately. She told him that Knell’s former caretaker, whom she had hired to take care of the old man, had met with her at a fast-food restaurant in Weslaco where she continued to berate Patterson – “You know what you did; you know what you did.” It was almost as if she wanted me to confess to something, Patterson told Merinos.

  • • Merinos told Patterson that (even though he had no clue as to what she was referring), she should be careful because the caretaker might be wearing a wire.

  • • For the first time since he’d known her, Merinos said, Patterson actually looked scared. She asked him to drive her to a pay phone south of Pharr because she wanted to get in touch with Angel Mario Garza, but she didn’t want to use her cell because she was worried that (law enforcement) had it tapped. The pay phone, however, wasn’t working. It was at this point, said Merinos, that he said, this is weird, this is why we have cell phones, so he picked up his own cell phone and called Garza and handed his phone to Patterson.

  • • After the phone call, the two drove to south McAllen and met with Garza. Merinos said he overheard his boss tell Garza that the cops were looking for him “in regards to the old man.” So he better make himself scarce. “They’re gonna be looking for you,” Patterson said, according to Merinos’s testimony (evidence). “Make sure you hide.”

  • • Assistant Criminal District Attorney Joseph Orendain asked Merinos what he thought after that encounter. “What the hell did I get myself into?” he said. At the time, how was Patterson acting? asked Orendain. “Very nervous,” said Merinos.

  • • Merinos testified that he eventually turned into, more or less, Patterson’s personal assistant. He would run errands for her, while on the Comfort House payroll. He picked up her son’s high school graduation cake; met with the party’s decorator; dropped off checks to various people about which he knew nothing.

  • • Patterson’s defense attorney, “Rick” Salinas, took the cross-examination and began to hammer Merinos. “You don’t want to be here, do you?” “No, sir, I don’t want to be here.”

  • • Salinas pointed out how nervous Merinos looked on the stand, making note of how red his face turned whenever he was asked certain questions.

  • • At one point, Salinas inferred that Merinos would say just about anything to make some of the criminal investigators “happy.” In other words, get them off of his back. It was a charge that Merinos denied.

  • • Salinas tried to make the case that Patterson’s call to Mario Garza was only one of concern. He was an illegal immigrant with a conviction under his belt. If Border Patrol picked him up, he would be deported. In other words, she was looking out for his best interests when she met up with him.

  • • In all of this, don’t you feel like you’re a target, Salinas asked Merinos. “I’m not sure,” said Merinos. “Maybe I do feel little bit like a target; but I’m here to tell the truth.” Salinas: “You’re trying to make sure you don’t get in trouble.” Said Merinos: “I’m trying to tell the truth.”

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