EDINBURG – As we move into Week 5 of the interminable capital murder trial of Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson, if this were a movie or a Netflix original mini-series, one might be inclined to say, “Now we’re getting into the really good stuff.”
Unfortunately, because the trial centers around stealing the life of a helfless 96-year-old man, one can hardly describe any of this court testimony in those terms – “the really good stuff.”
When the state’s self-confessed eyewitness (Celestina Mascorro) to the murder testified Friday (Oct. 20) that self-confessed murderer Angel Mario Garza (who has since pleaded not guilty) was the guy who actually committed the murder while she stood in the garage Jan. 28, 2015, alongside Patterson, her description of the killing was indeed horrific: She heard sounds of a struggle from inside the kitchen, she said, and sounds coming from the murder victim: “…deep breaths like he couldn’t breathe.”
To help paint the scene from the witness stand Friday, Mascorro mimicked the sounds she heard as Knell drew his last breath: She testified that she turned to Patterson to ask her what was going on. According to Mascorro, the murder defendant said, “We had to put him to sleep because he was accusing you of stealing.”
Mascorro will take the witness stand again today (Oct. 23). As Friday’s court testimony came to an end at approximately 3 p.m., the state had yet to “pass” the witness to Patterson’s defense team. How they’re going to question her remains to be seen. Clearly, even though 33 months have passed since Knell’s murder in late January 2015, Mascorro still showed signs of emotional distress Friday as well as anger directed Patterson’s way. To say that she is still distraught over what she claims she heard would be an understatement.
Mascorro can be described as tough, hard-working, as testified to Friday, blue-collar all the way. At the age of 60, she still works as a caregiver for three different agencies. Her clients currently include a 12-year-old girl; two men in their early 50s; a woman in her late 50s; and another woman in her mid-80s for whom she provides her caregiving services.
Mascorro also testified Friday that she is still scared of Patterson’s accused co-conspirator to Knell’s murder, Angel Mario Garza. Celestina Mascorro also testified that before departing the murder scene (“Marty” Knell’s north-side McAllen home) Jan. 28, 2015, Patterson ordered her to get something to clean the doors so there would be no fingerprints.
Until now, Patterson’s high-profile four-man defense team has taken the hardline approach with almost all of the witnesses that the state (assistant DA criminal prosecutors Joseph Orendain and Cregg Thompson) haved called to the witness stand. The defense has offered little to no quarter to any of them, trying their best to either discredit their testimony or steer it in another direction, away from Patterson. In the case of Texas Ranger Robert Callaway, one of the lead criminal investigators looking into Knell’s murder, the verbal exchange (cross-examination) last week between Patterson’s lead defense attorney Ricardo “Rick” Salinas and the Ranger was often heated, as each man, at times, took exception to the other (questions and answers).
Salinas would often label Knell’s homicide as a “death,” while Callaway would immediately correct him: “Mr. Knell’s murder.”
The cross-examination of Celestina Mascorro, however, is another matter altogether. Undoubtedly, in addition to the post-burial forensic autopsy performed on Knell, which Hidalgo County Chief Forensic Pathologist Norma Jean Farley ruled “death by asphyxiation,” Mascorro’s testimony is key to the state’s argument that Patterson and Garza are guilty of the murder.
Indeed, if Mascorro hadn’t first approached law enforcement approximately a month after Knell’s murder in early 2015, no one would be the wiser. The old WW II vet’s death would still be considered to have been the result of natural causes (cardiac arrest).
If the jury considers Mascorro a woman who should be treated with a certain degree of deference, respect, and consideration, in light of both her age and the fact that she is still a hard-worker, will Patterson’s defense go after her testimony, her veracity, full-throttle? Or will it tread a little lightly once the state passes her for cross-examination? Will the kid gloves come out during the “cross?” Or will it be time for the defense team to don boxing gloves? Presumably, “Rick” Salinas will take the lead as he did with the Texas Ranger.
Texas Ranger vs. Salinas
When the Texas DPS has an opening for a Texas Ranger, many people apply, but few make the cut, according to the state agency’s own website. To be considered an applicant for Texas Ranger, one must have an outstanding record of at least eight years experience with a bona fide law enforcement agency, engaged principally in the investigation of major crimes. (Source: DPS website.) When he was hired as a Texas Ranger, Callaway already had the requisite investigative work under his gun belt, primarily working with the DPS narcotics unit. In other words, when Callaway first began to look into Knell’s murder as part of a cooperative investigation with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, he was already a seasoned criminal investigator.
In fact, when Salinas asked Callaway during court testimony last week how many murders he had investigated, the Texas Ranger said he couldn’t recall the exact number.
“One, two, three, four, five…,” asked Salinas, his voice starting to rise.
Callaway said he couldn’t recall the exact number of murders he had investigated because there had been so many. Meaning, he had seen countless bodies (and autopsies) during his investigative years as a Ranger. The Knell murder, however, was something out of the ordinary.
Here was a woman, Celestina Mascorro, sitting before him (February 2015), telling him about an alleged murder that had occurred the month prior to which she had been a personal witness. That initial interview took approximately 10 hours for Mascorro to tell her story, said Callaway.
From that point forward, said the Texas Ranger, with the help of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department (lead investigator was Adam Palmer), his job was clear-cut: to either prove or disprove Mascorro’s allegations. In fact, said Callaway, Mascorro herself remained a suspect (“target) into the murder of Knell well into the summer of 2015 before it was finally decided that she was telling the truth about what she had witnessed Jan. 28, 2015: Patterson, with the help of Angel Mario Garza, had murdered the nonagenarian as he sat at his kitchen table that morning, Callaway and Palmer finally concluded, which led to twin grand jury indictments for capital murder.
At the time, the victim’s son, Mark Knell, had filed a civil suit against Patterson, contesting her claim to his father’s estate. That case has yet to be settled.
Salinas, at one point during his cross-examination last week, while making reference to that civil matter, tried to infer that Callaway was more prone to side with Mark Knell over Patterson because he and the murder victim’s son shared the same “background” and “culture.”
Callaway’s face took on a quizzical look. He said he wasn’t sure what the counselor was asking of him.
Salinas asked the question again, making reference to the fact that both men – Callaway and Knell -- shared the same “background” and “culture.”
Meaning, presumably, that the guy from East Texas (Tyler area), Ranger Callaway, and Knell were Anglos, while Patterson was Hispanic.
Callaway said he wasn’t actually sure with whom he had more in common – Knell or Patterson -- because he hadn’t had the time to really get to know Melissa Patterson outside the setting of a criminal investigation.
For him, said the Texas Ranger, his only focus was on who actually murdered “Marty” Knell in January 2015. He, along with Adam Palmer, would follow the murder trail wherever the evidence might lead.
They began checking out Mascorro’s murder story, digging up the facts surrounding Knell’s death, which at that time had yet to be declared a homicide, and uncovered a lot of incriminating evidence and supporting facts against both Patterson and Garza that lent credence to the caregiver’s story. Part of that investigation included:
• Knell’s bank records (hundreds of thousands of dollars had been withdrawn from them and placed in a new bank account belonging to Melissa Patterson).
• Comfort House financials (which indicated that Patterson had depleted its investment account; created a bank account unknown to her board of directors; had used hospice money to pay for her personal expenses, including a trip to Vegas with her married illicit lover to whom she also handed over $10,000 to pay his back taxes).
• Cell phone records (Patterson’s, Mascorro’s, and Garza’s), which were then analyzed via phone-tracking software; placing Patterson and Garza at Knell’s home prior to the caregiver calling 911; one hour prior to the time that Patterson told Callaway she had first arrived at the Knell residence.
• Recorded two covert phone calls between Mascorro and Patterson, as well as one face-to-face meet. During the phone calls, Patterson never admitted to any involvement in Knell’s murder, but neither did she deny it or act surprised that Mascorro was making such a ridiculous and outragious claim. During the face-to-face meet at a Mercedes fast-food restaurant, Patterson insisted that Knell had died of a heart attack. Just “let it be, let it be,” Patterson told Mascorro. At the restaurant, Patterson had with her, her mother-in-law, who later flew back to Cuba, her native country, approximately two days after Patterson’s arrest (late August 2015) and arraignment for capital murder. According to Callaway, he’s seen neither hide nor hair of the Patterson’s mother-in-law since.
• Knell’s last Will and Testament, which listed Patterson as its main benefactor and executrix.
• Looked into the criminal background of Angel Mario Garza and his ties to Patterson. Garza’s dad had died at the Comfort House, after which he became something of a hanger-on, doing odd jobs around the place as needed.
• Interviewed countless people pertinent to the criminal investigation.
• Obtained a court order to exhume the body of “Marty” Knell. During a forensic autopsy, Knell’s “death” was officially ruled a “homicide.”
• Showed Mascorro a six-man digital photo line-up from which she picked out Angel Mario Garza as the man she claims murdered Knell.
• Received a Comfort House internal audit (post Patterson’s arrest) from Board President Omar Guevara, which showed that Patterson had allegedly stolen approximately $200,000 from the hospice to pay for personal expenditures. The audit included alleged personal receipts that Patterson kept hidden in her Comfort House office. Said Callaway during his court testimony, “(Those receipts) were for Dillard’s (shopping), travel, donuts, (a rental unit), a limo service, (her son’s high school graduation party worth approximately $20,000), everything imaginable, you name it, (home repairs) there was something in (those receipts).”
Some of Salinas’s major bones of contention had to do with the fact that Callaway just “cherry picked” the receipts recovered from Patterson’s office and assumed they were for her personal expenses.
Callaway disagreed with that representation.
The prosecution, for example, had called to the stand people who had done work for the high school graduation party that Patterson put together for her son’s big celebration in May/June of 2015. Some of the checks the accused murderess wrote out to them to pay them for their respective services clearly had Comfort House’s name on the business checks.
During this trial, Salinas placed some of the blame for Patterson’s expenditures on the board by saying that part of her job was to “bring in” new donors so that Comfort House could continue to operate. To do that, she needed to entertain would-be donors, pay for their meals, etc. It would appear that considering The Comfort House Board of Directors had never entered into an employment contract with her, or handed her a list of policies and procedures, the murder defendant was never clear on what constituted acceptable expenditures vs. non-acceptable expenditures.
During his testimony early in this trial, however, former Comfort House Board President Omar Guevara said that there were a lot of personal receipts uncovered in Patterson’s office that never would have been approved by the board, had it known about it. Travel to Vegas being one of them.
Salinas also took exception to the Texas Ranger’s use of the word “egregious” when describing some of Patterson’s receipts. Callaway said, basically, for him, the word “egregious” would mean spending hundreds of dollars of Comfort House money on something that belonged to her personally and not the hospice for which she worked.
“Rick” Salinas also hammered Callaway about covertly recording a phone conversation he placed to Attorney Ray Thomas.
“Did you inform him that you were recording him?” asked Salinas.
“No,” said Callaway, “(I was under no obligation) to do so.”
Sometime after Patterson’s arrest for murder in August of 2015, and after Omar Guevara had discovered that she had allegedly stolen money from the Comfort House (allegedly well over $100k), he went to the Palacios family home along with fellow Comfort House Board Member Dori Contreras (a judge on the 13th Court of Criminal Appeals), apparently without disclosing the matter to the full board, and entered into a “confidential settlement” with Melissa Patterson. In return for paying back the Comfort House $70,000, Patterson waived her right to sue the hospice; and as far as Guevara and Contreras were concerned, the matter was settled, case closed.
In earlier court testimony, the hospice board treasurer, Paul Garcia, said he knew nothing about the $70,000 settlement. In fact, he knew nothing about the (alleged) missing Comfort House money at the time of Patterson’s arrest.
After all, Paul Garcia was only the board treasurer.
Apparently, although this hasn’t yet been verified in court, local Attorney Ray Thomas helped draft the $70k settlement, to avoid a seeming conflict of interest, since Contreras was a board member and an attorney.
In February of 2016, Patterson suffered three other felony indictments. Two were tied to theft – from Knell and the Comfort House – while a third was tied to her failure as a fiduciary.
Salinas’s claim in court was that since a civil agreement (settlement) had been previously entered into (in late 2015) between Patterson and Guevara/Contreras (representing the hospice board; at least a few of its 10 members), she was no longer “on the hook” for the missing Comfort House money. Henceforth, his client shouldn’t suffer any criminal charges concerning theft.
Callaway shot back, “That’s a civil (matter). It has nothing to do with criminal charges.”
In other words, the fact that the Palacios family had turned over $70k to the Comfort House, that wouldn’t absolve Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson of the additional felony crimes for which she now stands accused.