EDINBURG — This trial just became more complicated.
Prosecutors Wednesday burned through twice as many witnesses than usual in the Monica Melissa Patterson capital murder trial, picking up the pace in an already-complex case that’s going strong in its third week in the 370th state District Court.
The six who were called to the stand each helped prosecutors craft their argument against Patterson, the 50-year-old former administrator of McAllen hospice center, Comfort House Inc.
Patterson is on trial for the murder of 96-year-old Martin Knell Sr., whose wife Thelma was at one point a Comfort House patient, to gain access to his estate. She’s also accused of stealing from the nonprofit center where she was still employed at the time of her August 2015 arrest.
Testimony from two Adult Protective Services employees revealed that the McAllen branch of the agency may have mishandled a case involving alleged financial exploitation of Knell. This was reported to APS in late November 2014 by a medical social worker employed by Greater Valley Hospice.
After contacting Knell in person on Dec. 7, 2014, the APS caseworker assigned to his case did not contact Patterson — the suspect of the alleged exploitation, which in APS terminology is referred to as an “alleged perpetrator” — until Feb. 23, 2015.
It was during this phone call that the caseworker learned Knell had died nearly a month earlier on Jan. 28, 2015.
Curiously, Dec. 7 fell on a Sunday in 2014, despite the caseworker testifying that he didn’t work on Sundays. The caseworker tried to offer an explanation for this discrepancy, but the defense objected to him answering a question not posed by the prosecution.
Juana Caro, the APS supervisor who took over the case after the agency learned Knell had died, said the caseworker’s report was “lacking” information.
Caro testified that she contacted Patterson upon taking over the case to ask whether the defendant had financial power of attorney over Knell.
Patterson replied that she didn’t, and offered to fax Caro documentation showing that Knell had granted her medical power of attorney in December 2014. It was to Caro’s surprise, she testified, that she discovered a statutory durable power of attorney included in the documents faxed over.
“Did she ever advise you about the financial aspect that she had control of?” Assistant Criminal District Attorney Joseph Orendain asked Caro, to which the witness replied in the negative.
Caro also said Patterson never informed APS that she was payee upon death on Knell’s bank accounts and stocks, or that she was the executrix and a beneficiary of his will.
APS never completed their investigation into whether Patterson was financially exploiting Knell, Caro said, because the case was closed once the Texas Rangers began investigating Patterson for murder.
Prosecutors’ focus at one point shifted to the day Knell died, calling a former Comfort House employee to the stand to provide new insight into Patterson’s actions that day.
Lyana Benavidez told jurors Patterson was “freaking out, panicking a little” on the morning of Jan. 28, 2015 — this after receiving a call that Knell had suffered a heart attack. Benavidez said she drove Patterson, her boss, to Knell’s house.
Patterson — Benavidez testified — remembered to bring the directive to physicians, which is akin to a do-not-resuscitate order. Such an order withholds CPR or advanced life support to a patient whose heart has stopped or who has stopped breathing.
Benavidez told jurors she overheard Patterson telling the paramedics she had power of attorney over Knell and instructed them to stop working to revive his heartbeat.
Despite being two decades her senior, Benavidez testified that Patterson often confided in the administrative assistant, which included the divulging of an extramarital affair with a former high school classmate. Patterson also turned to her for spiritual advice, on one occasion asking Benavidez — according to her testimony — how one asks for forgiveness for doing something wrong.
Lourdes “Laurie” Suarez also took the stand Wednesday, putting a face to a name that jurors have previously heard during various witness testimony, most recently Tuesday when Suarez’s estranged husband testified he’d had an affair with Patterson.
Whereas Orendain on Tuesday grilled Heriberto “Eddie” Suarez, a former San Juan city commissioner, on the places where he and Patterson had sex, he avoided all mention of the affair on Wednesday.
The anticipation in the courtroom, however, was apparent during Orendain’s questioning.
Patterson’s change in demeanor was also noticeable, from what spectators have referred to as her “glaring” at witnesses to this time looking away from Suarez’s wife while she was on the stand.
But all jurors learned is that Patterson, who the witness described as a friend, encouraged Laurie Suarez to get back together with her husband. This is at a time when Laurie Suarez purportedly had no knowledge of the affair, given that her husband testified Tuesday that he only told his wife that morning he took the stand.
Laurie Suarez also said Patterson had contracted her to help with backlogged payroll taxes and payroll, and that it was Patterson who suggested to the Comfort House board of directors that the nonprofit hire the accounting firm where Suarez worked doing bookkeeping and payroll.
Laurie Suarez’s cousin, accountant Melissa Gonzalez, testified during the first week that had she known her cousin was employed by Comfort House, the firm would not have done the audit due to a conflict of interest.
Defense attorney Fernando Mancias’ cross-examination of Laurie Suarez was similar to that of his questioning of her husband the day before, skipping on the drama and instead asking how the witness felt after being summoned to the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office during the course of its investigation.
Laurie Suarez similarly testified that she felt “intimidated” and “scared” after nearly three hours of questioning, and Mancias underscored that her statement to investigators wasn’t sworn, although a signed affidavit is not required for every interaction with investigators.
Defense attorney Ricardo “Rick” Salinas employed a similar tactic in his cross-examination of the event planner who helped Patterson throw a high school graduation party for her son in 2015, which the prosecution alleges was paid for using Comfort House money.
Manuel Ruben Cantu, who is related to Patterson, testified he received $2,500 from the defendant for his services.
Cantu told Salinas he did not feel like he did anything wrong after being questioned by a Texas Ranger with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Are there things in your affidavit that you never said?” Salinas asked, to which Cantu replied in the negative. Cantu also explained that after reading the statement the investigator typed, he had no “reason to make corrections.”
When Salinas pressed him as to whether the investigator had pressured him to answer questions in a specific way, he replied that hadn’t happened because he had answered “in the way that was correct.”
Testimony continues Thursday, as the prosecution calls more witnesses to the stand.