First published on July 30, 1999
Patti Berry marked her 25th birthday in her mother's kitchen, a celebration that was caught on home video.
She sat at the table, young and blond and tanned even though it was the middle of February. Her family and friends surrounded her with gifts and love and jokes about what it meant to have already lived a quarter-century.
Berry was holding her daughter on her lap. From time to time, she'd plant a kiss on top of the 10-month-old's soft, warm head.
On the videotape, Patti Berry appears happy, vibrant, alive.
But she's been dead since July 31, 1995, almost exactly four years today.
In the summer of her 26th year, Berry ran into a killer as she headed home from her job as a nude dancer at Honey's nightclub south of Everett. The murder is still unsolved.
Berry's daughter is now 6 and already missing a couple of her baby teeth. She has soft brown eyes, loves cats and likes to read books about dinosaurs. She wants to be a ballerina when she grows up.
The child is being raised by her grandmother, Nancy Stensrud, and Patti Berry's close childhood friend, Cherie Gildersleeve of Bryant, the girl's godmother. There's talk of Gildersleeve one day adopting the girl, who already calls her Mom. She was there for the child's birth. Gildersleeve hadn't seen Patti Berry in a long time, but by wonderful coincidence was having dinner with her old friend the night she went into labor.
The child's family doesn't want the girl's name in the newspaper. They worry that other children could be cruel. The girl doesn't remember her birth mother or really understand what happened to her. What she knows about the woman who brought her into this world is based largely on family stories and photographs.
But that doesn't mean Patti Berry is absent from her life.
"My Patti watches down at me," the little girl says, a statement she makes with absolute faith.
The sun will come up tomorrow. My Patti is watching.
The girl keeps a portrait of Patti Berry in her room, displayed in a clear vinyl frame she's decorated with stickers of five tiny horses and a unicorn. If you look close, you can see the marks left by her kisses.
Gildersleeve said the child thinks of Patti Berry not as a mother, but something of a cross between a guardian angel and a playful spirit.
The girl sees Patti Berry in the wind that swirls the soap bubbles she blows in her backyard. When she's playing outside, and a ball gets stuck in a tree, she'll stand underneath, hands upraised, and wait for the branches to move and drop the toy into her arms.
"My Patti did that!" she'll say.
Nancy Stensrud wishes that answers could drop from the sky.
She's been waiting a long time to find out who killed her daughter and is long past frustration. From time to time, the Arlington woman has taken the investigation into her own hands. The trail has taken her inside the club, where her daughter danced on a mirror-backed stage. She's also sat in coffee shops and living rooms, where people who claim to know what happened have spun dark stories about how the murder is linked to everything from killer drug dealers to rogue cops to organized crime.
Most of those same rumors already have been investigated by police who judged them the fantasies of people who see the sinister in every shadow. When they track down the source, the people rarely know any facts that haven't been in the newspaper.
Still, Stensrud has learned things about her daughter she didn't know and never would have guessed.
For example, up until a short time before her death, Patti Berry drove a newer yellow Camaro. She'd told her mother she'd won it in an Oregon bikini contest.
Truth was, the car had been bought for Berry's use by a club owner. When Berry did something that displeased him, he sent repo men to tow the vehicle away.
"I think until Patti died, I lived in a dream world," Stensrud said.
The discoveries also have toughened Patti Berry's mother. She thinks nothing now of knocking on the doors of strangers who she suspects may know something about her daughter's death. She's also not afraid to complain to Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart about the seemingly glacial pace of the investigation, or what she views as the stubborn unwillingness of the lead detective to share information.
Stensrud said there's bad chemistry between her and the detective, even though she knows he wants the same thing she does: to bag her daughter's killer.
Sheriff's detective John Padilla said he doesn't take the friction personally. He's committed to catching Patti Berry's killer. Period.
In the years since Patti Berry died, Padilla has investigated hundreds of other violent crimes, more than 60 last year alone. But Berry's unsolved murder is never far from his mind.
He bumps into Patti Berry every day. The detective said he'll be driving down the street, and he'll see a pretty, young, blond woman behind the wheel of a small car, and "I wonder, was that what she was like?"
As the fourth anniversary of her murder nears, Padilla also wonders what is going on in her killer's mind.
He believes Patti's murder was a significant event in the killer's life, significant enough that an anniversary date may trigger changes in behavior.
The detective also believes that sometime since the killing, the person who stabbed Patti Berry to death has shared the dark secret with others.
"Killers talk," he said. "Killers talk and they tell somebody. I believe there is somebody out there who knows."
He hopes that someday his phone will ring and on the other end of the line will be somebody looking to unload that burden.
Nancy Stensrud says she'll try to be ready with answers when Patti Berry's daughter is old enough to ask for the truth about what happened to her birth mother.
She hopes she'll be able to tell the little girl not to worry, the killer is behind bars.
"I want her to see one day that some sort of justice has been done, for her," she said.
Patti Berry is beyond justice now, Stensrud said.
But she's still close enough for a mother's tears.