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Published: Thursday, May 19, 2011, 3:10 p.m.

Unsolved, part 5: Investigators hope the devil is in the details

First published on July 29, 1999 Homicide investigations aren't just about people killing people. They also are about people killing trees. A murder case generates mountains of paperwork, everything from witness statements to forensic reports to narrative descriptions of every step detectives take from the time a body is found to the day the jail door slams shut on the killer. Paperwork for a typical murder case -- if there is such a thing -- usually fills one or two large three-ring notebooks. The case file on Patti Berry's 1995 murder already fills 12. Detective John Padilla of the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office believes that somewhere in that vast amount of information are the details he needs to catch a killer. He just hasn't figured out how. That bothers the detective, but he's more troubled by the silence. Over the years Padilla has come to recognize that there are rhythms to crime.

Unsolved

The Patti Berry story (1999)
Part 1: Four years of grief and pain
Part 2: Family's fears grow when car found in field
Part 3: Detective uses field skills to track a killer
Part 4: Investigator narrows in on a key suspect
Part 5: Investigators hope the devil is in the details
Part 6: Slain mother's love manages to find daughter


When a drug dealer kills somebody, it is not long before the victim's name starts cropping up in conversation, usually as a threat to others. People who kill out of jealousy or rage are often consumed with guilt. They seek out somebody to help them unload. Even serial killers, those rare murderers driven by strange compulsion to kill and kill again, get people talking. Patterns emerge and tongues begin to wag. Patti Berry's killing stands alone. The detective said there is a message in the silence: Somebody knows, they just arent talking. All the evidence tells Padilla the killer likely was a man. He probably attacked Berry while she sat in her car, a blitz of stabbing violence that gave her no opportunity to protect herself. The killer then placed Berry in the back seat and drove to the woods by the Everett Mall, where he dumped her body. Then the man drove to the car wash off 128th Street, probably using the hoses there to clean the blood off his clothing. He parked the vehicle, scattered the victim's belongings and left. Padilla believes Berry likely saw the killer earlier that night and may have left the club to link up with him. Why she left is murky. The autopsy found no drugs in her system. There also was no sign of rape. Padilla has his own theories about what happened that night, where the killer was when he plunged the knife into Patti Berry, where that happened and when. But he's reluctant to talk about them for publication. "Exactly how this happened is something only Patti and the killer and the detectives know," he said. Four years ago, detectives were focusing most of their efforts on investigating a then-38-year-old musician from Arlington who witnesses said spent time with Patti Berry the night she disappeared from her job as a nude dancer at Honey's nightclub. The man called detectives, said he might know why Berry was missing, and then did unusual things, such as burning his diary and calling witnesses. To date, the man remains the only person ever identified in court documents as a suspect in Berry's killing. Although he has denied any involvement, the man remains near the top of the list, Padilla said recently. One reason is the musician matches the description of a man who was seen the morning that Berry was killed near where her bloody clothing was later discovered. An elderly man out for his morning walk said he spotted a white man with blond hair, a pointed nose, a tight-fitting cap and dark-colored clothing dumping a duffel bag into the wooded area where Berry's dance costumes, pants and other items were found. Padilla showed the witness a photograph of the musician, but the man couldn't conclusively identify him as the person he saw that morning. Detectives didn't heed the musician's admonition not to bother searching for a diary he'd told them he'd burned. They obtained a judge's permission to search the man's home. Investigators found nothing to obviously connect him to the killing. They also didn't find the diary. Detectives didn't focus solely on the musician. They also investigated Patti Berry. Some who knew the slain dancer said she struggled with drug addiction. A card for an escort service was found in her car. Patti Berry's family has a hard time believing those allegations. Throughout her adult life, Berry was mistreated by men who knew her outside the club, Padilla said. Detectives found a former boyfriend, a man who at the time was a high school teacher, who started a relationship with Berry without knowing she was a dancer. Once he found out what she did, he stopped treating her with respect, investigators learned. Then there was a neighbor who knew about Berry's dancing and admitted to investigators that he found it exciting to go through her car without permission, sometimes leaving the doors wide open after he left. Both men have solid alibis, Padilla said. Other leads have been followed and other suspects eliminated, like a man who was living not far from the club who had done time in prison for stabbing a dancer to death two decades earlier. Registered sex offenders in the area were grilled. Dancers supplied names of patrons who followed them home, or otherwise acted in ways they found threatening. Detectives also spent time chasing plenty of shadows. For example, investigators tried to learn the identity of a strange man who showed up at the club the night Berry died, carrying a grimy backpack and flashing an authentic-looking police badge from a local city. The man didn't get past the doorman. Padilla tracked rumors about the identity of a young man who supposedly was in the club that night trying to lure dancers outside, claiming he wanted to share a stash of the designer drug Ecstasy. Berry's most recent boyfriend, the man whom she'd met while dancing in Texas, was tracked down in his home state and cleared. Investigators even looked at one of their own: a now former sheriff's deputy who dancers said hung around the club way too much to be doing police work, and once showed up on a dancer's doorstep. The man easily passed a polygraph when he denied having anything to do with Berry's killing. There is still plenty of work to do, but the case often suffers in the press of breaking crime. In the four years since Berry's murder, Padilla has worked hundreds of other violent crime cases, more than 60 last year alone. At last count, the detective said he has more than 80 people he'd still like to interview about Berry's murder. Some knew her. Some were in the club the night she disappeared. Some live near where her body was found. Padilla would like to get some of them into the interview room, to look them in the eyes and ask hard questions. But now is not the time. So the hunter practices patience. As long as the killer is still breathing, time is on the detective's side. There is no statute of limitations on murder.

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