True Crime: The Bizarre Conviction of Patricia Rorrer, an Innocent Woman
If you were on a jury, would you convict someone for murder if they lived hundreds of miles from where the crime happened and there was absolutely no evidence they were in the state at the time?
You're probably thinking, of course not. A jury should only convict if guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Complete lack of evidence that the accused was in the state where the crime occurred would represent reasonable doubt. Well, a jury did convict a woman named Patricia Rorrer, and they sentenced her to life in prison. There was no evidence she was in Pennsylvania, where the crime took place, and multiple alibi witnesses said she was in North Carolina. She's still serving a life sentence for a crime she simply could not have committed.
Tammy Mal, who wrote a book about her case, said: "Patty didn’t convince me that she was wrongfully convicted; she literally proved it to me...when Patricia Rorrer would tell me about troubling aspects of the case, and then back up her claims with actual police, FBI and forensic lab reports verifying what she said. It was pretty astonishing to realize that the case was littered with some very serious problems that had never been reported publicly."
Please note: This article is based on research done by the author Tammy Mal. Her book is based on trial transcripts, FBI reports, and police reports. She also relied on the investigative work done by the late journalist Margaret Sneary, who attended Rorrer's trial and was convinced an innocent person had been wrongfully convicted. This article covers some of the reasons both Mal and Sneary believed so strongly in Rorrer's innocence. For more in-depth information on the case than I can realistically provide here, read Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman by Tammy Mal.
Background of the Case
Joann Katrinak and her three-month-old son Alex went missing in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, on December 15, 1994. Her husband Andy reported them missing. Their bodies were found four months later, unburied in the woods. Patricia Rorrer was one of Andy Katrinak's ex-girlfriends. She and Andy had sporadic contact with each other. When Patricia won a competition, she excitedly called everyone she knew. When she called Andy's house, Joann picked up the phone, told Patricia not to call again, and hung up.
Why Patricia Rorrer Couldn't Have Been the Killer
A Far-Fetched Police Theory
This incident led to a pretty bizarre police theory. In something reminiscent of the 1987 movie Fatal Attraction, Patricia was so angry at the affront that she hopped in her van five days later with a gun that jammed after firing only one shot, drove for twelve hours, broke into the Katrinak home, took Joann and Alex hostage, forced Joann to drive to the woods (to an area Patricia had a connection to), shot Joann, then bashed her head in multiple times (because she brought a tiny gun she knew didn't work properly) and left.
Patricia Was Never Seen Out of Place
Patricia, an almost six-foot-tall woman who drove a distinctive van with Riverwood Stables emblazoned on it, supposedly spent days in the Catasauqua area stalking and murdering people, yet no one saw her. The killings happened in winter. She would have needed a place to stay. There's no evidence she rented a hotel room. She would have needed to eat. No one testified to seeing her at any restaurants.
And even more amazingly, no one in North Carolina noticed she was gone for five whole days a couple of weeks before Christmas. This includes individuals who had Patricia under surveillance. Some people suspected she was involved in a horse stealing operation. On December 12, 1994 they started to watch her. This interestingly enough is the same day police claim Patricia began her trip to Pennsylvania. The surveillance continued through December 16, 1994, the day after Joann and Alex disappeared. The people involved said Patricia Rorrer wasn't around much. She wasn't gone. Just wasn't around much. Surely if Patricia had been in another state, she wouldn't have been seen at all. The surveillance notes were handed over to the police and apparently not seen again. Patricia's defense never saw them. Patricia's van presents another problem. She didn't have any roadworthy vehicles at the time of the murders, something multiple people verified. So she drove to Pennsylvania in a van badly in need of repairs, with a gun that didn't work properly. Even for a crime of passion, that's all very hard to believe.
According to Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. The simplest explanation for why an almost six-foot tall woman who spoke with a Southern accent and drove a large distinctive van with North Carolina plates went unnoticed in the small town of Catasauqua (population approx. 6000) was because she wasn't there. The simplest explanation for why no one in North Carolina noticed she was gone for five whole days was because she was there. There were many sightings of a woman matching Joann's description around the time of the disappearances (including people who claimed to see a couple that looked like her and Andy arguing) but there were no sightings of Patricia or her distinctive van. As Tammy Mal put it, Patricia would have stuck out like a sore thumb if she had been in Catasauqua in December 1994. She clearly wasn't there.
It Just Doesn't Add Up
The personality of Joann Katrinak presents another problem. She was described as a "spitfire," someone who would put up a fight to protect her baby. Yet this "spitfire" left home under duress without raising the alarm when there were people around who could have intervened? If Patricia was the killer, why would she even risk a daytime, outdoor kidnapping and force her victim to do the driving (Joann could have jumped out of the car to summon help or hit something to call attention to her plight)? Patricia could have broken into the house, killed Joann and Alex inside, and then left. Instead, she apparently spent seven hours in the Katrinak house waiting for Joann and Alex to leave so she could kidnap them outside in broad daylight. Why would she do this? And even if she was for some odd reason determined to kidnap them out in the open for anyone driving by, walking their dog or looking out their window to see, why would she assume Joann and Alex would leave the house that day? According to Tammy Mal, as soon as Patricia heard Joann and Alex were leaving to go shopping, she would have had to cut the phone line*, gather up her screwdriver, wire cutter, and crowbar, get her gun out, rush upstairs and then confront her victims (again, outside in broad daylight). If there was a very difficult or risky way to do something, Patricia always seemed to choose it over simpler, safer options. Why?
The police claim the phone line was cut right before the abduction probably because Joann supposedly used the phone right before leaving home. But why would Patricia cut the phone line when it was no longer necessary to do so? She spent hours in the basement unconcerned that she might make a noise that would prompt Joann to call the police, but then cut the phone line right when Joann was leaving the house? And she chose to make that cut in a hard to access area even though she would have been in a big hurry to get upstairs before Joann had a chance to drive away? There are a lot of inexplicable, nonsensical things that supposedly happened according to the police/prosecution theory of the case that would be laughable if the situation weren't so tragic. A movie script with such a bizarre and convoluted storyline would never get green-lighted because it wouldn't be believable. How sad that our "justice" system has much lower standards.
There Was No Physical Evidence
If Patricia broke into the house to kidnap Joann and Alex, why was there no physical evidence of her presence? When the police arrived at the Katrinak home the first time Joann and Alex were reported missing, they saw no signs of a break-in. The signs of a break-in were there the second time the police showed up. Andy also showed police the cut phone line. To quote Tammy Mal, "There, tucked up near the floor joists and almost hidden in the insulation, two wires dangled in the empty air." If Patricia was the killer, she would have needed a lot of time to break into the house (using a screwdriver to remove nineteen screws "when it was so much easier just to pop the hasp from the jamb") and would have likely touched and rubbed up against all kinds of things as she searched for the phone line to cut ("why would the intruder seek out this obscure, hidden phone line when the main line was clearly visible upon entering the basement"), yet there was zero physical evidence of her presence in the house. It seems highly unlikely she could have spent hours around and in the house, and not leave any physical evidence (footprints, fingerprints, DNA, hair, fibers) behind. This is when DNA was in its infancy and criminals weren't taking precautions to avoid leaving any. If Patricia cut the phone line, she would have to have done it moments before the abduction, giving herself no time to clean up any evidence.
Joann's car was found in a parking lot near the Katrinak home. According to the police, Patty used the car to abduct Joann and Alex and drive them into the woods where she killed them. But why would she bring the car back to the scene of the kidnapping? And why would she leave it in a busy area where she could be seen instead of an isolated area? Once again, Patricia is taking major risks and doing things the hard way. And why was there no evidence the car had just been driven into the woods?
If the car had been driven into the woods, there should have been dirt similar to the burial site on it. There wasn't any. Patricia would have been covered in blood after the killing. No blood was found in the car. Because the hairs Patricia and thousands of other people were a potential match for were found in the car the prosecution had to make it a part of the crime despite the lack of physical evidence to support that claim, and eyewitness reports saying the car had been in the lot since 12:30 pm (two hours before Patricia is said to have carried out the kidnapping).
In Convenient Suspect, Tammy Mal talks about a 13-year-old girl named Jessica who overheard her mother's boyfriend talking to someone about a missing woman and her baby. Not long after, Jessica's mother is said to have found rope, bloody jeans and jewelry hidden in their basement. Jessica claimed her mother helped the boyfriend burn the jeans in the backyard. The mother confirmed much of this story to police, including finding bloody jeans, but denied helping to burn them. Someone else said Jessica's mother talked about her boyfriend coming home covered in blood saying something had gone wrong involving a Catasauqua woman and her baby. That person said Jessica's mother admitted to helping burn the jeans. Patricia's jury never heard any of this. If they had, that could have created a lot of reasonable doubt. The killer being a local also makes far more sense. It would have been hard for someone from out-of-state to clean so much blood off their clothes, hair and body without access to a shower.
Recall the police and prosecutor claim Patricia drove Joann's car to a busy area and parked it in a parking lot. They don't explain how she managed to clean herself up so well that not a drop of blood or any dirt was found in the car. And again, not one person witnessed Patricia leaving the scene.
Joann put up a fight before she was killed. Her head was bashed in and she lost a lot of blood. Yet when Patty was interviewed by police on December 22, just a week after the disappearance she was wearing a short sleeve shirt. The police officer said she had no signs of injury. How could a woman have been involved in a violent struggle with another woman, yet not have a scratch or a bruise to show for it?* He also said she was cooperative and told him everywhere she had been the day of the disappearances. He never followed up to check on her alibis.
The killer's fingernail was pulled off during the struggle and found on Joann's chest. That fingernail was too large to be Patricia's and the prosecution didn't test it for DNA even though there was skin attached. When Patricia's lawyers got a judge to approve DNA testing of the sample, the skin had been removed making it impossible to test. The judge had determined the sample was intact and testable. Yet by the time it reached the lab for testing, that was no longer the case. Somewhere between the judge examining the sample and its arrival at the lab, the skin had been removed.
Patricia Had an Alibi
Patricia's various alibis could easily have been checked at that time because it was just a week after Joann and Alex went missing and she had given the police officer detailed information on everywhere she had been. Unfortunately they didn't check until months later. By then, many people obviously didn't remember interacting with her on that particular day.
Insect evidence also likely rules Patricia out as the killer. Based on insect activity, an expert witness concluded that eggs found on the bodies could only have been laid on February 18, 1995.
"I cannot say the bodies were not there before February 18, but from the insect activity I saw, in my opinion, this was the first opportunity for them to have activity."
The prosecution originally contacted this expert to testify for them. When his evidence pointed toward a conclusion that ruled out Patricia, they changed their minds. That isn't how law enforcement should operate. When evidence proves innocence, they should accept that. Not ignore what doesn't fit their case.
If the bodies were brought to the woods on February 18 or some point after that, which insect activity implies, Patricia would have had to make a return journey to move the bodies.
Arguments for Her Guilt
Okay, you're probably thinking this woman is serving a life sentence for murder. There had to have been a reason for this. A few arguments are made for Rorrer's guilt.
- She didn't make any long distance calls for five days at the time of the disappearance.
- She claimed she was at a club on the night of the disappearance. The club had a sign in policy but she had not signed in.
- She was a potential match for a hair found in the victim's car.
- The bodies were found near a horse stable where Patricia used to work.
The Problems With These Arguments
- It wasn't unusual for Patricia Rorrer to go for days at a time without making any long distance calls. According to her phone records, there were several multi-day breaks without long distance calls. She had won a competition and had excitedly called people she knew to let them know. It was that win that led to her fateful call with Joann. She would have had little reason to make long distance calls soon after since she had just called everybody she knew.
- Patricia took dance classes at the club. The sign in sheets weren't out when the dance students showed up, so it's not surprising that she didn't sign in. The policy wasn't strictly enforced and it wasn't unusual for people to get in without signing their names. Her dance instructor said she was there that day. Two other people, her boyfriend, and a man she didn't know too well, were with her outside the club that night. Patricia talked to them about having car trouble.
- The hair that connected Patricia to the crime was most likely a hair she had given to the police as a sample. From Convenient Suspect, "It took two and a half years after the discovery of those six hairs in Joann's car for Dr. Deadman to match them to Patty, and in all that time, no one had ever seen a root on any of those hairs...There obviously were no roots on the hairs found in Joann's car, and the fact that Dr. Dizinno tested them for mitochondrial DNA proves it. Had there been a root, he would not have had to use that method. So was it just a coincidence that no one ever noticed a root until after the police secured samples of Patty's hair? Or is it possible that somehow Patty's hair was mislabeled as a hair from Joann's car and DNA tested against her own blood?"
- Patricia lived in that area of Pennsylvania years before. She would likely have known plenty of isolated places. Why choose one that could lead back to her? If the bodies were moved, was someone attempting to frame her? Someone who knew she was a suspect?
"Convenient Suspect" by Tammy Mal
Serial and Making a Murderer highlight obvious problems of police misconduct or myopia, but they don't make any compelling case for innocence. by Tammy Mal makes a strong case that: Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman
- evidence in the Patricia Rorrer case was mishandled or tampered with
- exculpatory evidence was ignored, lost or hidden
- the police refused to believe multiple alibi witnesses for Patricia while they had no problem believing Andy Katrinak's one alibi witness, his father. If one alibi witness was satisfactory for Andy, why were multiple alibi witnesses unsatisfactory when it came to Patricia?
- a key witness changed her story. Only Andy's mother claimed to have interacted with Joann around the time the prosecution says she went missing. She said she talked to Joann that day to arrange a Christmas shopping trip. His mother told a different story on the stand during the trial that completely changed the timeline of the disappearances, yet the police and prosecutor seem to have been unfazed by this radically different version of events. It also raises the question of whether his mother talked to Joann that day at all. If she didn't, that completely changes everything about the case. Since the police built their case around this phone call and those shopping plans, they should have been very concerned when that story changed.*
*Veronica Katrinak told police she talked to Joann at 1:15. Joann said she would pick her up to go shopping between 1:30 and 1:45. In this version of events, they have definite plans and Joann is almost ready to walk out the door. She must have been home when she went missing. On the stand, Veronica said she told Joann she would need 35 to 40 minutes to get ready. In this new version, there aren't any definite plans. Did Joann stay home after the call? Did she decide to run some errands before going to her in-law's house? She could easily have been somewhere else when she was kidnapped. The investigation should have been reopened to determine a) if this phone call really happened** and b) if Joann went anywhere else that day.
**A neighbor said he saw Joann leaving home around noon that day. If that neighbor is correct, either that call didn't happen or Veronica may have believed it happened far later than it did. Another neighbor witnessed Joann putting Alex in the car. It's hard to believe that a kidnapping occurred at that moment and no one saw or heard anything.
An organization called the Worldwide Womens Criminal Justice Network lists these as the reasons for Patricia Rorrer's conviction.
"Convicting Factors: forensic fabrication, hidden evidence, media hysteria."
The police were so set on Patricia being the killer, there was probably nothing she could do to convince them otherwise. And that's what makes this so scary. If the police believe you've committed a crime, they can potentially get a conviction by ignoring what exonerates you and massaging evidence to make it fit. And it could happen to anyone. That's why juries should be vigilant. The jury in the Patricia Rorrer case took only two hours to convict her. There's simply no way they could have gone over all the evidence for a one month trial in two hours. They trusted law enforcement despite all the obvious problems with the case, including an expert witness relabeling improperly labeled samples on the stand and the prosecutor changing the theory of the case mid-trial. Jurors need to remember that whenever an innocent person goes to prison, a guilty person goes free.
Tammy Mal's Convenient Suspect presents much more evidence for innocence than I've provided in this article.
- The hardcover, paperback, eBook and audiobook versions are available on all book-selling sites
- If you have a library card you may be able to read it or listen for free on Hoopla
- If you subscribe to scribd.com, you can listen to the audiobook as part of your subscription
So If She's Innocent...
The case made by the police and prosecutor contradicted the physical and eyewitness evidence they themselves had collected. So why was Rorrer prosecuted and then convicted?
In a Washington Post opinion piece titled Why do prosecutors go after innocent people?, John Pfaff argues that the biggest issue is not that "prosecutors storm ahead anyway, out of malice or blind ambition" even though that does happen. Prosecutors often deal with "ambiguous cases" where they have to choose "to err on the side of 'safety' and file the charges vs. erring on the side of 'caution' and dropping the case." Prosecutors "are sensitive to electoral pressures even when victory seems assured." A prosecutor who doesn't pursue a particular case may be defeated in the next election. An angry public and media can put damaging pressure on police and prosecutors to charge suspects even when the evidence isn't there to support the very case they're forced to make.
In this case, the public and media were understandably upset by the brutal murders of a young woman and her baby. The police likely had no idea what had happened to Joann and Alex but they may unconsciously have felt pressure to solve the case rather than let it go cold. That's often when tunnel vision kicks in. Tunnel vision is the tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms existing beliefs and to discard information that challenges them. In other words, evidence that supports their case against a suspect stands out in their minds while evidence pointing toward innocence gets discounted. They can earnestly believe they have the right person despite all the evidence indicating they're wrong.
When prosecutors choose to pursue a case they almost always get a conviction. Why? Because the public often falsely believes that police and prosecutors will only pursue a case when they're certain of guilt. If the cops are saying someone did it, it must be true. That's why jurors will often convict despite very obvious problems with a case. Statistics on false convictions show how wrong that thinking is. It's estimated there are between 46,000 and 230,000 innocent people serving time in the United States.
Once someone is wrongly convicted, there's more pressure to keep them locked up during the lengthy appeals process. Having a conviction overturned can cost tens of thousands to millions of dollars. The longer an innocent person is imprisoned, the more compensation they can demand. That money comes out of taxpayers' pockets.
- Must Read True Crime Books on Wrongful Convictions
Wrongful convictions are a common problem in the American justice system. This list of true crime books consists of personal stories involving the wrongfully convicted and books on how miscarriages of justice can come about.