True Crime: The Bizarre Conviction of Patricia Rorrer, an Innocent Woman

Updated on March 19, 2019

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 where the crime occurred?

You're probably thinking of course not. A jury should only convict if guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. No evidence 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 sentenced her to life in prison even though 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.

For full details on this case, read Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman by Tammy Mal. Mal says:

"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."

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

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, she hopped in her van with a gun that jammed after firing only one shot, drove for twelve hours, broke into the Katrinak home, took Joann and Alex hostage, drove them to the woods (to an area she had a connection to) in Joann's car, shot Joann, then bashed her head in multiple times (because she brought a tiny gun she knew didn't work properly) and left. 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. If the police hid exculpatory evidence from the defense, that is illegal. 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.

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 her house under duress without raising the alarm when there were people around who could have intervened? If Patricia was the killer, why would she even take such a risk? She could have broken into the house, killed Joann and Alex inside, and then left.

When the bodies were found, Alex's diaper bag was at the scene. This makes the Rorrer kidnapping angle seem even more ludicrous. If Patricia broke into the house to kidnap Joann and Alex, why did Joann take the baby's diaper bag? Joann's purse also wasn't in the house. She was being taken at gunpoint, but made sure to take her purse and the diaper bag? This would all indicate Joann and Alex weren't under any kind of duress when they left home that day. It would also indicate Joann knew her killer, and willingly left with them. Patty and Joann had never met.

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 was there no evidence it had just been driven into the woods?

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 soon after the disappearance wearing a short sleeve shirt, 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?

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, 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. 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 found in the car was a potential match for a lot of people. There were also hairs found that didn't match hers. The chain of custody was not properly followed in the case so hairs linking Patty to the crime could have been hairs she had given to the police as samples. To quote Mal, "...the thing that shocked me the most in this case was finding the FBI report that revealed the hairs from Joann’s car had no roots attached. The only physical evidence linking Patty to the crime was the DNA match from the root of one of those car hairs. To find out more than twenty years later that those hairs had no roots to DNA test—and that this fact was hidden from the defense—was not only shocking, but heartbreaking."
  • 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. Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman by Tammy Mal makes a strong case that:

  • evidence in the Patricia Rorrer case was tampered with
  • exculpatory evidence was ignored 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?

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 book presents much more evidence for innocence than I've provided in this article. You can buy it from any bookselling site or read it for free on Hoopla.

Hope for Patricia Rorrer

To once again quote Tammy Mal:

"For the first time in more than twenty years, she if finally garnering support. Just recently, a Seattle based group called Judges for Justice has taken an interest in her case. They are a group of retired judges and law enforcement officials who—after carefully following the Amanda Knox case—have taken up the cause for the wrongfully convicted. Having looked into Patty’s conviction, and after concluding that she probably was wrongfully convicted, they have agreed to become involved in her case." -- http://www.chicagoreviewpress.com/blog/tammy-mal/

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