Yesenia Patino sits primly on the edge of her chair in a Mexican prison. Serving a 35-year sentence for murder, she looks good.
Dressed in a long-sleeved gray dress with a black collar, she appears carefully groomed. Her shoulder-length brown hair is neat; her makeup is applied to accentuate her dark eyes; her watch and dangly metal earrings complete the look. She appears relaxed and feminine, often running her fingers through her hair, lightly touching her fingertips to the base of her throat as she speaks in a soft voice.
But Patino is adept at deception.
A transsexual who provided the most damning testimony in a sensational Phoenix murder case eight years ago against her lover, Patino, appearing at a 1997 videotaped deposition, tells a tale that belies her demure look and mannerisms.
In a two-hour interrogation, Patino calmly recounts how she planned and executed the murder of Trish Willoughby in Rocky Point, Mexico, on February 23, 1991. She tells how the victim was lying on a bed and glanced up at her just before she smashed her skull with a mace, a metal ball on a chain. Trish looked as if she were about to say something, Patino says.
"I didn't give her a chance," she explains.
Patino brings her arm up over her right shoulder and brings it down hard, demonstrating the repeated blows that hit Willoughby. She demonstrates the rapid, alternating thrusts she used to stab Willoughby with two knives, one in each hand, in "her face, her heart, her chest, her arms, her stomach." Patino says she then tried to strangle Willoughby with a nylon cord to finish the job.
Patino tells of the blood spattered on the wall and her sleeves, of tossing the murder weapon out the window as she drove away from the rented beach house.
A few minutes later, the lawyers attending the deposition promise that they are nearly finished.
"I hope so, because I'm getting hungry," she says.
Patino's emotionless retelling of a violent attack is unsettling for more than the obvious reasons. It directly contradicts the sworn testimony she gave in the 1992 trial of Dan Willoughby, Trish's husband and Patino's former lover.
Eight years ago, appearing for the prosecution, she said under oath that she and Dan plotted to kill Trish together. She said Dan bludgeoned Trish himself, while his kids were waiting in the car for an outing, then Patino entered the home, stabbed Trish and stole her jewelry to make her appear to be a robbery victim. Her testimony "carried the day to conviction," the judge in that case said. Dan Willoughby was sentenced to death.
Now, Patino says Dan Willoughby had nothing to do with the murder. She says she planned it and carried it out alone, unbeknownst to her beloved. Patino, who began recanting her trial testimony as soon as the trial was over, says in the video deposition that she decided to murder Trish right from the start of her affair with Dan.
"I didn't want to share him anymore. I wanted him to be mine," she says.
Patino says she originally claimed Dan was in on the murder because state investigators were pressuring her to help nail him or she would face a more severe sentence for her part of the crime. Now, she says, she wants to set the record straight.
"I'm doing this because I want to be at peace and let . . . let the public know what really happened," she testifies in the video.
Dan Willoughby, who spent seven years on death row before winning a new trial last year based on poor legal representation, is facing a retrial in the case within weeks. His new trial is set for November 27, but it could be postponed until next year.
With three new lawyers -- Michael Black, Stephen Kunkle and Alan Simpson -- now representing him, a group of supporters working toward his release, and even Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and his Canadian-based Association in Defence [sic] of the Wrongly Convicted on his side, he has a better chance of a fair trial.
And with Patino absolving him, his chances for acquittal seem even greater.
Or maybe not.
How credible is a witness who has changed her story under oath? And, if she comes to Phoenix again to testify in a new trial, will she stick to her latest story? And if she doesn't testify -- she would have to come voluntarily -- what then? A judge has ruled that if Patino is not present at the second trial, her testimony from the first case cannot be presented to the jury because there was no proper cross-examination. Would the prosecution have a case?
The state says it has other evidence to support its case against Willoughby. And whatever transpires with Patino, prosecutors say, they'll proceed to a second trial.
But Phoenix attorney Mark Siegel, who wrote a book called Rocky Point about the case, says Willoughby may walk without Patino on the state's side.
"Without Yesenia, they don't have a chance in hell," he says. "I don't see how they can convict him without Yesenia."
Court records show there was no physical evidence at the crime scene linking Dan Willoughby to the murder. And according to the decision granting the new trial, a competent defense attorney would have no problem attacking other evidence the state put on -- including hearsay accounts of Willoughby plotting his wife's demise and another statement by Trish's mother saying she only assumed Willoughby knew about Trish's insurance policies. (At the first trial, attorney David Ochoa missed obvious opportunities for objection, conducted poor cross-examinations and offered no witnesses or evidence, records show.)
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge J.D. Howe, who granted the motion for Willoughby's new trial, is retired. Prosecutors have asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to overturn his June ruling that Patino's previous testimony is inadmissible. And they have asked Judge Frank Galati, who inherited the case, to rule that if Patino testifies and says Willoughby had nothing to do with the murder, they may reveal her prior inconsistent testimony.
Even without Patino, the Trish Willoughby murder case would be a tragic, shocking crime. Nice churchgoing wife and mother heads to Rocky Point for a weekend getaway with nice, churchgoing husband and their three children. She ends up dead, brutally attacked in her bed, discovered by her children as they return from an outing with their dad. Husband is accused of murdering his wife to collect $1 million in insurance.
With Patino involved, the crime became sensational, a juicy tale that is the stuff of pulp novels and B movies. A recently published true-crime paperback called Damaged Goods trumpets the case with cover blurbs: "A depraved secret life," "A twisted sexual obsession drove him to murder" and "16 pages of shocking photos!" -- most of which are family album-type shots depicting the victim and her family, and photographs of Patino as both Yesenia and Alfredo Patino.
Even without such screaming headlines, the case as told in court records, two books and numerous articles is titillating. Patino, now 44, began life as a man (some say a hermaphrodite) and became a woman through surgery. She says she used drugs, had 1,000 lovers and carried on a torrid affair with Dan Willoughby while she was married to two other men. Willoughby, muscular and tanned in photographs, had no idea she was a transsexual until after the murder of his wife. (Now 61, he sports glasses, the pale pallor of incarceration and a long thinning gray ponytail.)
Even if Patino doesn't testify, another attention-grabbing participant may get involved. Rubin Carter, whose wrongful murder conviction was retold last year in the movie The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington, may attend Willoughby's trial.
Carter, executive director of the center to help others wrongly convicted, met Willoughby in Maricopa County Jail in the spring when the talk show Politically Incorrect was taped there, and Carter believes he is innocent.
Siegel says he thinks the sexual aspects of the case may have tainted public opinion about Dan Willoughby. He retells the murder story from Willoughby's perspective in his book and says Willoughby may be guilty only of a midlife crisis, an indiscreet affair and "being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.