IT POURED ON THE day of Patricia Willoughby's funeral. Even if headlights weren't traditional for the members of a processional, the extraordinary number of creeping cars that snaked behind the hearse on the way to the Mesa graveyard would have needed their headlights because of the curtains of rain.

Heaven was so generous that the grave was flooded before Trish's casket could be lowered into it. As the coffin was reloaded and trundled back to the Mormon chapel where the wake had been held, mourners overheard the funeral director marveling that never before had he been rained out of a burial. When they arrived back at the church where Trish's parents, Thera and Sterling Huish, had orchestrated a postburial luncheon, they heard Thera proclaim, "It's just like Trish to not want to be left out of a party."

It was almost as though the great energy that had characterized Trish Willoughby's life was carrying on, was not allowing her to go easily into the ground. Or perhaps there were still so many unanswered questions surrounding her murder that she could not rest peacefully.

In any case, it was not a simple matter to dispose of her even after the rain had stopped and the grave was finally sealed.

Within a couple of months, she had literally popped up again. On May 24, 1991, the Arizona Attorney General's Office moved to have her body exhumed and an autopsy performed. When she was first found last February in a condominium in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, her skull crushed into multiple bones and her brain damaged from the blows, an autopsy was not ordered by the Mexican authorities.

Since then, the attorney general's investigation has continued, and clues about Trish Willoughby's puzzling death have kept creeping into the local daily newspapers and TV broadcasts, clues that have created more confusion than they've dispelled. Clues that, quite frankly, have often seemed unbelievable.

The hazy picture that's emerged is of a 42-year-old, all-American wife and mother, successful in business and devoutly religious, married for 15 years to the same man, Dan Willoughby. There have been references to a $750,000 life insurance policy. Most sensationally, there have been revelations of an urgent romance between Dan Willoughby, the prime suspect in the crime, and Yesenia Patino, a transsexual whose face is now plastered all over local buses above the headline offering $6,000 for news of her whereabouts.

Steven Mitchell, the assistant attorney general in charge of the case, has hinted to reporters that Trish's murder wasn't performed alone and has huffed that finding Patino will be "the beginning of a successful prosecution." Insiders have explained that, because the murder itself occurred in Mexico, Dan Willoughby can be indicted in Arizona only for conspiracy to commit murder--assuming there's probable cause--and that it won't happen without Yesenia, who has disappeared. Certainly not least of all, Dan Willoughby has taken his mother-in-law, Thera Huish, to court, trying to wrest from her the near-million she stands to collect as Trish's beneficiary.

What there has not been among all the drama and innuendo is anything to prove Dan Willoughby either guilty or innocent of his wife's murder. Informed sources close to the investigation now claim that it's not because such evidence doesn't exist.

Requesting anonymity, these knowledgeable sources say that, following Trish Willoughby's death, Dan Willoughby told the Mexican police that she was apparently murdered during a robbery. He described to the authorities jewelry that was stolen, including his wife's wedding ring. He drew a picture of the wedding ring for the police.

Within ten days, Yesenia Patino was arrested in Chandler on charges unrelated to the murder. In her possession was jewelry Dan had described, including Trish's wedding ring, which was later also seen and identified by at least one immediate member of Trish's family. In a move the Attorney General's Office now must regret, Patino herself was released.

If the sources are correct, the Attorney General's Office is sitting on a murder case that will dominate the headlines for months to come if any indictments are handed down. It has at its center a handful of very unlikely, middle-class candidates for involvement in a slaying, and a story of family frictions that reach back many years.

The pieces of the puzzle that can be ferreted out--usually from law-enforcement officials who won't comment on the record, and from friends and relatives of the Willoughby and Huish clans who also refuse to be identified out of fear of Dan Willoughby--do not ever come together completely. Instead, they form a tale that possesses as many conflicting descriptions and theories as did the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and considerably more intrigue. (Neither Dan Willoughby nor any members of the Huish family would be interviewed for this story.)

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Deborah Laake