The Husband Did It: Patsy Wright

Patsy was murdered with poison 10 days before she was to testify against her ex-husband. He claims he is innocent.

This writing is part of a continuing series on cold cases linked to domestic violence. Cases taken from Unsolved Mysteries.

The case of Patsy Wright is on season 1, episode 23 of Unsolved Mysteries.

For legal purposes, the husband in this case was never charged with crimes against his spouse. I have no physical evidence at all, only circumstantial evidence, the narrative given to us by those involved, and extensive knowledge on the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence. I have tried to make it clear when giving my opinion versus stating objective facts of the case.

The narrative according to Robert Stack:

At 3 am on October 22, 1987, Patsy Wright called her sister Sally Horning to tell her she couldn’t breathe and that she had taken some cough medicine earlier that night. The phone then went silent and so Sally and her husband, Steven Horning, drove to Patsy’s house to check on her. They found her lying in bed unresponsive and not breathing. They called 911 and Steven tried to do CPR on her, but she kept gurgling up a green liquid.

On the way to the hospital the paramedics told Sally that there was nothing more they could do for Patsy and they declared her dead.

Steven later said he remembered he had moved her dinner tray, with two dinner plates on it, away from her bed so he could attempt CPR. There was a theory that she had a man over that night. Patsy was indeed seeing someone new, but he lived three hours away and had an alibi.

An autopsy was performed eight days later and extremely high levels of a drug called "strychnine" was found in Patsy’s blood. The coroner stated that death by strychnine poisoning is extremely rare because of how difficult it is to procure, and it is not often an accident.

Police decided to test Patsy’s bottle of cold medicine and found it was almost purely strychnine. The FBI ruled out the possibility of product tampering, and the medical examiner on the case ruled out suicide.

Police began to suspect that Patsy had been murdered by someone she knew really well. This is because the night before her murder Patsy did not set the burglar alarm and because only those close to her knew she took cold medicine to help her with insomnia.

I can pretty much say that this case involves someone that knew Patsy, knew her habits, and then I have to put together motive and opportunity. — Sergeant Gustafson, Arlington Police

Patsy’s second ex-husband, Robert “Bob” Cox, was considered a person of interest. When they divorced Patsy had taken out a restraining order against him for harassing her.

Multiple people gave statements to police indicating that Patsy was fearful of Bob. He had driven by or parked close to her home numerous times after they divorced. When Patsy died, she was set to testify against Bob in an upcoming arson case and he had called her multiple times asking her to change her story. She had refused.

No one has been charged in Patsy’s murder, but Bob remains the top person of interest. All family and friends submitted to and passed polygraphs, but Bob refused to take one. This is not necessarily evidence of anything though because polygraphs aren’t reliable indicators of guilt or innocence.

Since 1987, and the airing of the episode, more information has come to light. Here’s what I found:

The medical examiner, Dr. Joann Houts, was asked to do a “psychological autopsy” on Patsy.

Houts’s findings revealed a strong, independent woman who often avoided confrontation in public, but firmly spoke her mind in private. In Houts’s professional opinion, Patsy was a low psychological risk for suicide: She fit none of the criteria, she was under no financial strain, her health was excellent, she was planning for the future, [and] the day after she died her alarm clock went off, indicating she intended to wake up that morning (Source: D Magazine).

Patsy’s divorce to her first ex-husband, Bill Wright, was very amicable and she even designated him the executor of her estate in her will.

Patsy and her brother-in-law Steven did not actually get along, and Patsy went to significant lengths to see that he would never have access to her fortune if anything happened to her or her sister. She thought he was “fake and plastic” and also that he mismanaged money. Steven is the only person that remembers seeing the dinner tray with two plates on it in Patsy’s bedroom. Neither the firemen nor the paramedics recall either the table or plates.

In 1983, a few months before Bob and Patsy married, there were fires set in the wax museum Bob owned with his ex-wife Emily “Kitty” Cox. After Bob and Patsy married, he sued his insurance company for refusing to pay out for the damage. The insurance company claimed that Bob started the fires for the insurance money because he was in considerable debt.

[O]n February 1, [1983] shortly after midnight, fires were set inside the [wax museum], destroying some of the contents. Cox would later claim that hobos seeking shelter set the fires; attorneys for Hartford would allege that Cox caused the fires to be set, bringing out in the trial that he and his many companies were in dire financial straits (Source: D Magazine).

Patsy owned her own wax museum and it was extremely successful (yes, there are two separate wax museums involved in this case). She was unaware of Bob’s finances at the time they were married. The insurance company implied that Bob married Patsy for financial reasons and became abusive immediately after exchanging vows.

But almost instantly — she would later tell friends that it began on her wedding day — Cox changed. No longer the charming, attentive suitor, he became verbally abusive to her and her family (Source: D Magazine).

Patsy eventually caught on to Bob’s financial situation.

Patsy became frustrated that Cox was living off of her earnings and that she was footing the bill for his gambling addiction. Patsy realized the end of her marriage was near when the IRS tried to attach her earnings to pay Cox’s tax debts of about $300k. Cox met the tax agent at the door wearing tattered clothes, as if destitute (Source: D Magazine).

Frustrated by the turn of events, Patsy contact Bob’s ex-wife Kitty, who gave her the name of the marriage counselor she had seen with Bob before their divorce. The counselor told Patsy that Bob was a “sociopath” and advised her to get out of the marriage immediately.

After they separated, Bob began following Patsy, parking outside of her house, and disguising his white hair.

One of Cox’s employees once called Patsy, letting her know that Cox had borrowed her car in order to tail her. Patsy also told friends that Cox threatened to “ruin her” (Source: D Magazine).

Patsy was frightened by this, because early in their marriage Bob had told her that he knew people who could get “anything done” including “having someone snuffed out.” She listened to the advice of her family and installed a security system and got a restraining order against him. Eventually, at some point in 1986, he stopped stalking her.

In September that year, Bob’s attorney deposed Patsy for the upcoming civil trial on the fires at Bob’s wax museum. The Hartford attorney met with Patsy multiple times to discuss information she had about Bob. In 1983, before they were married, Bob brought Patsy to visit his wax museum. Being in the industry herself, she took note of the various items in the museum, and so she was uniquely qualified to speak on what she saw there.

[The Hartford attorney] met with her eight to ten times in 1986 and 1987 to discuss the value of the property. She knew that one of the most valuable pieces in [Bob’s] collection — an antique chest supposedly destroyed in the fire--had never been moved to [the wax museum] at all and was actually in Bob Cox’s Garland office (Source: D Magazine).

Patsy was murdered 10 days before the start of the trial date set for November 1987.

Cox won the arson trial and the jury awarded him $1.3 million. The insurance company was unable to establish that Cox had the fire set (Source: D Magazine).

But the fires didn’t stop there.

11 months after Patsy died, the Wax Museum of the southwest [Patsy’s museum] burned to the ground. Arson investigators ruled that the fire had started at an electrical box; the insurance paid $4 million, not nearly enough to replace the museum, which would cost about $5.5 million to rebuild (Source: D Magazine).

There have not been any charges made in Patsy’s murder, although the case is being looked at by a private investigator hired by her family. He feels confident he can solve her case.

Domestic Violence

Women are killed by intimate partners — husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers — more often than any other category of killer… Intimate partner homicides make up 40 to 50 percent of all murders of women in the United States (Source: National Institute of Justice, NIJ Journal).

“The husband did it” is a popular phrase for a reason.

We’ve known for decades that domestic violence is strongly linked to homicide, however we didn’t identify the concrete steps leading up to intimate partner homicide until 2019. In her study, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide, Dr. Jane Monckton Smith established the eight stage process that most male abusers take before murdering their female partners.

The stages are not necessarily followed chronologically and sometimes couples loop back to earlier stages, for instance if an abuser is able to reestablish control. However, if the relationship culminated in homicide, all eight stages were likely involved.

For a full breakdown on the stages, read the article below.

This case is slightly different than others because of the type of relationship that Patsy and Bob had at the time of her death. Bob did not have her under his control in an active cycle of abuse, but he was still attempting to do so and that is what made him so dangerous to her.

Stage 1: Pre-relationship

A pre-relationship history of stalking or abuse by the perpetrator. I believe there is an indication of this with Bob’s ex-wife Kitty — she had Patsy contact their past marriage counselor knowing he would tell her that Bob was abusive and a “sociopath,” and that she needed to get out of her marriage.

Stage 2: Early Relationship

The romance developing quickly into a serious relationship. There are indications that the relationship progressed quickly because Patsy was not aware of Bob’s financial situation at all, and after they got married he “immediately” changed. This is usually indicative of a relationship that began with “love bombing” before moving on to the cycle of violence.

Stage 3: Relationship

The relationship becoming dominated by coercive control. This is where most of the variation of abuse occurs among abusers.

Coercive control is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour… Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage.

In Patsy’s case we have confirmation from her that Bob was very abusive, and she acquired a restraining order against him after they divorced. We also have claims from family and friends that Bob became suddenly verbally abusive towards her and her family. A sudden change like that is often the beginning of the cycle of power and control — the abuser is testing the waters to see what he can get away with. He will adjust his behavior according to how the victim responds, but the cycle will always continue from here on out.

Stage 4: Trigger/s

A trigger to threaten the perpetrator’s control — for example, the relationship ends or the perpetrator gets into financial difficulty.

The reasons given for men killing their partners overwhelmingly revolved around withdrawal of commitment, or separation (Source: Dr. Jane Monckton Smith, Intimate Partner Femicide: Using Foucauldian Analysis to Track an Eight Stage Progression to Homicide).

I think that there were multiple triggers for Bob and multiple cycles through this stage and stage 7 before Patsy was finally murdered. I think the first trigger was when Patsy divorced him and get a protective order against him, and I think the second trigger was when he realized he could not stop her from testifying against him. If he lost his lawsuit because of her testimony, he would be in an even worse financial position than before.

In regards to the first trigger, leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for the victim. This is because DV is about power and control. When an abuser realizes he has lost all control of his victim, he will do anything to “gain” that power back, even if it means ending her life. Abusers often resort to an “If I can’t have her, then no one can” mentality.

Leaving can be fatal: In 45% of the homicides in which a man killed a woman, an immediate precipitating factor of the fatal incident was the woman leaving or trying to end the relationship. For clinic/hospital women who were abused on followup, 69% of those who had left or tried to leave an abuser in the previous year but whose abuse continued despite their attempted departure experienced severe incidents compared to 44% of women who had not left or tried to leave (Source: Carolyn Rebecca Block, Risk Factors for Death or Life-Threatening Injury for Abused Women in Chicago).

In regards to the second trigger, economic hardship and unemployment are risk factors for domestic violence.

Unemployment and economic hardship at the household level were positively related to abusive behavior. Further, rapid increases in the unemployment rate increased men’s controlling behavior toward romantic partners even after we adjust for unemployment and economic distress at the household level (Source: Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett, and Sara McLanahan, Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession).

Specifically, an abuser’s lack of employment is a direct link to intimate partner femicide.

In comparing our femicide perpetrators with other abusive men, we found that unemployment was the most important demographic risk factor for acts of intimate partner femicide. In fact, abuser’s lack of employment was the only demographic risk factor that significantly predicted femicide risks after we controlled for a comprehensive list of more proximate risk factors, increasing risks 4-fold relative to the case of employed abusers (Source: Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell, et al, Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results From a Multisite Case Control Study).

Bob was not necessarily “unemployed” in the traditional manner, however he definitely struggled with “economic hardship” before, during, and after his marriage to Patsy.

Stage 5: Escalation

An increase in the intensity or frequency of the partner’s control tactics, such as by stalking or threatening suicide. After the first trigger, Bob escalated abusive behaviors by stalking Patsy until she got a restraining order and installed a security light on her home. Stalking is a risk factor for “severe, even lethal violence” in intimate relationships.

One recent study identified stalking as a lethal precursor to attempted and completed femicides. More than 75% of the murdered or nearly murdered women were stalked, and two-thirds were physically assaulted by their partners in the 12 months preceding the lethal or sublethal assaults (Source: Mindy B. Mechanic, Mary H. Uhlmansiek, Terri L. Weaver, and Patricia A. Resick, The Impact of Severe Stalking Experienced by Acutely Battered Women: An Examination of Violence, Psychological Symptoms and Strategic Responding).

Stage 6: A Change in Thinking/Decision

The perpetrator has a change in thinking — choosing to move on, either through revenge or by homicide. Bob must have had a change in thinking at some point as his trial date got closer and closer. It is clear that he attempted to persuade her to not testify and when he realized he could not convince her, I think he decided to kill her.

Stage 7: Planning

The perpetrator might buy weapons or seek opportunities to get the victim alone. Police say that Patsy’s death was clearly murder based on the way it happened and how only someone close to her would have been able to pull it off. This took planning and thought. Bob had to purchase the drug strychnine and then figure out how to get into her bathroom and replace her medicine with it. Additionally, he had to plan for the burglar alarm.

Stage 8: Homicide

The perpetrator kills his partner, and possibly hurts others such as the victim’s children. Based on evidence given by police, I think Bob murdered Patsy by poisoning her medication for insomnia with strychnine and waiting for her to consume it like she did each night.

Given these markers for domestic violence, and the fact that she was murdered 10 days before she was set to testify against him, I believe Bob Cox murdered his ex-wife, Patsy Wright, in 1987. I think he took the opportunity before the trial to poison her with a lethal dose because he could no longer control her.

In other words, the (ex) husband did it.

A discussion on how and why I use the term domestic violence.

For other information on DV, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great place to start.

advocate for victim/survivors of violence || writing for They Matter & published in An Injustice!, COSY, The Collector, Equality Includes You, CrimeBeat, & more

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