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Crime News Accident, Suicide, or Murder

Suspicions of a Staged Drowning Quickly Surface After Wife’s Body Was Found in Lake

Details of the marriage “put a chill down my spine,” said a detective investigating the watery car crash that left the husband unscathed.

By Grace Jidoun

Driving along Country Route 35 in Chenango County, New York, you’ll pass by picturesque Guilford Lake, a popular spot for boating and picnicking. But the lake has a dark past: one night twenty-two years ago, a couple’s pick-up truck veered off the road and plunged into its freezing waters. The mysterious accident triggered a death investigation and a deep dive into the unusual marriage of locals Peter and Patty Wlasiuk.

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On April 3, 2002, first responder Jamie Bell found himself submerged in the lake’s waters, searching for a body. “I came across a body, most likely a female, grabbed her around the waist, and just pushed off the bottom and popped up to the surface,” he recalled to Accident, Suicide, or Murder, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.

During his scuba training on the police force, he learned that people can be revived after 20 or 30 minutes underwater, and he was hopeful for Patty Wlasiuk. Her husband, Peter, informed police that they had been driving after she finished her shift at the local hospital, where she worked as a nurse for 17 years. Peter recounted to police that she swerved to avoid a deer that crossed the road, and the truck flew through an open section in the guard rails and down into the lake at a sharp angle. He had escaped by swimming through an open window — though this would be the first of two very different stories from Peter.

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Patty was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead “by the same doctor who she had worked with on her last shift,” said Larry Celona, a police reporter for the New York Post. He noted that “word spread fast” about the couple, who ran a “local hotspot” called The Angel Inn.

Sergeant Ted Ellingsen interviewed Peter at the hospital that night and noticed something right off the bat. “If he was submerged in that water for any length of time, you’re going to start exhibiting signs of hypothermia. Your lips are going to be blue, your body’s going to be shivering uncontrollably,” Ellingsen told Accident, Suicide or Murder.

Yet Peter had no injuries and seemed fine. He repeatedly asked if Patty was alive or dead and was “very adamant about having a toxicology on Patty."

Ellingsen noted, "My first thought would have been, 'how are my kids going to react to this? Is she ok?' That is extremely odd.”

When asked why he was pushing for toxicology, Peter said he wanted to prove that Patty wasn’t drunk.

Patricia Wlasiuk featured on Accident Suicide or Murder Episode 506

Who was Patty Wlasiuk?

“Patty had a rough time growing up,” her sister Wendy Jennings revealed to show producers. Her father left when she was a baby, and her step-father “wasn’t a really nice guy.”

Patty became an “active alcoholic for a while,” according to her sister. However, by the time she met Peter, she had turned her life around and had a busy nursing career. The couple tied the knot in a surprise elopement in 1996.

When detectives dug deeper into the marriage, they discovered more than they bargained for.

“Days before the accident, the couple had an argument over Patty’s jealousy over Peter’s relationship with the babysitter,” said Celona. The babysitter told police that Patty had initiated a three-way sexual liaison with her and Peter. She also claimed that Patty had begun drinking again.

In light of this new information, Peter ditched his story about the deer on the road and presented a new scenario to the police: Patty was suicidal and intentionally drove into the lake in an alcohol-fueled rage. According to undersheriff Dustin Smietana, Peter said he concocted the deer story to save Patty from any embarrassment.

But this didn’t ring true to family and friends. “She worked so hard to make herself better, to stop drinking, to be a great mom, to be a great daughter, a great-granddaughter, to be an excellent role model. I mean, seriously, suicide? No,” Wendy flatly stated.

The toxicology results debunked Peter’s story anyway: her alcohol level was below the legal limit when she died. The results of her first autopsy showed bruising and lung damage that was consistent with a car accident and drowning death, but nothing could explain the thistles. Spiky burdocks were found in her hair and all over her clothes, and no burdock bushes were near the lake.

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Police piece together evidence

While detectives were learning about Wlasiuk's marriage problems, police pulled the truck from the lake. “It was a crash; however, there weren’t signs of cracking on the windshields or damage on the outside of the truck,” said a puzzled Smietana. Oddly enough, Patty’s cell phone was found in the back bed of the truck and not in the cab.

Smietana added, “Cell phones don’t float… to be found behind the vehicle, it’s highly unlikely.”

“Between the burdocks and the cell phone found in the bed of the pickup truck, it starts to dawn on me that this isn’t just a simple motor vehicle accident,” said Ellingsen.

As suspicions mounted, an Accident Reconstruction Team was painstakingly measuring and documenting the scene, but the report would take days, and police needed evidence as fast as possible.

Meanwhile, Peter was pushing for a cremation.

Then, a tip comes in from a local banker, who revealed that Peter inquired about collecting money from an insurance policy only nine hours after Patty’s death. The couple were $200,000 in debt, Celona told show producers. The detectives circled back with her co-workers and friends for another round of interviews and found disturbing information. Hospital colleagues said Patty had spoken of divorce and domestic violence. “The co-workers also told investigators that they had recently seen bruises on Patty’s body and that Patty had told them she feared for her life,” reported Celona, who added that during a fight in 2001, Peter reportedly held a loaded gun to Patty’s head.

What’s more, eyewitnesses from that evening put Peter behind the wheel of the car, not Patty, as he had claimed.

Who is Peter Wlasiuk?

With Peter as the primary suspect, detectives investigated his background and came up with a hit. Patty was not his only wife to have died from an “accident.” On November 19, 1997, Peter’s ex-wife was rescued from her parent’s New Jersey basement, where she had been living, when it caught fire — but not the rest of the house. She died at the hospital from severe smoke inhalation. The fire was deemed an accident, but the police report noted that batteries were missing from the fire detector.

The growing evidence was enough to establish probable cause, and Ellingsen and his team obtained a search warrant for the couple's home, where they found Patty’s diary.

Where Did the Burdock Seeds in Patty Wlasiuk's Hair Come From?

“A line in Patty’s diary reads: I’ve been having nightmares, flashbacks because I can’t get it out of my mind that Pete can hurt or kill me,” said Celona.

Ellingsen added, “That would put a chill down my spine if I was reading that.”

Most damning of all, a search of the property around their home turned up several burdock bushes, and one had Patty's hair on it. 

Peter Wlasiuk is arrested

The release of the Accident Reconstruction report cast enough suspicion on Peter that the police were able to block the cremation and arrest him. The report determined that the truck was driving much slower than Peter had indicated to the police, and the driver was in complete control.

Peter claimed that after unsuccessfully trying to free Patty from the truck, he swam out of the driver’s side window to safety. The report thoroughly debunked his story, said Celona, as the force of the water rushing in would prevent someone from swimming out the window. Patty’s body was found several feet from the truck in the lake, leading investigators to believe that Peter had placed her dead body in the truck’s bed with her cell phone after murdering her at their house near the burdock bushes. Police believe he drove to the top of a hill near the lake and hopped out while the truck slowly rolled toward the water.

“To me, he was very arrogant. He had an attitude that he was smarter than other people,” said Ellingsen.

After Peter was arrested, a second autopsy was ordered. This time, a forensic pathologist found zero evidence of water in Patty’s lungs. The official cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to smothering, and the manner of death was now a homicide.

On November 22, 2002, Peter was found guilty of second-degree murder, though he stuck to his story that Patty was drunk and suicidal that night. He appealed his decision and was retried, not once but twice. During the third trial, he was found guilty, and Patty’s loved ones finally breathed a sigh of relief.

"It felt like the family was still under threat. We couldn’t take that kind of pressure anymore,” lamented Wendy on Accident, Suicide, or Murder.

On July 3, 2012, ten years after Patty’s death, he was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to 25 years to life.

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