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February 23, 1991. Arizona businessman Dan Willoughby and his family were on vacation in Las Conchas, Mexico. Dan’s wife Trish stayed behind to take a nap, according to Snapped on Oxygen, while Dan and the kids spent the afternoon touring the coastal community. When Dan and his three children came back to the vacation home, the kids found their 43-year-old mom with her skull crushed and a butter knife sticking out of one of the fractures. She had been beaten and stabbed, and she was grasping for life. Not long after, she was dead.
Dan told Mexican police that over $400 in cash and two rings were missing from the scene. The crime scene appeared to be a robbery gone bad. This murder is the subject of this week's Martinis & Murder podcast.
The child of Mexican farm laborers, Yesenia Patino was 6 years old when her family immigrated to the United States in 1962. She hustled men in bars and on the streets, and she occasionally supplemented her income by shoplifting. She lived all over, but by the late 1980s, Yesenia moved to Mesa, Arizona, near her family. According to Yesenia, she and a friend were waiting on a bus when she met Dan Willoughby.
“I start unwrapping the Reese’s peanut butter cup and walking the street,” she said. “All of a sudden I saw this car driving by, a Jaguar.”
Driving the Jaguar’s was Dan, a successful 50-year-old businessman. Dan worked as a sales manager for a international air freight company. Trish Willoughby, Dan’s wife, was even more successful than he was.
She and her mother ran a lucrative herbal supplement company, with over a million in sales.
Dan saw Yessenia drop the candy wrapper to the ground, so he jokingly reprimanded her for littering. Then, he offered Yesenia and her friend a ride,and drove them to a mall. When he dropped them off, he gave Yesenia his number, and offered to buy her a drink sometime. When he met Yesenia for drinks a few days later, they discussed some business: Dan’s company had a lot of contacts in Mexico and he was trying to acquire other business contacts south of the border. So, he wanted to learn Spanish.
Just few weeks after they met, Dan invited Yesenia to meet his family.
“Dan takes me to his house and introduces me to his kids as his Spanish teacher,” said Yesenia.
But she was a lot more than just his teacher. They began seeing each other frequently and Yesenia even accompanied Dan on a few trips to Mexico. Dan was able to give Yesenia a lifestyle that she had never experienced. Soon, she moved to a nicer apartment right down the road from the Willoughbys, and Dan’s wife foot the bill.
“Dan had me living up within a half mile from where they lived, where their actual house was. He would take the kids over there in the afternoons to swim in the pool so the four of them would be out by the pool and Dan would have his Spanish homework papers and he would be basically studying Spanish.”
Despite learned Spanish but Dan’s quest for Mexican business was too little, too late. In July of 1990, his job at the airfreight company came to an end. But, he still paying Yesenia’s bills and traveling with her. Trish began to resent paying for everything.
“She couldn’t even find him on the cell phone. She could never find him anywhere and I kept telling her, ‘Trish something is going on there’s something wrong here. Why, why can’t you get in touch with Dan?” said Thera Huish, Trish’s mother.
In the fall of 1990, Trish went looking for her husband. The first place she looked was at his “Spanish teacher’s” apartment.
“She walks in and goes straight in the bedroom tried to turn the light on switch on and saw Dan putting his shirt on. She didn’t see me because I got, I got, I hided.”
Yesenia said that later in the day, Dan called her and said, “Yesenia, my wife is coming to talk to you. If she say something about you and I just deny it. Just tell her that you’re my Spanish teacher.”
Yesenia said Trish came over the next day and approached her, saying, “My understanding Yesenia is that you’re going out with my husband.”
Yesenia denied it and even volunteered to stop tutoring Dan if it was causing problems in his marriage. But, Yesenia and Dan continued to see each other.
In February of 1991, the Willoughby's went on vacation. They headed to the beachside resort of Las Conchas, Mexico and on the afternoon of February 23, Dan loaded the kids in the car for a trip to a nearby museum. Trish stayed behind for a “nap.” She was still in bed when Dan and the kids piled out of the car after their trip to the museum. Dan told his children, “Go on and tell your mom what, what you saw at the museum.”
Instead, the kids found their mom in bed, with a pillow over her head, covered in blood.
The Mexican police took a few Polaroid pictures of the crime scene. They didn’t have proper equipment to do forensic evidence and fingerprinting at the time. Items were strewn around the apartment, and it looked like a robbery. But immediately, after the murder, detectives back in Arizona began getting some interesting tips.
Detective Joseph Ruet recalled, “We received numerous calls from people telling us, ‘I can’t believe he finally killed his wife.’ And I said, “Who?” “Dan Willoughby, I can’t believe Dan Willoughby finally killed his wife.”
Several tipsters claimed that the Dan they knew had been cheating on his wife for years. Apparently, when Dan was still employed, he would often use the office restroom and come out smelling like strong cologne. He would say he was going to Digital, one of the companies they did business with. Everyone knew when Dan said he was going to Digital it meant he would be with a woman for the rest of the afternoon. Plenty of callers provided police with the name of Dan’s current lady friend. Dan was starting to look kinda guilty: It became known that upon Trish’s death Dan would stand to inherit Trish’s position in her business and gain millions by the death of his wife. A little digging from police revealed that Dan paid the rent for Yesenia’s apartment, her monthly dues at a local health club and put money in the joint checking account the couple shared. He also went with Yesenia to get engagement pictures shot. He bought a set of his and hers diamond rings, and he and Yesenia were engaged to be married. They had been engaged in the fall of 1990, when both Dan and Yesenia had assured Trish that their relationship was nothing more than student and teacher.
Detectives brought Dan in for questioning and he at behaved like a grieving husband, at first. But when detectives inquired about the money he stood to inherit due to Trish’s death, his composure changed. According to detectives, when the issue of finances came up, he was notably perspiring. Dan acknowledged that he would gain several million dollars from Trish’s business assets and life insurance. But, he also insisted that he was happily married. He denied that he was having an affair with anyone.
Police also questioned Yesenia. When they asked for her ID, she gave them her social security card. It said Alfredo Patino. The only piece of information police learned was that she had gotten a gender reassignment operation in the 80s.
At a later date, officers took Yesenia to the police station for questioning. During a search of her purse, police found what they believed to be Trish’s missing rings. In the interrogation room, Yesenia denied being involved in Trish Willoughby’s murder, but she did admit to being in Mexico, partying with friends on the weekend of Trish’s death. And, she said she bought that ring from a man that she didn’t know on the beach on the day of Trish’s murder. Yesenia had a shoplifting warrant from an adjourning jurisdiction, so Mesa police ended up arresting her on that warrant. While incarcerated, the police called Trish’s mother in for a positive I.D. on the rings they had found in Yesenia’s purse. She confirmed they were in fact her daughter’s jewelry.
On March 4, investigators flew to Mexico to conduct their own investigation of the crime scene and they discovered fingerprints on a Coke bottle in the kitchen.
On March 5, Yesenia was released from jail without restrictions. That same day, the Arizona authorities returned from Mexico and sent the crime scene evidence to the lab. Turns out, the fingerprint was from Yesenia Patino. Police had everything they needed to charge Yesenia with Trish’s murder -- except Yesenia. She had run off.
Trish’s family blanketed the border with posters offering a reward for information leading to Yesenia’s capture. They bought advertising space. They put ‘missing posters on the sides of buses and they kept Yesenia’s picture in the news. And a cross border love triangle with millions at stake was an easy sell for the media.
In December of 1991, the media exposure finally paid off: Crime Stoppers got a phone call from someone who saw Yesenia working in a bar in Mexico.
“I was working there and had a good time there but I was afraid,” said Yesenia. “I was afraid that, that I would, I would get arrested sooner or later.”
She was soon arrested in a crowded cantina in Matzatlan.
“I said, ‘Yes, I’m ready to face the law.’”
In a detailed confession, Yesenia told police that it all started three months before the Trish was killed, when Trish confronted her about the affair. Yesenia said she gave Dan an ultimatum at that point: her or Trish. Yesenia claimed Dan had agreed divorce his wife. But, he came up with an alternative plan a few days later.
“He start telling me on our way to the gym about murdering his wife. I said, ‘No Dan, we can’t do that. Divorce her.’”
Yesenia eventually agreed to the murder plan, once Dan promised he would use the crime’s payoff to move to Mexico with Yesenia.
Dan said, according to Yesenia, “Yesenia, I can’t do it myself. In order for us to be together forever you going to have to help me.”
Yesenia claimed her job was to sneak into the vacation house and make Trish’s death look like a robbery. She said Dan had murdered Trish earlier by bludgeoning her in her sleep.
“Once he hit her, he left with the kids like a go out for a tour or something and I go in and see that she’s covered up from head to toes, a lot of blood around the walls.”
Yesenia did admit to stabbing Trish in the head. But, according to her, it was an act of mercy. She said she could hear Trish moaning, so she tried to finish her off, by putting a butter knife into her temple.
The day after Yesenia’s confession, Dan was arrested.
In April of 1992, Dan Willoughby’s murder trial began, and by May the jury found Dan Willoughby guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death. Following Dan’s trial, Yesenia returned to Mexico and pleaded guilty to murder. She expected to be granted leniency because of her plea, but a Mexican judge sentenced her to the maximum - 35 years in prison.
In 1995, three years after the murder case was closed, Yesenia Patino penned a letter to the judge who had sentenced Dan to death. In it, she claimed that she murdered Trish all by herself, and that Dan Willoughby had nothing to do with it. Arizona authorities flew to Mexico to interview Yesenia. According to her new story, she had snuck into the house after Dan had left with the kids, then bludgeoned Trish to death.
“I was upset with that because the ring that it was bought for me,” Yesenia said of writing the letter. “It was never returned to me. They kept it as a state evidence. They also, they, they didn’t help me in getting released like they told me that I would be.”
In November of 1999, a judge overturned Dan’s conviction, agreeing that his attorney had done a poor job representing him. Dan faced a new jury and this time, the prosecution didn’t seek the death penalty because they said they could no longer rely on Yesenia’s testimony. Dan’s new defense team had hopes for an acquittal when his second trial began in 2001.
But rather than recant her previous testimony as everyone expected, Yesenia told the same exact story she told at the first trial.
“My sister said to me, ‘Please Yesenia, say the truth, speak on with the truth. Don’t make up things, don’t lie, don’t, uh; let them, uh, for Dan to be release. He doesn’t deserve to be out Yesenia.’”
So, Trish said again that both she and Willoughby participated in the murder of Trish. A forensic scientist testified that blood spatter at the scene was consistent with Yesenia’s original testimony and not the letter: the forensics indicated that Trish’s body had endured two attacks at two separate times.
The jury found Daniel guilty, again. He received two consecutive life sentences consecutive.
Trish’s mother wrote Yesenia a letter, telling her she forgave her for what she did.
“Because I think she was a victim, just like everybody else.”
“It is nice to know that she has nothing against me,” said Yesenia. “She says that Dan is where he belongs to be, and that she feels sorry for what I’m going through.
Yesenia Patino is serving her 35-year sentence at the state prison in Hermosillo, Mexico. Dan Willoughby is serving two life sentences and he maintains his innocence. Trish’s brother raised the Willoughby children, who are now all adults.
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