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Music Minister Is Convicted of Posing As Homebuyer to Kill Austin Woman, Diane Holik
Diane Holik was eager to sell her Austin home to begin a new life, but the potential buyer would turn out to be her killer.
Diane Holik believed she may have finally found a buyer for her Austin home when she opened the door to a stranger on Nov. 15, 2001.
But it would prove to be a fatal mistake. The next afternoon, police found Holik dead in an upstairs bedroom with ligature marks around her neck. The months-long investigation that followed would uncover a string of homeowners who’d narrowly escaped a similar fate and uncover a killer with a violent past.
“He really wasn’t looking for houses, he was looking for victims,” prosecutor Darla Davis told Dateline.
At the time of her death, Holik had been a vibrant 43-year-old known for throwing fun-filled parties and surrounding herself with friends. Recently engaged, she was planning to sell her Austin home to relocate to Houston where her fiance lived, but the slow housing market was putting the new life on hold.
On the afternoon of Nov. 15, 2001, she had been working from home for her job with IBM when she mentioned during a phone call with coworker Cynthia Barajas that a man had just been by to see the house, according to court records.
The man planned to return later with his wife.
“Holik was excited because she thought she had sold her home,” the court records stated. “Barajas warned Holik that she should not let strangers into her home when she was alone.”
During their conversation, Holik realized she didn’t have her $17,500 engagement ring on and stepped away from the phone before retrieving the ring, telling her friend it was “back on” before they hung up around 1:30 p.m.
What happened to Diane Holik?
That afternoon a violent storm was headed to the area. When it was over, Holik’s friends all began checking in with one another, but no one was able to reach Holik.
When she missed a meeting the next day, her coworkers requested Austin Police perform a welfare check. Upon arriving at the property, her neighbor and realtor Lakki Brown let police into the property and they made the chilling discovery in an upstairs guest bedroom, according to the court records.
Holik was lying fully clothed on the floor with ligature marks around her neck. The medical examiner would later determine she died by strangulation. Although there were no signs of sexual assault, there were red marks on her wrists suggesting she had been tied up with zip ties before the killer clipped the ties and took them with him when he left.
Her massive engagement ring was also missing.
Police Initiate Homicide Investigation
Investigators first looked into those closest to Holik, including her fiance Dennis, who openly admitted to having some “ups and downs” during the courtship.
“We ran into some rough spots,” he told police during an interview, according to Dateline. “I mean we don’t fight, it’s just you know everybody carries baggage into your relationships at this age. And our baggage was clashing and we were working on it.”
He insisted he didn’t hurt Holik and provided an alibi, placing him in Houston that afternoon.
One of Holik’s neighbors, cited in the court records, reported that when he was coming home around 5 p.m. that afternoon, he noticed a gold or brown van parked in Holik’s driveway and he assumed it must be a potential buyer for the house.
Investigators Identify Suspect Patrick Russo
Police soon learned that in the months leading up to the murders, other women in the affluent neighborhood reported a man claiming to be interested in buying their home. He told the women he planned to pay cash for a property he planned to live in with his wife, but there was something unnerving about the encounters.
After one woman helped authorities create a composite sketch shared with local media, other women began to come forward, including real estate agents who described a man matching that description only wanting to look at vacant properties.
“The whole time I was showing him the home he was never looking in any room,” real estate agent Melody Blount told Dateline. “He seemed to be more interested in looking out windows than he did the actual room.”
She also noted that he never wanted to walk in front of her during the home tour, which put her on edge.
One homeowner had been so unnerved when the man came to her home for a second time, she wrote down his license plate number and stuck the note on her refrigerator. It would be the clue investigators needed to tie the case together.
They tracked the license plate to a gold van belonging to Patrick “Tony” Russo, a part-time music minister at a local church and singer in a Christian rock band.
Patrick Russo's Criminal Background
Russo had spent time behind bars for several attacks on women, who claimed he got them alone and strangled them.
By the time of Holik’s murder, however, he claimed to be a born-again Christian, was married to a woman he met while in prison and had been released on parole.
Russo claimed he had never been out looking at houses and denied ever knowing Holik.
But one of the women had saved a flier he touched and his fingerprints matched. Many of the women were also able to pick him out of a line up.
Investigators caught another break when the DNA analysis from hairs left on a towel at Holik’s home was unable to exclude him. A DNA swap on Holik’s hand, where the ring had been taken, also appeared to be consistent with a mix of Russo and Holik.
“We can’t exclude him,” Davis explained. “It’s consistent with him.”
It was enough for investigators to make an arrest. Russo was convicted of capital murder in February of 2004.
"He's a predator," prosecutor Robert Smith told the Midland Reporter-Telegram at the time, "skilled at deceit and cunning and finding watering holes of potential victims."
Russo continues to proclaim his innocence from behind bars. “I don’t care how guilty I look, I am innocent,” he told Dateline’s Keith Morrison.