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A love of square dancing brought together two couples in Texarkana, Arkansas — but when they swapped dance partners, the next step was murder.
Patricia Ann Phillips was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1954. Good-looking and charismatic, she made a positive impression everywhere she went.
“Patti was just a beautiful, giving person,” friend Phyllis Nabors told Oxygen’s “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. “She could do anything. She never met a stranger.”
She attended the University of Delaware and later Texas A&M University. After college, she got a job with the Department of Human Services in Texarkana, often working with seniors. Then, in Texarkana, Patti met and started dating Ray Wheelington. He was 59 and she was 35, but despite the age difference, they fell deeply in love and were married in 1989.
Though a Yankee by birth, Patti loved living in the South. Ray was passionate about square dancing and his young wife took to it with glee. The couple joined the Guys and Dolls Square Dancing Club, which had over 100 members. Its weekly dances became the center of the Wheelingtons’ social life.
“Ray, he was the caller. He got up there so she was like the belle of the ball. She’d walk around and visit and talk and make sure everybody was comfortable,” acquaintance Kindra Kennington told producers.
The Wheelingtons’ house became the unofficial headquarters of the Guys and Dolls Club, with the couple hosting cookouts and gatherings. However, a fire in 2009 badly damaged the home. The couple turned to fellow Guys and Dolls Club member James Hyatt to oversee repairs. James and his wife, Virginia, became close friends with Ray and Patti after the project came to an end.
However, tragedy would soon strike. Ray’s health took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 at the age of 81. He passed away in November 2012, leaving Patti a widow at 58.
The Wheelingtons never had children and Patti had quit her job to take care of her husband, so Patti filled her days with volunteer work and remained active with the Guys and Dolls Square Dancing Club. Those amiable days were numbered, though.
On the afternoon of Dec. 3, 2013, Patti was scheduled to take friend Ken Caldwell to the doctor but never showed up, so that night, Nabors went to check on her.
“Nobody could find Patti. We kept calling, leaving messages. She never returned anybody’s call so around 5 o’ clock we got concerned,” Nabors explained to producers.
When they arrived at her home, they made a terrible discovery.
“Patti was dead. She was laying right at the front door. She was so cold and swollen, I knew she had been there for a while and there was not going to be any reviving her,” said Nabors.
An autopsy would determine Patti Wheelington died from five gunshot wounds fired at close range. The wounds hit her in the chest, arms, and back, according to court documents. A .38 caliber slug from a stray shot was found in her bedroom.
Her murder had been sudden and brutal. “She was in a position where she was clutching her chest with her one hand and then her right hand was laid out with a cigarette still in her fingers,” former Texarkana Arkansas Police Lead Detective Paul Nall told producers.
All the signs pointed to a crime of passion.
“There was anger in it. This person wanted her dead and wanted her dead bad,” Texarkana Arkansas Police Detective Jason Haak told “Snapped.”
Neighbors reported hearing a flurry of gunshots around 8 the morning of the murder. Detectives also learned ugly rumors were floating around the Guys and Dolls Square Dancing Club, claiming Patti was having an affair with James Hyatt.
After 40 years of marriage, James had recently filed for divorce from Virginia. Both he and Patti had recently been out of town at the same time, which led to gossip and speculation.
James was eventually reached at his sister’s home in Florida. He denied having a romantic relationship with Patti but agreed to talk in person with detectives when he returned to Texarkana in a couple days.
Detectives next talked to Ken Caldwell, who was on the phone with Patti on the morning of her murder. He claimed Patti got off the phone when she saw Virginia pull into her driveway, according to the Texarkana Gazette newspaper.
“She just said, ‘Virginia’s here again. I’ll call you back,’ and hung up immediately,” Haak told producers.
Detectives also learned Virginia had recently been trash talking Patti at the Guys and Dolls Club.
“She made some disparaging comments about Patti and saying that Patti was flirtatious,” Prosecutor Stephanie Barrett told producers.
During her interrogation, Virginia denied having anything to do with the murder of Patti Wheelington. She claimed she had been picking up food at McDonald’s at 8 a.m., the time gunshots were heard at the Wheelington home, and spent the next hour with her mother at her nursing home.
However, surveillance footage from McDonald’s showed Virginia arriving much later — at 9:30 a.m. — leaving plenty of time for her to drive to Patti's home and back. Detectives also learned her visit with her mother had lasted a brief 12 minutes, website TXK Today reported in 2016.
In reviewing Virginia’s phone records, detectives found hysterical messages she had left on Patti’s voicemail a week before the murder.
“Patti, please, please give me my husband back ... this is horrible. I need my husband back. You can get you any man in the street anywhere. Please!” she was heard sobbing in audio of the messages obtained by “Snapped.”
When James came in for his interview, he admitted he and Patti had been having an affair but that he had hid it to protect her reputation. It started in 2009, after Ray began to suffer the effects of his dementia. James claimed his marriage to Virginia had been on the rocks for years, saying they slept in separate bedrooms and the only thing they still had in common was the square dancing club.
“James even said he locked his door at night for fear of Virginia. It’s hard for me to imagine a grown man being that scared of his wife that he would lock the doors,” Nall told producers.
Around Thanksgiving 2013, Virginia even told James’ sisters she was scared her husband was going to kill himself. James and his family feared Virginia planned to murder him and make it look like a suicide, according to TXK Today. Afraid for his life, James filed for divorce and fled the state.
“He begged Patti to go with him to Florida and be out of town because he was afraid of what Virginia would do when she received the divorce papers,” Barrett told producers. But Patti refused.
James also confirmed Virginia owned a .38 caliber revolver and told detectives she was "a lot better shot than (he) was," according to court documents.
At the Hyatts' home, police found the shirt Virginia was wearing in the surveillance footage from McDonald’s. It tested positive for gunpowder, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported in 2018. .38 caliber shells were also found in the home, thought the murder weapon was never located.
Virginia Hyatt went on trial for the murder of Patti Wheelington in Feb. 2016. After deliberating for less than an hour, a jury found her guilty of capital murder and sentenced her to life in prison without parole, local CBS-affiliate KSLA reported at the time.
Now 72, Virginia Hyatt is currently incarcerated at the McPherson Unit, a women’s prison in Arkansas.
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