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Bernie James survived the horrors of the Vietnam War and the death of his first wife before meeting and marrying Patty Donahue. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t survive their marriage.
Bernard "Bernie" James was born in Washington D.C. in 1949 and grew up in the Maryland suburbs, the oldest of nine children. Following high school, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and ended up serving two tours of duty during the Vietnam War.
“He wouldn’t talk about Vietnam very much but I do know it had a profound effect on him,” son Michael James told “Snapped," airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
Bernie returned to Maryland in the 1970s and joined the fire department. While responding to a medical emergency, he met his first wife, paramedic Lisa Jane Paul. They had three children in three years, Michael, Irene, and Nicholas. Tragically, Lisa died in 1980 after suffering an aneurysm.
Two years later, Bernie was working dispatch at the fire station when Patty Donahue called and struck up a conversation. Soon, she was calling every day just to talk to him.
“He’d been a widower for two years now and was having a hard time raising his children so a woman expressing interest in him was appealing to him. She seemed nice. She really seemed to like us,” said Michael.
Patty had grown up in Silver Springs, Maryland. When she was a child, she had facial surgery to remove a large tumor leaving her disfigured. By the time Patty met Bernie, she had already been married twice. Having started their relationship over the telephone, she worried he would find her unattractive in person but he could see beyond her appearance.
Patty moved in with Bernie and became a surrogate mother to his three young children. It was a huge relief for the single father and they would marry in 1982.
Within a year of getting married, the Jameses abruptly moved to Wilton Manors, Florida to be near Patty’s family. Bernie became a park ranger at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, north of West Palm Beach.
On the night of March 24, 1987, an urgent call came into the Wilton Manors 911 dispatch center. 37-year-old Bernie James had been found dead in the front seat of his car.
“There was blood inside the car by the center console, there was clear trauma to the right side of the victim's head. The victim also had ligature marks around his neck,” former Broward County Sheriff’s Detective Randy Goldberg told “Snapped.”
Patty told detectives they had just gotten back from the grocery store. Bernie wanted to change the oil in their car and stayed outside while she went in to put the groceries away. She claimed she later saw Bernie talking to a Black man who had asked for a light. She didn’t recognize the man but gave detectives a thorough description.
“He was approximately 6 feet tall, in his 20s, spoke with a French accent, was wearing a light-colored shirt and dark-ccolored pants,” former Miami-Dade Police Detective Pat Diaz told “Snapped.” “She said she went back inside the house. Approximately 20 minutes later she came back outside the house and that’s when she found Bernie inside the vehicle.”
Patty worked with an artist to come up with a sketch of the suspect, while Officers canvassed the area — but found no other witnesses who had seen the man she described.
An autopsy the following day determined that Bernie had died from asphyxiation, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The lack of defensive wounds indicated that Bernie was taken by surprise. Detectives didn’t think he was killed inside the car where he was found as there wasn’t enough room to strangle him and there would have been more blood due to his head wound.
Detectives examined Bernie’s car and determined an oil change had never been performed. Patty’s story didn’t match up with the evidence.
Investigators spoke with Bernie’s parents, Dolores and Bernard James Sr., who said he had rushed into his relationship with Patty in order to find someone to take care of his children. They claimed Patty immediately drove a wedge between them and their son.
“Patricia had told my dad, ‘I’m the woman of the house now. Care for me. Care for your children. Don’t care for other people,’ and so he kind of stopped helping out his parents,” Irene James, Bernie’s daughter, told “Snapped.”
Irene explained she never saw her father and stepmother be physically affectionate with each other. Instead, they often fought and got into screaming matches.
After not speaking to his family for several years, Bernie called Dolores in the fall of 1985. He said he was going to divorce Patty and move home with his children.
“Dolores had said approximately six months prior to the murder she received a type written letter, supposedly coming from her son, that he had been drinking and he had been abusing Patricia. And she felt that was kind of odd that he would send her a typewritten letter,” Diaz said. Bernie’s parents believed that Patty had actually written the letter and sent it to them.
Patty James was brought in for questioning on April 8, 1987. When confronted with the inconsistencies in her story, she dropped a bombshell.
“The detectives asked Patricia if there was anything else she had to say. She paused for a second, she lowered her head, and said that she knows who killed her husband,” Diaz recalled.
Patty said the killer was Timothy Ott, who knew the Jameses from their bowling league. She said Ott witnessed Bernie abusing Patty and wanted to protect her. She claimed that on the night of the murder, she and Bernie went to Ott’s home to discuss the bowling schedule. She said Ott killed Bernie while she was in the bathroom and that she was too scared to tell the police.
Detectives asked Patty to take a polygraph test but she refused. Though they were certain she was involved in Bernie’s murder, they had no evidence with which to charge her and she was released.
Timothy Ott was brought in for questioning. He said he had never met anyone named Bernie and Patty James but he recognized their photographs.
“He goes, ‘Wait, what? That’s Booth and that’s Demi, that’s how I know them, they’re in my bowling league. Demi’s a friend of my fiancé, T.J.,” former Palm Bay Detective George Santiago told “Snapped.” “He goes, ‘Booth was married to my fiancé T.J. and she told me he’s an abuser.”
Ott said that “T.J.” was a stewardess and lived in Texas. They had never met in person but started a phone relationship after “Demi” introduced them. Ott said he and “T.J.” planned to marry and help raise her three children from her marriage to “Booth”: Michael, Irene and Nicholas.
"T.J." told Ott that “Booth” had physically and sexually abused their children and was about to obtain visiting rights. After discussing it with “Demi” and “T.J.,” Ott decided to murder “Booth.” On the night of the murder, "Demi" brought “Booth” to Ott’s apartment where he struck him in the head with an aluminum baseball bat and strangled him to death, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
It was only after speaking with detectives that Ott realized that “Demi” and “T.J.” were the same person: Patty James, and that “Booth” was her husband, Bernie.
On April 10, 1987, Timothy Ott was formerly charged with first degree murder, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Authorities were only able to charge Patricia James with accessory after a murder. While investigators worked on building a murder one case against Patty, they learned she was also a con artist.
“One of the scams that Patricia did was she went and told everybody her son Nicholas was deaf. She tried to raise money for Nicholas and for the family,” Diaz explained.
Investigators also discovered that Bernie had a $145,000 life insurance policy which Patty was the sole beneficiary of. They believe that she decided to have him murdered after learning that he was planning to divorce her.
On June 8, 1987, Patricia James was arrested for first-degree murder in the death of her husband, Bernard James. When questioned by detectives, she claimed she had a multiple personality disorder and couldn’t remember the murder or her involvement in it.
In exchange for testifying against James, Timothy Ott was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. In January 1989, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to the Sun-Sentinel, and has since been released.
In Nov. 1988, Patricia James was found guilty of first-degree murder, according to the Sun-Sentinel. She was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 25 years and died in prison in 2018.
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