An unresolved death 

Buddy Jo Rishel was born in a man’s body and lived life as a woman. Her death raised questions that a coroner’s inquest never asked. Who was Jennifer Pate, and how did she die?

The cake, embossed with the inscription “Happy Birthday, Jennifer: Party on,” had already been ordered. But nine days before Jennifer Jacqueline Pate’s 28th birthday, she was pronounced dead at St. Patrick Hospital. She had been shuttled to the hospital by ambulance from the shoulder of Pattee Canyon Road, near Takima Drive. Pate had been a passenger in a red, tailgate-less pickup truck with Patrick Lawson and driver Christopher Brown, who were questioned by investigators by the roadside. Detectives would soon discover that the initial story of Pate’s death provided by these two men was a lie, and the circumstances surrounding the incident proved suspicious enough to warrant a juried coroner’s inquest months later—an inquest which would raise as many questions for Pate’s family as it would answer.

On the day of Jennifer’s death, television news crews arrived on the scene before Pate’s family to find blood in the road, a red-tinted brunette wig lying by a sewer grate, and the detached heel of a woman’s boot resting by the side of the curb. In cases of death by unnatural causes, reporters typically have many stock questions for law enforcement officials. But Jennifer’s situation presented a unique question: Do we refer to this victim as man or woman?

Jennifer Pate’s birth and death certificates are filed under her given name, Buddy Jo Rishel. While endowed with male genitalia, Pate had considered herself a woman as long as her family can remember. She wore women’s clothing, simulated cleavage with the use of false breasts and duct tape and used the ladies room in restaurants. Pate lived as a non-operative transsexual—a person who mentally and spiritually disassociates his or her sexuality from the body with which he or she was born. Pate felt she was a woman even though her biological sex was male. She was “non-operative” in that she had not undergone sexual reassignment surgery due to her financial condition. A full sex change costs approximately $100,000, money that Pate, limited to supplemental security income, simply didn’t have. Hence she was forced to live as a woman in a man’s body, an arrangement which made Pate’s life a constant struggle, and which raised yet another question upon her untimely death: innocent accident, hate crime or something in-between?

Renee Pate, a 49-year-old woman with eyeglasses and a raspy smoker’s laugh, slouches forward on the tan sofa in the living room of her trailer in East Missoula with a Pomeranian, Spike, at her side. Renee got the dog after the death of her daughter—Renee always refers to Jennifer as her daughter—in order to have something alive to hold. Across the room, Renee’s reflection looks back at her from a large wall mirror placed behind her daughter’s shrine. The shelves of the shrine hold several porcelain angels, two portraits of Jennifer, two clear-glass vases containing dried roses and carnations from the funeral and, centered on the top shelf, an urn containing Jennifer’s ashes.

“This is what I get to look at every day for the rest of my life,” she says.

Renee is eager to talk about her Missoula-born daughter. While she has talked to investigators extensively about her death, she has had little opportunity to talk about who her daughter was while living.

Renee describes Jennifer as a “vibrant, caring, loving person.” Jennifer loved to travel, and had lived with boyfriends in Nevada, Utah and, most recently, Texas. Upon her many Missoula homecomings, she showed her family travel pictures and helped her mother decorate the house. She also frequently did her mother’s hair and make-up before the two went out for a night on the town together.

“She made me look like a hoochie-mama,” Renee says with a bleary-eyed laugh.

What Renee remembers most are the holidays with her daughter. Jennifer loved Christmas and Thanksgiving—the decorating of the tree (though she once jokingly threatened to burn her mother’s “Furbee” Christmas ornaments), the arrangement of garlands on the windowsills, the cooking of the turkey. Looking at the television set, Renee recalls Jennifer sitting and watching tragic love stories on the Lifetime network, becoming temporarily distraught when things ended badly for the lovers.

Renee says Jennifer was feminine even as a young child. From the age of 2, Jennifer—Buddy, at that time—would ask Renee to put his hair in curlers and apply make-up. He played with dolls. Other parents asked Renee to keep Buddy away from their children.

When Jennifer was 10, Renee sent her to a Christian school for troubled children in Denver, Colo. At the school, the staff attempted to get Jennifer to act more boy-like.

“Social services advised it, and I went along with it because I didn’t know anything about transsexuals,” Renee says. “She did it and it was the biggest waste of five years. She hated me when she came out of there.”

The school failed to change Jennifer, although she did develop a love of opera and ballet in Denver. She returned to Missoula at the age of 15 with her ostracization from other children written on her arms in cigarette burns, but no indelible marks had been made on her belief that she was a woman. In the years that followed, Renee accepted her son as a daughter, and Jennifer forgave her mother for sending her to the school; the “Joker smile”—Jennifer’s own description of her wide grin, which she felt was similar to that of the Joker character from Batman—returned.

Renee says Jennifer was routinely harassed during her brief tenure at Sentinel High School, both verbally and physically. Her brother Donald (the older of her two brothers) frequently defended her. Jennifer was not allowed to dress as a woman in class, though she would still do so after school. Between being picked on and not being allowed to be who she felt she was, perhaps it’s no surprise that Jennifer dropped out as soon as she could, at age 16.

“A lot of it had to do with the way she was treated,” Renee says. “When you’re not treated like you’re a human being, you kind of filter out of the system, you know?”

A devoted daughter, Jennifer tended to her mother when Renee’s rheumatoid arthritis was at its worst, easing her into the shower and dressing her. Renee, along with multiple family friends, mentions Jennifer’s instinctive kindness to people with any kind of disability. Jennifer, they say, would always converse with such a person. She didn’t like seeing someone left out of the social scene because they were different—a feeling she must have known well at times.

When a person dies young, there is often a tendency for family and friends to turn that person into a saint, but Renee openly admits that her daughter was not perfect.

“She was a partier,” Renee says of her daughter’s fondness for watching the dancers at Moulin Rouge or Buck’s Club. Her dream was to go to that ultimate week-long party, Mardi Gras, where Renee told Jennifer she “would fit right in.”

Jan, a long-time friend of Renee who requested anonymity, adds, “She could drink most men under the table—and she collected men the way some people collect dolls.”

Over the years, Jennifer became a skilled fighter as well, due in part to necessity (Jennifer had been physically abused by more than one boyfriend). Renee recalls one particular fight at the Valley Club in Ronan in which a man was about to hit Jennifer’s brother, Donald, over the head with a chair when his back was turned.

“She leapt into action over the table and got over there before the guy could swing the chair,” Renee says. “She kicked the crap out of him, and then his girlfriend jumped on her back.”

Jennifer made short work of the girlfriend as well, for while she typically wore long, blonde feminine wigs and an overabundance of perfume, Jennifer remained a 6’1’’, 200-pound individual.

“She was just like, ‘You don’t mess with my family,’” Renee says.

Vanessa Thompson, a close friend and party-mate of Jennifer’s, thinks back to some of the wild and weird things Jennifer did to make people laugh. She retells the tale of the day of Jennifer’s half-sister’s birthday. Jennifer and Thompson went to Fantasy Video in Missoula to pick up gag gifts. They drove around town for the rest of the day wearing plastic glasses with penises on the bridge of the nose, drawing odd looks like magnets attract metal shavings. The day culminated with a trip to Taco Bell, glasses on.

“We’re like, ‘How much is it?,’ and the guy was like, ‘It’s…uh…,’ and then he just fell over laughing. He had the entire Taco Bell staff come and check us out. He said, ‘You know, that’s so funny because we get so many people that are just rude. It’s not every day that you get somebody who can just make you laugh.’”

While it’s common for transsexuals to keep to themselves, Jennifer was, by all accounts, extremely outgoing.

“She talked to anybody and everybody,” Renee says. “She was just really a people person, and she had way too much trust in people as far as I’m concerned. She just trusted everybody. She was pretty special. She didn’t stay in a group like the other transsexuals did. No way. She was right out there in public, man, and she didn’t care.”

Jennifer was often sad because she couldn’t be the woman that she wanted to be. At the time of her death, she was looking into taking hormones or receiving breast implants. While relatively little has been documented about transsexuals like Jennifer, a leading expert on the phenomenon, the Netherlands Brain Institute’s Dr. Louis Gooren, has conducted the most complete study of transsexuality to date. Using eight brains donated by deceased transsexuals, Gooren found that the hypothalamus, a small hormone-producing section of the brain that differs in males and females, was closer to the female version in the male-sexed transsexuals, and vice versa. While more research is needed to eliminate variables, the study may be an indicator that transsexuals like Jennifer do not “choose” to be transsexual. Rather, Gooren’s study suggests that the chemistry of the brain directs sexual identity.

Renee Pate has a video sitting on a bookcase in her living room, taped off of the Learning Channel, that explains all of this. But she isn’t ready to watch it yet. Jennifer’s death is not far enough removed; it was still not so long ago that her daughter posed in the doorway of her house, dolled-up for an evening on the town, wearing her Joker smile.

“Have fun,” Renee said.

“I will,” Jennifer replied.

Those four words were the last this mother and daughter would share.

In the brisk dawn of March 15, Jennifer Pate was rushed to St. Pat’s, alive but not fully conscious. From the shoulder of Pattee Canyon Drive, Christopher Brown had called the police while Patrick Lawson, who was covered in blood, performed CPR on Pate. Lawson and Brown told investigators that they had found Jennifer in this condition by the side of the road.

In fact, the two men had met up with Pate at Harry David’s bar, adjacent to Southgate Mall, earlier that night, and several witnesses had seen them together throughout the course of the night and on into the morning.

Detective Richard Stepper was in charge of the investigation, and his 12 years of experience told him early on that the men were lying about how Pate came to be in the road. Stepper, a crew-cut detective who could easily win a staring match, spoke with the Independent in one of the police department’s barren interrogation rooms.

“We interviewed them again and let them know that this was B.S. We need the truth,” Stepper says. “And at that point, they provided us with the version of Jennifer falling out of the back of the vehicle, and that they were with her in the evening.”

Stepper says the two men told him they had lied originally because both are long-haul truckers, and because they had been drinking (though neither of the men, nor Pate, was legally drunk); they were concerned that they might lose their commercial driver’s licenses.

“It took hours of investigation for them to change their story,” Thompson says. “I mean, right there, that sets off a…a…something. If you were so innocent and someone died, you don’t care about losing a license.”

The second story that Lawson and Brown provided to Detective Stepper went as follows: The three left Harry David’s around closing time at 2 a.m. They then stopped at Blue Mountain to drink beers, 4B’s Crossroads for breakfast and McCormick Park before heading up Pattee Canyon. After McCormick Park, they said, Jennifer asked to ride in the back of the truck. As they drove at approximately 20 miles an hour, Jennifer asked for her jacket, which was later found inside the cab of Brown’s red pickup truck. Then Jennifer either stood up or scooted toward the back of the truck (the two men’s testimonies differ on this point), which had no tailgate, and somehow fell out. Brown then stopped the truck and called the police on his cell phone while Patrick performed CPR.

That is the outline of events that Brown and Lawson presented before a jury at a coroner’s inquest in Missoula on Aug. 13. The inquest transcript shows that the two men were not questioned by Deputy Missoula County Attorney Dale Mrkich on the variation in their account of the moments prior to what they described as Jennifer’s fall, a fact that troubles Mona Bachmann of Missoula’s Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality.

“You don’t have to accuse them or come to any other conclusions, but what does it mean that one said that she stood up in the back of the pickup right by the back of the cab and then just disappeared and went over the edge, and the other says that he watched her scoot down the back of the truck, which he described in detail?” Bachmann asks. “That’s really quite different. Why didn’t anybody ask more about that?”

“I just think that two people perceived what they thought happened differently,” Mrkich says now. Stepper agrees.

Pate’s family has a number of questions that they feel should have been asked, but were not, at the coroner’s inquest. One such deals with a bandana which was found inside the cab of Brown’s truck.

Jennifer often wore a bandana over her wig, which she attached with bobby pins. The wig was found in the middle of the street, a half-block down the hill from Jennifer’s body. That the bandana was found in the cab of the truck raises suspicions among Renee Pate, Vanessa Thompson and Jan.

All three women state that Pate would never take her wig off in public, that like most transsexuals, she was very careful about not “blowing her cover.” If the wig blew off her head in the back of the truck or during her fall, they wonder, then why was the bandana in the cab?

Patty Moderie, a friend of Pate’s who was with her at Harry David’s just hours before her death, says that once Pate’s wig and bandana were “done,” it was rare for her to make changes.

“She hadn’t messed with it at all that night,” at the bar, says Moderie.

The bandana in the front seat was not mentioned at the coroner’s inquest. Detective Stepper says that he did not talk to Lawson or Brown about how the bandana came to be there.

“I don’t necessarily know what the relevance of a bandana is,” he says.

Stepper was able to determine, however, that a seven-foot long mark in the road by the scene of Jennifer’s fatal injuries was made by her boot heel, which later broke off.

“I want to know how her heel was dragged seven feet if she fell out of that truck,” Renee says.

At the inquest, the Missoula Police Department’s Civil Crime Scene Technician Barbara Fortunate testified on the arrangement of on-scene evidence, starting from the bottom of the incline and going up, the same direction the truck was traveling. Uphill from the wig and a false breast, Fortunate testified to finding “the beginning of the drag mark, the end of the drag mark—then the heel itself.” In other words, the drag mark started downhill and went seven feet up the slight incline.

When Mrkich asked Fortunate what that suggested, the technician replied, “Well, just using my own common sense, either he (Jennifer was referred to as he, or Buddy, throughout the inquest) was attempting to hang on and he was dragged and then let go, or possibly a portion of clothing became lodged on the pickup truck and then gave way.”

Both Mrkich and Stepper say that Jennifer’s clothing was not ripped when police arrived on the scene.

Asked if he ever received a reasonable explanation of the heel drag, Mrkich says, “Other than the guy fell out feet first and then pitched forward, no.”

In this case, as Renee Pate points out, “pitching forward” would seem to mean that Jennifer was going in the opposite direction to that in which Fortunate testified the heel mark ran. The following is an excerpt from the Independent’s interview with Deputy County Attorney Mrkich:

Mrkich: “Well, don’t you think the momentum is going forward?”

Independent: “I’m having trouble visualizing someone falling out of a truck and then dragging a heel seven feet uphill.”

Mrkich: “Well, what do you think happened?”

Independent: “I’m not trying to speculate.”

Mrkich: “I mean, I’m not understanding. As near as I could tell, based on everything that I heard and based on what the witnesses said happened and what the medical examiner said probably happened, the person went out of the back of the vehicle, hit feet first and pitched forward onto his head.”

Independent: “I guess I’m just having trouble understanding where the seven-foot uphill drag comes into that equation.”

Mrkich: “Well, if you hit on both feet I suppose you could have two drag marks, or if you hit more on one foot than the other, you could just have one, you know?”

Asked about the heel mark, Stepper responds, “I think there are a lot of things in this investigation—there are certain aspects of it that we can’t explain with absolute certainty. When you look at investigations such as this, what I had was evidence on the ground, two eyewitnesses, a victim and nothing else. I had nobody else to tell me anything…there are many scenarios and many reasons that that scrape could be there. Was it because Jennifer stepped out, Jennifer fell out, or was it because Jennifer was thrown out, I can’t say that. There’s no way to answer that.”

“That’s all we heard, even from experts,” Renee Pate says. “‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’”

Stepper says that he understands that the lack of an explanation is exasperating to Pate.

“I know that I did everything that I could for Jennifer’s mother,” he says. “Not because I’m a detective or any other reason, but because I think she’s a great person and I truly believe she deserves the truth. And I did everything I could do to possibly find that truth for her…And if she feels I’ve failed her, then that’s okay. But I really wanted to do as much as I possibly could for her to get the truth.

“When I got this investigation, my belief was that there was foul play,” Stepper says.

Part of what changed his mind, and what gave him confidence in the second story that Lawson and Brown told, was that the second stories were virtually identical, and the two men had been separated since they had given the first story.

“I put more credibility into that because they can’t make up a lie standing there talking about it and keep it together, so what’s the chances of them actually telling another story and having it [be] the same thing? So that does lend some credibility to what they’re telling me.”

Jennifer’s gender identity was explained to the jury by Mrkich in his opening statement, but no questions dealing with the matter were asked. Mona Bachmann, along with Renee Pate, considers the fact that Jennifer was referred to as “Buddy” and “he” throughout the inquest as “disrespecting the dead.”

The name that was used, Mrkich says, “was a decision that I made based on my obligation to identify the person that we were talking about. And I think the name on the death certificate and birth certificate was Buddy Jo Rishel. I think that this person’s gender was male, and I had to make sure that everybody understood that that’s who we were talking about.”

“Clearly both [Lawson and Brown] had been coached only to refer to her as him and to him as Buddy,” Bachmann says. “But Christopher slipped up a number of times and said ‘she.’ It’s bizarre for Patrick to be up there saying ‘Buddy this and Buddy that’ when he knew her as Jennifer.”

Bachmann believes that the name used at the inquest is more than just a matter of politeness, however.

“Her gender identity and the revelation of it and who knew what when may be very relevant to how she died.”

Lawson, presumably, was aware of Pate’s sexuality. The two had had sexual contact in the past, according to Lawson’s testimony. Brown, on the other hand, did not know, though, according to Stepper, “he had his suspicions.”

Co-chairman of Missoula Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Karen Loos says that, to a jury, there’s a big difference between three men out drinking, and two men with one transsexual riding in the back of a truck.

Neither Lawson nor Brown could be located by the Independent. On the stand, however, Lawson testified that Pate had told her that night that she was pregnant and believed the child to be his. Of course, it is physically impossible for Pate to have been pregnant. Pate’s friend Vanessa Thompson explains that this was something Jennifer would frequently do when she thought her “cover was getting blown.”

“It’s bad to lie and all, but her being insecure about who she was, that was just a way for her to cover her ass, basically,” Thompson says.

At the inquest, State Medical Examiner Gary Dale testified that there was no evidence to discorroborate the account presented by Lawson and Brown. When questioned by juror Nancy O’Connell, though, Dale said that the injuries Jennifer sustained could also have occurred if she came out of the cab of the vehicle, as opposed to the back. Dale was the final witness called. No witness who was a friend or family member of Jennifer’s—including Patty Moderie, who was with Pate a few hours before her death—was called to testify at the inquest, unless one counts Lawson and Brown her friends.

The jury consisted of seven people—six older men and women and one younger woman. In a coroner’s inquest, the jury must decide if a criminal act has occurred. Mrkich provided four criminal charges to consider: deliberate homicide, mitigated deliberate homicide, negligent homicide, or accountability for conduct of another.

After deliberating for approximately half an hour, six jurors signed a document stating that they did not believe a criminal act had occurred. One juror did not sign. In a coroner’s jury, unanimity is not required, so the six-person ruling meant that Lawson and Brown would not face criminal charges.

One juror who signed the decision agreed to discuss the deliberations with the Independent, but asked that his name be withheld.

“It was mainly the lack of any criminal action,” that convinced this juror. “The coroner said the scrapes on his body were consistent with what he would’ve gotten with the speed the guy said he was going. That was the main reason for me.

“We never viewed it as a hate crime. I don’t think anybody even mentioned that from the gay community. But it may be, but there was no evidence of it as far as we were concerned. There were only two jurors that questioned it much. One of the questions was that they said they were talking to Buddy through the window, and then when [investigators] took a picture of the truck, the window was closed at the crime scene—or at the scene, not the crime scene—and that was a good question and nobody could really explain it.”

The juror says that there was no discussion about the heel mark on the road.

“I’m sure the family wants more answers, but from what they presented to us, there was just no criminal act with the evidence that we had.”

Indeed, the family does want more answers, and is considering filing a civil suit aimed at finding them.

Detective Stepper says that, unfortunately, many of the answers that the family is looking for may never come.

“I’d like to say that this is absolute truth, we can write it in a book and in a thousand years people are going to say, ‘You know, that’s it,’ but I can only go off the information I have.

“There’s a difference between what I think may have happened or what I feel may have happened and what I can prove, and I’m not able to prove any of those other theories. I just can’t.”

Sitting in the living room of her blue and white trailer (oddly enough, it’s a “Buddy” brand), attempting to keep Spike the Pomeranian in check with one hand, Renee Pate asks a question that no one can answer: “How can I put closure to this?”

While she won’t go so far as to say that she thinks Lawson and Brown murdered her daughter, she does believe that they were responsible for her death.

“They got away with killing her. That’s how it looks to me,” she says quietly. And then, with a solemn force: “And I will never rest until I think justice is done.”

Clearly, the events of March 15, 2003, did not impact only Jennifer Pate.

As Renee explains, “Michael [Renee’s 17-year-old son] will not discuss it. If you bring it up, he just goes ballistic. My father, Herbert, was an alcoholic. But then when I called and told him that Jennifer had been killed, he completely lost it and he died June 28. He drank even more. This has torn our family up. My son, Donald [Kibler], was doing really well not drinking, and now he’s drinking all the time.”

Kibler, also, will not discuss Jennifer’s death.

“My two boys are as macho as you can get, but it’s been hard on them,” Renee says. “I talk. They keep it inside.”

Renee, her friend Jan, and Jennifer’s friend Thompson, who is the mother of Donald’s 5-year-old daughter Savannah, are all concerned as to what action Kibler may take if he ever runs into Lawson or Brown.

“He’s on the hunt for them, basically,” Thompson says. “And he doesn’t care if he goes to prison.”

Stepper says he has been notified by Renee that “Donald wants to rough these guys up.”

“I would never say that someone should go beat these people up,” says Stepper. “I think that’s an inappropriate response to anything. But I don’t blame him for being angry. If that was my daughter in the back of that truck, I would blame Patrick and Christopher, because, emotionally, I need somebody to blame. I need some way to explain this. And my anger is going to get pushed somewhere, and if that’s the direction it goes, that’s the direction it goes. He can be as angry as he wants. Deal with it productively, but be as angry as you want.”

The idea of “needing someone to blame”
infuriates Renee. It makes her feel as if others are saying that the unanswered questions of her daughter’s case are all in her head.

Asked how she would respond to someone who would argue that she is merely looking for a reason other than “just a horrible accident,” Renee hesitates for a moment.

“You really want to know?”

A second passes as her brow furrows and her jaw juts out sharply.

“Fuck you. I know my kid and I know in my heart that it’s all a bunch of crap. Because I’ve got a lot of common sense, and my common sense tells me, ‘No way, un unh, absolutely not.’”

Over 100 people showed up for Jennifer Pate’s funeral—a testament to the social nature of this outgoing individual. If there is any silver lining to the tragic end of Jennifer Pate’s story, it’s that Pate may have an impact on Missoula even after death.

“Michael, who is 17, has changed his way of thinking about people,” Renee says. “And so have his friends. That’s a start. If we can educate the young, that’s a start.”

More than anything, Renee wants people to remember her daughter not as a transsexual, not as a tragic death, but as a human being—a person who was searching for a mate who would love and accept her for who she was, just like anyone else in the world. Nowhere is that painful struggle more obvious than in Pate’s two final journal entries, excerpted below—both unsent letters to a Texas boyfriend written on her final journey back to Missoula, about one month prior to her death:

“It’s been only five hours since I said goodbye and my fear of never seeing you again keeps going through my mind. Writing on a bus ain’t easy. I don’t want another man. It’s you I love and want to love for the rest of my life if you want me to. You said today that I deserve better. But what is better? If you love someone, you fight for it and don’t get discouraged. You just pick up and carry on. I felt it wasn’t fair for you to say who or what is best for me. Let me make up my own mind and let me choose who’s best for me. K? I was kind of hoping you would have yelled ‘Don’t go, I love you.’ Is that stupid or what?…Your mom and dad are right about a lot of things and they have never steered us wrong. I never knew how much they loved me and you and I see that now. Boy, I was sure blind not to see that they just wanted us to be safe and happy. You and I are going to be OK one way or the other.”

Here the journal entries come to an end—an on-paper closure that Pate’s family can find no way to duplicate in their daily lives.

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