T H E WAX MUSEUM MURDER MYSTERY

Somebody knew that Patsy Wright, owner of the Great Southwest Wax Museum, took a nip of NyQuil to help her sleep. One night, that somebody slipped strychnine in it. That somebody still hasn’t been caught.

SHE SPENT THE MORNING OF OCTOBER 22, 1987, AS she had the previous two, dancing in a saddle atop Dry Leo, a powerful, aggressive horse that taxed the limits of her riding ability. Patsy Wright, forty-three, had bought the cutting horse for $26,000 a year earlier, and now she was determined to ride him in competitions. Under the direction of Hico horse trainer Bill Alexander, she was making progress in a sport that took not only athleticism, but an ample supply of guts. Only a few months before, Patsy had won a cutting horse contest at the Mesquite Rodeo, an accomplishment that thrilled her as much as donning a Cinderella gown and attending the Crystal Charity Ball, Dallas’s supreme social event.

Blonde, vibrant, “a head turner” with a wide smile and easy laugh, Patsy Wright moved comfortably between the two worlds-the laid-back jeans-and-boots environment of adusty horse corral and the fast-paced life of business and society in the Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth axis. But if the truth were known, she preferred the world of horses, the connection to the Texas her ancestors had known. The grand-niece of legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Patsy had grown up privileged in Highland Park, the daughter of an autocratic oil man whose hobby was studying Texas history.

As Patsy made the two-hour drive in her Lincoln from the tiny town of Hico to her home in Arlington, she probably thought about her pending purchase of a thirty-acre ranch in Aledo, where she could keep Dry Leo and a three-year-old gelding she also owned. That morning, she had made a down payment of $1,500 on a mare she planned to breed. She was about to embark on an adventure she had long dreamed about: living in the country with her horses. Despite well-meaning friends who warned her about living alone in a rural area, she was not afraid. That Monday a Highland Park friend had called to check on her after dreaming that Patsy had been killed by two men. Patsy had just laughed.

Just the same, in preparation for moving to the country, she had bought a gun, a fancy Glock automatic pistol. Nothing-neither societal conventions nor fear-was going to stand in her way.

And, besides, after two divorces and several years of unfortunate relationships with men, Patsy was in love again.

The initial renovation of the house would be expensive-some $25,000-but she could afford it. After all, her business was doing better than ever. In 1987, she expected to clear $150,000; her salary in 1988 would jump to $250,000. As an investor she prized security over growth, but even so, Patsy Wright was easily a millionaire.

The public who flocked to the amusement corridor along the turnpike loved the Wax Museum of the Southwest, the Grand Prairie institution founded by Patsy’s father years earlier and jointly owned by Patsy and her sister Sally Horning. Though Sally had worked longer with the museum, it was Patsy’s business acumen and skill at public relations that had built the museum into more than an old man’s hobby. They had recently opened a wax museum and were planning a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of oddities and curiosities, in San Antonio.

In fact, that night was the kick-off of their most important event of the year, a dress rehearsal of the Halloween Show at the Wax Museum that commingled wax monstrosities and actors dressed in costume: a character named Dr. Blood presided over Dracula, Frankenstein, and other ghouls from the depths of mankind’s subconscious.

Not even in her darkest nightmares, however, could Patsy Wright have dreamed that she was about to become the star-The Victim-in her own horror show. That night, with the dress rehearsal of the Halloween event declared a huge success, she went home alone to the house she was renting until she moved to Aledo. Shortly before 3 a.m., restless, perhaps thinking of her lover and all of the changes she was about to make in her life, Patsy took a dose of NyQuil, as was her habit when she couldn’t sleep.

But the cold medicine was a trap-a killing device as sure and ruthless as a guillotine. The bitter taste hid the fact that it was laced with a massive dose of almost pure strychnine, a poison that puts its victims through sheer hell before it kills them.

The strychnine wouldn’t be discovered until eight days after Patsy Wright’s death. When it was, her family and friends were stunned. Those who knew her instantly dismissed the idea that she had committed suicide. The FBI ruled out consumer product tampering. That left only one option: she was murdered. But who could have wanted to kill Patsy? She didn’t have an enemy in the world, did she?

In fact, as homicide investigators began to look more closely, they found enough suspects, motives, weird coincidences, and creepy phone calls to stock a P.D. James novel. The case soon began to look like a drawing room mystery that could be set nowhere but Texas: those under investigation included the tall, handsome, taciturn horse trainer and his cowgirl wife; the detested brother-in-law with illusions of being a rancher and big-game hunter; the former boyfriend who sported heavy gold jewelry in the shape of Texas and introduced Patsy to cutting horses. And there was her most recent ex-husband, a sleek, bigtime poker player and rival wax museum owner who flashed large rolls of bills and gambled with the high and mighty at the Dallas Country Club.

Investigators began to realize that Patsy’s upbeat nature hid family undercurrents, dark secrets, and strained relationships with former lovers. Greed, revenge, even jealousy could have led to murder. Motives are not enough, however. The police need solid evidence to make an arrest, and in this case, that has been hard to come by.

Eighteen months after Patsy’s death, the clues lead everywhere, nowhere. In April, the family-with the participation of several people under investigation-reenacted the crimes for “Unsolved Mysteries,” the highly rated television show, in hopes of uncovering a clue that would lead to the killer. When that yielded little but crank calls from so-called psychics and armchair sleuths, they hired a flashy private detective, a Texas version of James Bond with a love for cowboy boots and high-tech equipment.

Uneasy, even suspicious of each other, Patsy’s friends and relatives are seeking resolution, They sense her presence- her ghost, if you will. “I feel like she’s sitting up there saying, ’God, Karen, I’m giving you clues, can’t you figure it out?’” says Karen Beattie, who was Patsy’s best friend. Beattie lies awake some nights, going over and over the facts in her head. One thing she does have nailed down is this: whoever killed Patsy Wright knew her intimately.

To Karen Beattie and Patsy’s other friends and family members, that means one thing: they must know the killer as well.



ON THE MONDAY AFTER PATSY WRIGHT’S DEATH. SGT. Jay “Gus” Gustafson of the Arlington Police Department was sitting at his desk when his supervisor slapped a folder in front of him. “Gus, something’s not right here,” the supervisor said. The young homicide detective had only to read a page and a half of the police report for his gut instinct, developed during eight years on the squad, to tell him his supervisor had something. A healthy, forty-three-year-old woman had keeled over dead: no signs of forced entry or drug use, no suicide note, no apparent cause of death discovered at the hospital. People just don’t up and die like this, Gustafson thought.

The report said that shortly before 3 a.m., Patsy made a frantic phone call to the Horning residence. Her brother-in-law Steve answered, and Patsy asked for Sally. “I’ve taken some NyQuil and something’s really, really wrong,” Sally says she heard Patsy’s faint voice say.

Sally called the police department, but because she didn’t know the address of Patsy’s rent house the dispatcher couldn’t send an ambulance. Steve and Sally jumped in the car, in their haste backing into another car, and raced the few miles to Patsy’s house on Holm Oak Street. The front door was locked, and Sally didn’t have a key. She later remembered Patsy telling her that the spare keys she kept over the double oven had disappeared.

So Steve crawled into a small bedroom window Patsy had left cracked and opened the front door for Sally. They both noticed that Patsy’s burglar alarm had not been set. She had put one in after someone had broken several windows; nothing was missing, despite the fact that she had paintings and other valuables in the house.

Patsy, dressed in pink pajamas, was lying as if she had fainted on her king-size water bed. Her eyes were open, but unseeing. Sally called for an ambulance, and Steve later told the police that he moved a table with two plates on it away from the bed and began to administer CPR. Soon the firemen and paramedics arrived. But Randy Jones, one of the Lifestar paramedics who was on duty that night, says there was little they could do. Patsy had no pulse, no blood pressure, and her eyes were beginning to dilate. She was rushed to Arlington Memorial Hospital, where Dr. Tim Williams declared her dead at 4:15 a.m. Before patrolman Patrick Bridges left, he picked up a bottle of NyQuil that he found in her bathroom and dropped it in an evidence bag.

“I don’t know what it is,” Williams told police. An autopsy performed by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office yielded no further clues.

Gustafson had to wait for the results of tests on Patsy Wright’s blood and tissue samples. Eight days after her death, he got a call from Dr. Marc Krouse, the Tarrant County deputy medical examiner. “Are you sitting down?” Krouse asked Gustafson. “I haven’t seen anything like this in twenty years.”

Blood samples fed into a $100,000 machine called a gas chromatographic/mass spectrometer had been compared to the chemical “fingerprints” of more than 4,000 compounds. After eighteen to twenty minutes, the computer read-out had dramatically spiked, and when asked to identify the substance, the computer spat out one word: strychnine. Stunned, Gustafson remembered the police report’s mention of NyQuil. He got the six-ounce bottle from the police evidence room and had the remaining liquid tested. Bingo.

The form of strychnine used to kill coyotes, gophers, rats, and other pests contains less than 3 percent strychnine. But Patsy was killed with an almost pure form of the poison, obtained legally only through chemical outlets to authorized buyers. Only about one hundred companies around the country use or sell strychnine, according to a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result, the poison is rarely seen in homicides. But Gustafson also discovered it was available in some college chemistry labs. Someone could have sneaked into a lab and stolen a small amount. It is also occasionally seen on the black market, where it may be added to cocaine or other illegal drugs to get rid of unwanted associates.

In the absence of any initial evidence that Patsy committed suicide, Gustafson began with the assumption that she was murdered. And as he gathered information on strychnine, he quickly realized that whoever murdered Patsy Wright wanted her dead with a vengeance. Strychnine is deadly in doses as small as a gram, but Patsy probably had ingested far more; the bottle contained enough to kill eight or nine people.

Though called the “lover’s poison,” strychnine is not a gentle killer. Within fifteen minutes of ingestion, victims experience muscular twitching, followed by a sensation of suffocation and a sudden onset of massive convulsions. The head and feet are bent backwards in tetanic spasms and the face turns blue, the mouth contracting in a fixed grin. Each convulsion is followed by a period of relaxation while the victim awaits with dread the onset of the next. Death, ultimately caused by paralysis of the respiratory muscles, swiftly follows three or four convulsions.

A day after the strychnine was discovered, a roundtable discussion was held on the matter of Patsy Wright’s death. Gustafson met with Krouse and his boss, Dr. Peerwani, Tar-rant County’s chief medical examiner; and representatives from the EPA, the FBI, the Dallas Police Department’s intelligence division, and the Vick’s Corporation, which manufactures NyQuil. No other cases of poisoning had been reported from the lot number on the bottle. Gustafson presented his report, and the FBI representative ruled out product tampering. This clearly seemed an isolated attack against a single person, putting the case squarely in Gustafson’s lap.

Stocky, of medium height, Gustafson looks the part of an old-school Texas police investigator; sandy hair and mustache, well-worn boots, Western-cut shirts with pearl-snap buttons and pants held up by a championship rodeo belt buckle the size of a saucer. The bottom line for him- and all investigators-is motive and opportunity.

“Money is a good motive,” he says. “So is revenge, love, hate. Sometimes it’s just anger, retaliation. Who stands to gain by her demise? Who stands to lose if she doesn’t die?”

Gustafson discovered that Palsy had a fondness for NyQuil. Beattie says it began when both their children were small; the young mothers discovered that it was great in small doses for teething babies. Patsy began using it as a cure-all. “I used to tease her about being a NyQuil-head,” Beattie says.

“Everyone I talked to said they knew she took it,” says Gustafson. To him, that meant that the killer had to be someone who knew Patsy intimately and targeted her specifically. It also meant the killer could bide his time.

“When someone can go to the extent of putting a scheme together like this, there’s no sense of urgency,” Gustafson says. “This isn’t rage, or a domestic fracas. This one is just put the stuff in and just walk away. They knew that sooner or later she would drink it.”

AFTER UNUSUAL DEATHS, MOST COUNTIES REQUIRE the medical examiner to complete a physical autopsy of the victim. In Tarrant County, the medical examiner had consulting psychologist Dr. Jo Ann Houts perform a “psychological autopsy” of Patsy Wright. The psychologist interviewed friends and family to “dissect” Patsy’s state of mind at the time of her death. Despite the adamant opinions of those who knew her best, the county officials wanted to know: could she have committed suicide?

Houts’s findings revealed a strong, independent woman who often avoided confrontation in public, but firmly spoke her mind in private. In Houts’s professional opinion, Patsy was a low psychological risk for suicide. She fit none of the criteria. She was under no financial strain. Her health was excellent. She was planning for the future. The day after she died her alarm clock went off, indicating she intended to wake up that morning.

Sally Horning needed no psychological autopsy to tell her Patsy did not commit suicide. “No way would she do that,” she says, sitting on a couch in the house where they shot the “Unsolved Mysteries” segment.

Sally and Patsy grew up in the Park Cities, the only children of Tom and Virginia Bolton. They attended Hillcrest High School because their home was just outside the Highland Park School District.

Virginia was a housewife and Tom a successful, if somewhat eccentric, oil man with a passion for Texas history. In the early Sixties he took a trip to London to see Madame Tussaud’s famous wax museum. When he returned, Bolton went to a family of wax sculptors and commissioned seventy-two original figures. Turned down by two banks whose loan officers had never heard of a wax museum, Bolton finally borrowed $250,000 from Republic Bank in Dallas to fund the venture.

The figures-composed of wax heads and hands attached to steel-frame torsos-were of Texas and Southwest historical characters, mostly gunfighters: Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid. They were to accompany a collection of famous gun-slingers’ weapons first compiled by a Texas lawman and then owned by a gun collector, who wanted to sell them to Bolton because he kept getting robbed.

In 1963, Bolton opened his Southwestern Historical Wax Museum in Fair Park, where it was a big success, especially during the annual State Fair when 12,000 to 13,000 people would see it per day. Bolton later added figures such as Mickey Mantle and Babe Didrickson-Zaharias. During college, Sally and Patsy worked there in the summers.

Beattie, who is now a stockbroker in Dallas, was Patsy’s financial adviser as well as her best friend. They met in a math class at Texas Tech University, where Patsy was dating the man Karen would later marry. After college, Patsy married classmate Bill Wright in 1965.

The two women lost touch with each other for several years, then met again in 1969 when both had moved to Garland.

Meanwhile, the Fair Park area had declined and Bolton’s museum was incurring higher security costs. In 1972, he moved it to Grand Prairie, near the amusement mecca of North Texas, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. In the early Seventies, Bolton, his new wife, Sally, and Patsy all moved to the Arlington area.

Sally had attended Texas Tech for two years, then taken business school courses. Married to an accountant named Lonnie Roberts, Sally had gone to work for her father as a secretary, running the museum office. Patsy joined her in 1973 in the public relations end.

Bolton died in 1976, setting off a vicious inheritance battle between the sisters and their stepmother. Sally and Patsy ultimately won, becoming controlling owners of the museum, but Patsy later told Beattie that she would never leave her financial affairs in disarray, adamant that her own children would not have to go through such a fight for what was rightfully theirs.

Patsy and Bill Wright had prospered in Arlington, moving to a large, colonial-style house on Shady Valley Lane. But in 1980, they divorced. An executive for a department store chain, Bill Wright was a workaholic. After the amicable divorce, he moved to Houston and later remarried. When Patsy Wright died, many were surprised to discover he had been designated the executor of her estate.

Sally and Patsy did a good job of running the museum, but friends say there was an undercurrent of feelings not uncommon between sisters. Sally seemed jealous of Patsy’s good looks and instant appeal to men, telling friends that Patsy allowed men to use her. And Patsy would get impatient with Sally’s unwillingness to stand up for herself. “Sally was an absolute doormat in her first marriage,” says one friend. Sally divorced her first husband in 1981. When the Eighties were getting under way, both sisters were single and looking for new relationships.



THE FINGER-POINTING BY FAMILY members started as soon as Gustafson began his interrogations. Someone would tell Gustafson that he ought to look at so-and-so. Then so-and-so would point right back at his or her accuser.

Aware that Leslie and Wayne, both students at Texas Tech, would inherit their mother’s sizable estate, he had quizzed each as a matter of routine. But they seemed to have had an unusually close relationship with Patsy, who often “mothered” their friends. He asked them to take a polygraph test and they agreed, passing with no problem. So did Bill Wright. Gustafson also interviewed Larry Todd, Patsy’s boyfriend at the time of her death. Todd, who works for a state agency, had talked to her on the phone from his home in Austin the night she died. He was so devastated he told Leslie he could not go to the memorial service, but did end up attending it.

The finger-pointing grew more furious when it was discovered that days after Patsy’s death, Bill and Bonnie Alexander, the Hico couple who boarded Patsy’s horses, had cashed a check she had given them. She had written in the date-the day before her death-and signed her name next to a notation that read “saddle.” The Alexanders had added the word “fees” and filled in the amount: $4,000. The day she died, Patsy had asked Beattie to liquidate some assets in order to make $125,000 available for the Aledo ranch closing, which had been moved up two weeks. When Beattie asked if there were any outstanding checks she would need to cover, Patsy did not mention a large check to the Alexanders. The family grew even more suspicious when they learned that Pat-sy’s expensive horses were in the Alexanders’ names.

The Alexanders had become a major part of Patsy’s life in the previous year. Patsy told several friends that if she “could find a man like Bill Alexander, she’d marry him.” Patsy had bought several horses through the Alexanders and was paying them for board and training. She had spent the month of June living with them, working on her riding.

Bonnie says Patsy gave them the check and simply told them to add up what she owed them for several months’ board and contest entry fees. And the horses were in the Alexanders’ names for another good reason: Patsy didn’t want her brother-in-law Steve Horning to get his hands on them in case something happened to her, Bonnie says.

But family members wonder if the Alexanders might have had other motives. Even though there’s no evidence to support such a theory, they suggest that Bill might have been in love with Patsy and been rebuffed because Patsy didn’t want to hurt Bonnie. Realizing he was about to lose the horses and a large portion of his income when she moved to Aledo, might Bill have poisoned her? Or could it have been Bonnie, jealous of Patsy? Gustafson, in his search for information on strychnine, had discovered that in the past the poison was sometimes used by horse breeders to treat their animals. Gustafson asked each of the Alexanders to take a polygraph; both passed. The trail seemed to be growing cold.

Several months after beginning his investigation, Gustafson got an anonymous phone call. “Did you know that Leo Fikes dated Linda Donahew?” the man’s voice asked.

Gustafson rolled his chair so that he could see detective Jim Ford and raised his eyebrows. Ford had been working the murder of Donahew, a beautiful, sexy Arlington woman who drove a Corvette and ran with a fast crowd. She had been found by her sister in her bedroom, her nude body stabbed through the neck and smeared with swaths of blood. Gustafson knew that Patsy had dated and dumped Leo Fikes. And then there was his business, Fikes Chemical Company. Could he have access to strychnine? Searching through Donahew’s personal effects, the detectives found Fikes’s business card.

“I was wondering when you were going to get to me,” Leo Fikes told Gus Gustafson when he called him in for questioning.

The son of a butcher who ran a meat-processing plant, Fikes also grew up in Highland Park, playing football for Highland Park High School and Southern Methodist University, where he took a number of courses in chemistry, Gustafson wondered if Fikes could have learned about strychnine in those classes.

In the early Seventies, Fikes bought the franchise for the company that became Fikes Chemical. But the company, a restroom sanitizing service that rakes in $1 million a year, has nothing to do with strychnine. Investigators did discover that Fikes had made a purchase in the summer of 1987 at the only outlet that sells strychnine in Dallas. But strychnine was not one of the chemicals listed on the receipt.

Fikes met Patsy in 1981 at the Dallas Country Club, where she was on the arm of fellow SMU alumnus Bob Cox, a successful businessman with a reputation as a high-stakes gambler. Dazzled by Patsy’s beauty and personality, Fikes privately asked Cox where things stood between them. Cox told him “hands off.” After she and Cox later married and abruptly divorced, Fikes asked her out. They discovered they both had a love for horses, and Fikes introduced her to an old hobby of his, cutting horses. Patsy was instantly enamored.

They traveled together, once going to Las Vegas for a cutting horse show. But their relationship faltered over Fikes’s refusal to quit playing the field. Ironically, after a reconciliation. Patsy ended the relationship because Fikes wanted to get married. And after her marriage to Bob Cox, which proved disastrous. Patsy told friends she would never again tie the knot.

Fikes says they saw each other a few times during the summer of 1987, but that things between them were “tense.” Patsy gave him no hope for their relationship. Fikes admits that he was devastated by her rejection, but insists that he did not kill her.

Fikes is not under investigation for the death of Linda Donahew; detectives are satisfied that he dated her only a few times. As for Patsy’s murder, Fikes passed a polygraph test and voluntarily took part in the filming of “Unsolved Mysteries.” But Gustafson says he has “not ruled out anybody” in the investigation of Patsy’s murder, including Leo Fikes.

However, though Gustafson and the investigators with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office will not say so, it’s obvious that the investigation largely has narrowed to two people: Bob Cox, Patsy’s ex-husband, and Steve Horning, her brother-in-law. One apparently tried to save her life. The other had threatened it.



STEVE HORNING MARRIED SALLY IN 1981. They had met when his landscaping maintenance company was doing some work for the wax museum. Patsy, at first, was thrilled. Though Steve was several years younger than Sally, her sister was happy, acting “giddy, like a young girl again,” says a friend. But Patsy’s opinion of Steve soon changed.

Horning now runs a small construction company, Horning-Lockwood, that by all accounts does very little business. His small office is filled with mounted hunting trophies, including a full-size cougar stretched out on the floor, a Dahl sheep, and the huge head of an elk. Asked where he shot the cougar, Homing says: “in the heart.”

He says that he and Patsy had a “good but distant” relationship, a description that brings hoots of laughter and astonished looks from Patsy’s friends and acquaintances, who say she called Steve “a phony” and “plastic.” They say it infuriated her that Steve in just a few years had spent Sally’s inheritance and had gone into debt for that much more playing the commodities market and going big-game hunting. Even on the afternoon before her death, Patsy went into a tirade about Steve, “I don’t want Steve Horning anywhere around me,” she told a friend.

In June of 1987, Patsy, determined to keep Steve from ever owning any portion of her assets, had discussed making a major change in a buy-sell agreement she had with Sally. Each sister had a $500,000 life insurance policy on the other. If one died, the survivor had to use the money to buy out the other’s share of stock, leaving one sister as sole owner. The other sister’s heirs would split the $500,000.

It had seemed a good plan when they signed it in June 1985, but several things had happened since that made Patsy uneasy. The museum stock had escalated in value, but more to the point, Sally was diagnosed as having cancer in the fall of 1985.

Sally and Steve had been having marital problems prior to the diagnosis, but even Patsy told friends that Steve had been extremely supportive of Sally during that difficult period. Still, their parents and two of their grandparents had died of cancer, and Sally’s prognosis was poor. If she died with the buy-sell agreement in place, Steve would receive a half-million dollars.

Sally underwent chemotherapy and her cancer was declared in remission that summer. Both sisters agreed that the buy-sell agreement needed to be changed. They scheduled a board meeting for early November to discuss the changes, but Patsy died two weeks before that meeting. Thus the buy-sell agreement went into effect. Despite Leslie and Wayne’s pleading that she give them their mother’s stock instead of money, Sally refused, telling them mat they were too young and the stock was worth more than it had been when the agreement was signed. Meanwhile, Steve, under community property laws, has claim to 25 percent of the stock. “We’re setting up an ironclad will that will give them the museums upon our deaths,” Steve says. But if Sally dies before Steve, he will own a controlling share of the stock in the museum-exactly what Patsy was trying to prevent.

Did Steve, with or without his wife’s knowledge, poison Patsy? He surprised Gustafson by describing himself as a murder suspect. But Steve took two polygraphs. The first was inconclusive; he passed the second. He has cooperated with the police and the “Unsolved Mysteries” crew. And he endorsed his wife’s idea of hiring a private detective.

Still, there are puzzling discrepancies. Steve says that he gave Patsy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, taking “green liquid” into his mouth and spitting it out. Would he have done that if he knew she had been poisoned? And, if he was guilty, why didn’t he just dump out the bottle of NyQuil, or hide it under his coat?

But Gustafson remembers hearing the tape of the emergency phone call. Sally, talking to the dispatcher, can be heard saying, “You have to blow into her mouth,” as if instructing Steve as he apparently performed CPR. And the paramedics told him that Patsy regurgitated “large amounts of clear liquid” the instant they began CPR. “Nobody successfully performed CPR on this woman,” one paramedic told Gustafson. Had Steve pretended to perform CPR, or had his long-unused skills simply been ineffective?

And there was the matter of the plates. Steve insisted that he moved a table with two plates away from Patsy’s bed, as if Patsy had been entertaining a visitor. Neither the firemen nor the paramedics remembered the table and plates. Was Steve setting up the idea that the murderer had been in Patsy’s room that night, when he could prove he was [ at home with Sally, or did he simply have a better memory than the others in the ensu-ing pandemonium?

And was Steve capable of murdering his wife’s sister, one of her only remaining relatives? Sources say that in 1970, Steve had been arrested and charged with assaulting a woman. The charges were later dropped.

Had Patsy known about the record? At one point, she had a friend run a background check on Horning. She told one friend the report “wasn’t good” and destroyed it. Had she confronted Steve with her knowledge?

Steve and other family members feel they know where investigators should look: at Bob Cox, the plaintiff in a civil arson trial held the first week of June in Dallas.



IN THE COURTROOM OF JUDGE ANNE Ashby Packer, attorney Leo Jordan digs around in a large box and carefully draws out the head of Martin Luther King Jr. He places it on a rail near the jury, then draws out the heads of Harry S. Truman, Booker T. Washington, and several other famous historical characters.

Eerily, the disembodied wax heads, sup-posedly destroyed in a fire, stare like silent witnesses at Cox. But the real silent witness is Patsy Wright, though the jurors will hear little about her during the two weeks of testimony.

It’s day three of Robert W. Cox and Emily C. Cox v. Hartford Lloyds Insurance Company. Cox is suing the insurance company for $400,000 plus punitive damages for its failure to pay his claim after the contents of his wax museum burned. Hartford is claiming that Cox, in desperate financial straits, had the fire set in order to collect the insurance.

After selling his fabric chain to Pier 1 in 1970 for more than a million dollars, Cox became an investor, buying and operating a number of companies with his wife, Emily “Kitty” Cox, and their children. One of their companies was a wax museum that featured all the American presidents. Mounted in 1972 in the State Fair building vacated when Bolton moved his wax museum to Grand Prairie, the presentation presented little-known facts in presidential history.

Cox owned the museum with eight other investors, all wealthy Dallas men. But after an initial year of success the wax museum was, in Cox’s words, “an artistic triumph and a financial disappointment.”

In 1975, he bought the collection for $30,000 from the other investors, who took a tax loss. In 1981, when the State Fair of Texas canceled his lease, Cox began trying to move or sell his museum, even taking out an ad describing a “$500,000 wax museum for sale at a bargain price,”

In January 1981 Cox called Patsy and Sally, asking them if they might be interested in buying the museum. Patsy had the collection’s antiques appraised and made an offer: $14,000. Cox, whose collection was insured for $300,000, was insulted.

But the negotiations didn’t prevent him from asking Patsy out. Though they were separated, Cox was still married to Kitty. Patsy told him to ask her again after the divorce was final.

They began dating several months later, with Patsy at first under the mistaken impression that Cox was officially single again. She quickly fell in love with him. Though he was about fourteen years older than she, he treated her like a queen, bringing her into his glitzy social circle, which included charity balls and parties at the country club.

But Patsy began pressuring Cox to get a divorce. “I can’t very well raise two children and date a married man,” she told him. The Coxes finally were divorced in February of 1983.

On January 17 and 18,1983, Cox and Patsy took a trip to Galveston together. Cox wanted to show her his plans to install a wax museum near the seawall. Patsy told Bill Phillips, manager of her museum, that she was surprised to see the sets, figures, and costumes stacked seemingly at random in the middle of a dilapidated building near the seawall. Cox told her he planned to restore the building and hoped to be ready to open by the time the tourist season started.

But on February 1, shortly after midnight, fires were set inside the building, destroying some of the contents. Cox would later claim that hobos seeking shelter set the fires; attorneys for Hartford would allege that Cox caused the fires to be set, bringing out in the trial that he and his many companies were in dire financial straits.

Patsy apparently knew nothing of his finances when she and Bob Cox married (with a reception at the Dallas Country Club) in April 1983, several months after the fire. But almost instantly-she would later tell friends that it began on their wedding day-Cox changed. No longer the charming, attentive suitor, he became verbally abusive to her and her family.

Though they had agreed to live in Arlington until her children graduated from high school, Cox hated the town. “This is like living on Mars,” he told family members.

But what frustrated Patsy most was the fact that Cox lived off her earnings. She paid for the house, the utilities, the food, everything. Occasionally, Cox would drop several hundred dollars on her dresser, and once he bought a big-screen television for the house. Patsy footed the rest of the bills.

Patsy knew that Cox enjoyed card games; now she discovered that he spent most of his afternoons at the Dallas Country Club, playing gin and poker for big bucks in a room off the 19th Hole club. One museum employee says that Patsy asked him to cash checks for as much as $1,500 for Cox at the museum. “She said these were his gambling winnings,” the employee said.

Gambling had long been a problem for Cox; in her divorce petition, Kitty cited her fear that his gambling would bankrupt the family companies. At his 1986 deposition in the arson trial, Cox told the Hartford attorney, as he was leaving, that he didn’t want to be late for a poker game; “They fine you $500 if you’re late” he told the astonished attorney, who delightedly entered it into testimony three years later.

Patsy realized the end of her marriage was near when the Internal Revenue Service tried to attach her earnings to pay Cox’s tax debts of about $300,000. Cox met the tax agent at their front door wearing tattered clothes, as if destitute. She told friends he tried to have a prenuptial agreement declared null and void; it ultimately prevented the IRS from getting her assets.

Frustrated, Patsy called Kitty Cox. She told friends Kitty gave her the name of a marriage therapist who had counseled her and Bob before their divorce. Patsy told Beattie and several other friends that the counselor described Cox as a “sociopath,” and that she should get out of the marriage.

In April 1984, Patsy and Bob Cox separated, and their divorce was final in October. Patsy told friends that Cox was frantic that she was going to try to get his DCC membership in the settlement. Actually, she told friends, she didn’t care at all about the country club. She simply wanted to be rid of Cox; her shame at being so fooled led her to tell friends she would never marry again. “I can’t trust myself to make a good decision,” Patsy said.

But Patsy wasn’t rid of him. Friends say she told them he began following her, parking outside her house at night, sometimes hiding his distinctive white hair with a disguise. One of Cox’s employees once called Patsy, letting her know that Cox had borrowed her car in order to tail her. Patsy also told friends that Cox threatened to “ruin her.” But the surveillance was something more sinister. She remembered Cox’s telling her, while they were married, that he knew people who could get “anything done,” including having someone “snuffed out.” At the time, she took it as more of his grandiose talking. Now she wasn’t so sure. At the urging of her aunt and sister she installed a security system.

She also got a restraining order against Cox, prohibiting him from coming within one hundred feet of her. By the end of 1986, Cox apparently had stopped the surveillance on Patsy.

In September 1986, Cox’s attorney deposed Patsy for the upcoming civil trial. But it became obvious to Jordan, the Hartford attorney, that Patsy Wright might be able to help his case far more than Cox’s. He met with her eight to ten times in 1986 and 1987 to discuss the value of the property. And Patsy had other information. She knew that one of the most valuable pieces in the collection-an antique chest supposedly destroyed by the fire-had never been moved to Gal-veston at all and was actually in Bob Cox’s Garland office.

Sources say that Cox began to call Patsy, urging her to change her testimony. But Patsy refused, saying simply, “I’m going to tell the truth.” She was killed about ten days before the trial date set for November 1987. Could Cox have decided that, with so much money at stake, he couldn’t afford to have Patsy testify against him?

After Patsy’s death, Gustafson interviewed Cox, who would say little beyond, “I met her, I married her, I divorced her.” He refused to take a polygraph test and would not cooperate with the crew from “Unsolved Mysteries.” Cox also refused to comment for this story.



THE TWISTING TRAIL OF ODD COINCIdences doesn’t end with Patsy’s death. Eleven months after Patsy died, the Wax Museum of the Southwest burned to the ground. Arson investigators ruled that the fire had started at an electrical box; the insurance paid $4 million, not nearly enough to replace the museum, which would cost about $5.5 million to rebuild. Almost immediately, Sally Horning began rebuilding the facility, replacing the western motif with an Aladdin’s palace. She hired a wax figure maker to create an initial collection of 135 new wax characters and added a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not collection of curiosities, which opened in June. The wax museum will open next year.

After the fire, Gustafson received a call from a jailer at the Dallas County Jail. A female prisoner had seen the news reports of the fire and wanted to talk to an investigator about the death of a woman at the museum. Thinking she was referring to Patsy, Gustafson interviewed the woman after she was released from prison. It didn’t take long for him to realize she was talking about another woman, a tall blonde named Lori Williams who had worked as a receptionist at the museum in the early Eighties.

Williams, who was twenty-six, went home sick one day in 1984, doubled over in pain, and was taken to the hospital. Eleven days later she was dead. The cause of death was never determined. The jailed woman, who had gone to prison for possession of a controlled substance, wondered if Williams had been poisoned. She confided to Gustafson that she believed her own husband was poisoning her as well.

Had Lori Williams been killed with strychnine years before Patsy’s death? Gustafson asked Krouse to review her medical records; the medical examiner concluded that Williams’s death didn’t seem consistent with strychnine poisoning. Her body was not exhumed for examination.

Cox won the arson trial and the jury awarded him $1.3 million. The insurance company was unable to establish that Cox had the fire set.

But the Highland Park gossip mill began heating up after the “Unsolved Mysteries” segment; friends say Cox is rarely seen at the country club these days. His acquaintances knew little about the arson trial, and even less about Patsy’s death. Now, it’s the talk of the Dallas Country Club. People there remember a “Murder Mystery” party given by Cox after Patsy’s death. “Bob was the only one who guessed the murderer had hired a hit man,” says one friend.

DeSoto detective Bill Dear began investigating the death of Patsy Wright in early June. Dear, who prides himself on solving cases that stump the police, told the family that his fee would be between $15,000 and $60,000-to be shared by the Hornings, her children, and Bill Wright-but that if it was obvious that there were too few clues to solve the murder, he would cut it short. “It’s worth it,” Leslie says, “if we can find out what happened to my mother.”

But Dear says he thinks the case can be solved. The detective says he has written himself a letter, describing his hunch about who the murderer is and how it can be proved. He’ll go back to it after the case is over to see if he was right.

“Things are too obvious,” Bill Dear says.”I think this is something besides what itlooks like.”

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