Man Killer

Did Patty Prewitt pump two bullets into her husband's head? It is a mystery that has lingered for twenty years.

Bill Prewitt dozed in the front seat as his wife Patty drove their Ford Torino home in the pounding rain on a February night twenty years ago. The couple, all-American high school sweethearts, had been out late eating barbecue, dancing at a country & Western bar and playing Atari at a friend's house.

It was about two in the morning when Patty pulled up the long driveway to their two-story farmhouse north of Holden, a western Missouri town of 2,200 residents.

A soft-spoken family man whom his daughter described as so gentle "he couldn't make the dogs mind," Bill went upstairs and found four of his five children sleeping. The oldest girl had spent the night with a friend.

Top: Bill and Patty Prewitt with their five children in 
1979. Six years later Patty was convicted of murdering 
Bill in his bed while the kids slept nearby. She is 
serving a life sentence at the state women’s prison in 
Top: Bill and Patty Prewitt with their five children in 1979. Six years later Patty was convicted of murdering Bill in his bed while the kids slept nearby. She is serving a life sentence at the state women’s prison in Vandalia.
Jennifer Silverberg

Patty says Bill was fast asleep when she came to bed ten minutes later. Outside, thunder and lightning crashed. Thick clouds diffused the light of a full moon.

Within an hour and a half, Bill Prewitt was dead, shot twice in the head with his own .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle.

Patty Prewitt, his wife of fifteen years -- a beautiful 34-year-old who always cracked jokes, volunteered in the PTA and served as president of the Holden Chamber of Commerce -- claimed an intruder killed her husband and attacked her at knifepoint.

Prosecutors said it was impossible to believe that a stranger found Bill's rifle in the bedroom closet and, in total darkness, loaded it with bullets that were stored in the chest of drawers -- and then shot Bill at close range while Patty slept next to him.

The state's attorney argued that Patty shot her husband then threw the rifle into a pond on the family's 40-acre farm. The rifle and her boot prints were found when the pond was drained. Her motive, said prosecutors, was lust and greed. Three ex-lovers testified that she had wanted Bill dead for years. Two of the men said she had offered them thousands of dollars to murder her 35-year-old husband.

After a four-day trial, a Pettis County jury convicted Patty of capital murder and sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years. A week after the verdict, a witness contacted Patty to say that she had seen a man in a white car watching the Prewitt house from a country road in the wee hours of that murderous night.

This same witness told police about the car -- a day after the murder -- but the lead was never investigated. Circuit Court Judge Donald Barnes refused to grant a new trial to hear the evidence.

Since going to prison eighteen years ago, Patty's effervescent personality and persistent claims of innocence have persuaded prison supervisors, cellmates, church workers and at least a dozen state legislators to lobby for her early release, now scheduled for 2036 at the earliest. She will be 86 years old. Family and friends say Patty is the victim of shoddy police work and overzealous prosecutors who cast her as a cold-hearted adulteress driven to murder.

"I did not murder my husband," Patty tells the Riverfront Times in a recent interview at the state women's prison in Vandalia, 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. "I would never have taken Bill away from our kids."

Patty Slaughter met Bill Prewitt in the seventh grade. She was a geeky tomboy, an honor-roll student who rode a horse and lived on a ranch. He was a smart, good-looking athlete who lived in a tidy house with white carpet in Lee's Summit, twenty miles southeast of Kansas City.

When Bill asked Patty out on a date their senior year, she couldn't believe he even knew her name. Patty was tall and thin, a gorgeous woman with long brown hair and sparkling eyes. She was always telling stories in her warm, country accent, talking with her hands and laughing loudly -- very loudly. Bill was quiet and shy. He was only five-foot-seven, but scrappy enough to stand out on the basketball court.

In the summer of 1968, Bill and Patty married and, shortly after, she was pregnant. He had a short-lived career as a teacher but hated it and went back to a job at the lumberyard where he had worked as a teenager. Eventually they built a home near Patty's family and had more kids.

Patty remembers those days as being close to perfect. She tended a huge garden, cooked, cleaned and played with the kids while Bill worked. "Money was always tight, but we all lived in cut-off shorts back then and nobody worried about fancy cars."

Everything changed in May 1974 while the couple was running errands in Sedalia. Patty claimed that in broad daylight three men pulled her into the bushes in a quiet neighborhood and raped her. She never reported the crime. She said she was ashamed.

She told Bill when he caught up with her later that day. At first, she says, her husband was sympathetic and "was so sad and sweet." At the trial, Patty said, "We never told anybody, not even my best friend." Later, she added, "He got more and more distant somehow. He didn't want to make love to me."

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