Man Killer

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

By the summer of 1976, Patty says she was lonely and confused, and she began having an affair with Ricky Mitts, a tall, dark-haired hippie who lived nearby. Patty says the affair lasted only a few months -- but long enough for her to get pregnant. Desperate to keep his family together, Bill decided to raise the baby, Morgan, as their own.

"He just didn't want anyone to know," Patty says now.

When Mitts testified against Patty nine years later, he claimed Patty offered him $10,000 to kill her husband.

This photo of Bill with his young son, Matthew, hangs 
in the home of Patty’s sister, Mary Longaker.
This photo of Bill with his young son, Matthew, hangs in the home of Patty’s sister, Mary Longaker.
Bill and Patty Prewitt bought a lumberyard in the small 
town of Holden, Missouri.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill and Patty Prewitt bought a lumberyard in the small town of Holden, Missouri.

Bill and Patty's marriage tumbled to its lowest point in the fall of 1976, around the time they saw a for-sale ad in the Sunday paper for a lumberyard in Holden. Bill loved the idea of owning his own lumber company, so he and Patty borrowed $60,000 from the bank and their families and bought the business.

Holden seemed like a sleepy farm town. The lumberyard was next door to the Holden City Hall and across the street from the town's tiny police station. Bill and Patty worked together while the kids played nearby.

"They were the ideal family, something out of Norman Rockwell," recalls Kirk Powell, then editor of the weekly newspaper, the Holden Progress. "She was a very bubbly kind of person. Bill was kind of shy and real quiet, but very nice."

Almost no one in town knew about their marital problems. But for almost a year, they lived separately and, Patty claims, they both cheated on one another.

Two of her relationships were short-lived flings, though another affair with a married man lasted several months. But Patty says neither she nor Bill wanted a divorce. "I didn't want to lose Bill," she says. "He was my best friend, even when I was being stupid."

It wasn't until the fall of 1978 that she says they finally mended their broken relationship. "I started throwing dishes at him," she says. "I knew if I threw dishes in my kitchen, I would get his attention."

She says they screamed at one another until they both broke down crying. Then they swept up the dishes and started rebuilding their life together. "That was the end of me cheating and him cheating."

Like the Prewitts' marriage, things could also get stormy in seemingly peaceful Holden. Teenagers drag-raced down Main, bar fights spilled into the streets after midnight and outlaws stole cars, robbed houses and sold drugs. Once, a bullet broke the front window of the W.E. Prewitt Lumber Company.

"There were people who were proud of their outlaw persona," remembers Kevin Hughes, a former Johnson County sheriff's deputy. "The kids would line up on the main drag so they could run from us and do this Dukes of Hazzard thing."

The mayor of Holden, Don Hancock, proudly called himself Boss Hogg. He drove a Cadillac and wore a white suit and a ten-gallon hat.

Still, no one in Holden worried much about crime. Patty says they left their doors unlocked until a strange man wandered into their house while their daughter was home alone, five months before Bill's murder.

Sarah Prewitt Lewis, now married with two children and living in Lee's Summit, says she was lying in her parents' bed watching TV when the man knocked on the door, then opened it and walked upstairs. "I barely had time to get under the bed," she remembers. From there, she could see his feet as he walked into her parents' closet and then opened the doors on the chest of drawers.

Patty says she reported the incident to the sheriff's office but didn't press charges because she thought the young man, who lived down the street, was mentally slow.

In the following months, the Prewitts began receiving obscene phone calls -- the last one two weeks before Bill's murder. Jane Prewitt Van Benthusen, the oldest daughter, remembers answering one of the calls. The man said, "We're going to fuck like bunnies."

After Bill's murder, officers investigated the whereabouts of the man who had been in Prewitt house. They discovered he had recently moved and was working eight hours away the night Bill was slain.

As business owners and parents, Bill and Patty Prewitt worked hard to make Holden a better community. She organized fairs and parades and volunteered as a room mother at her kids' schools. Bill was president of the city recreation league and coached soccer. When Bill and Patty found out that drugs were being sold at the high school, they and other parents formed a task force.

"My husband always called me Crusader Rabbit because I was always taking on some cause," Patty says now. "I grew up opinionated and he grew up not making a fuss."

Patty was the one who called customers who were behind on their payments, which sometimes ran into the thousands of dollars. Like other small businesses in rural America in the mid-1980s, the Prewitt Lumber Company was struggling financially.

Kevin Hughes, the former Johnson County sheriff's deputy who led the murder investigation, says Patty was upset because Bill let people run a tab even when they owed money.

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