Book review: Convenient Suspect, by Tammy Mal
Rereading the synopsis before starting this book, it dawned on me that I’d heard of the case, although I hadn’t initially recognized it when I got the book. And I’d never realized it was as complicated as it is. I saw it covered on HBO’s Autopsy, an excellent docuseries (most of which is on YouTube) that explains forensics, medical examination, and how clues from the dead leads to solving the mysteries around their deaths.
Joann Katrinak and her infant son Alex disappeared in December 1994. Her husband, Andy Katrinak, reported them missing, later discovering what appeared to be forced entry in their basement.
The Autopsy segment covering this case was titled “A Fatal Attraction,” and that’s the narrative played up by police and prosecutors. They maintain that Patricia Rorrer, Andy’s ex-girlfriend, couldn’t let him go, and was so enraged by a phone call eight days prior that she’d driven from her home in North Carolina to Pennsylvania to murder a mother and infant whom she’d never met. (Joann, seemingly on edge from a fussy baby and with indications she might be experiencing marital strife, had told her not to call again and hung up when realizing it was Andy’s ex.)
Actually, Patty had been the one to leave him; in fact, she’d left him living in a home with a mortgage in her name. She’d made a good life for herself in North Carolina, and despite a tendency to pick the wrong men, she was beginning a relationship that would lead to a child of her own. She spoke with Andy by phone once or twice yearly, in addition to a brief (weeklong) reconcilation when he was doing contracting work in North Carolina. It seems that she’d moved on and they’d been able to remain friends.
In the Autopsy segment, it’s emphasized that there was weighty evidence to convict Rorrer. Hair was found in the car, alleged to be hers. Despite its natural darkness, they pointed out that it was bleached earlier in videos of the horse competition she’d been calling to tell Andy about. The hair found had a dark root and lighter shaft. That seems damning. It’s one element Mal explores here, and it’s far more complicated than Autopsy indicated.
Mal extensively shows how much evidence was left out, the poor job Patty’s defense did, and the major questions that were left unanswered. One that bothered me most was that the bodies were clearly kept somewhere for around two months before being dumped in the field where they were found. This is clear from weather conditions compared to the bodies’ states. Yet no one ever gives a plausible theory for where, how or why they were stored. How can something immense like that be ignored and someone jailed for life?
Mal’s writing is direct and to the point, but smoothly crafted and engaging. Some of the sections about the contaminated DNA analysis on the hair found in Joann’s vehicle were a little tough to understand, including related testimony and background about the state of DNA analysis in crime back then, but Mal summarizes the important information and highlights what appears to be a major miscarriage of justice.
I wasn’t crazy about her summarizing her own arguments for Rorrer’s innocence in the form of a defense attorney’s concluding statements to the jury. It was a weird construction, but the explanations she gives were convincing nonetheless.
The other drawback was that despite extensive interviews and documents provided by Rorrer, very few others were willing to speak about the case. That’s odd, because if they’re secure in their conviction then why not share the information in their favor? It leaves the book feeling one-sided. But with the bizarre trial transcript, mountains of mishandled evidence, and impartial witnesses who provide some very telling information and were not deposed, it’s absolutely enough to convince that Rorrer was, as the title indicates, railroaded.
Mal provides compelling evidence that seems to indicate Andy’s involvement, which statistically makes sense since most similar crimes are usually committed by a spouse. He had an alibi, albeit not an airtight one, and later remarried and moved to Colorado with a blonde “friend” who lived in the vicinity of where the bodies were found, and who he didn’t report to police when they drove him through that area asking what connections he had to it.
Mal also reports strange details that cast suspicion on his story, like that he gave police a detailed description of what Joann would’ve been wearing that day, indeed almost identical to what she was found in. As Mal points out, “It was quite a detailed description for someone who had claimed to have last seen his wife undressed and still in bed.”
Patty’s alleged motives didn’t make much sense.“If this was a “fatal attraction,” [defense attorney Jim Burke] asked, why didn’t Patty make a move for Andy after the murders? ‘Why didn’t she call him? Why didn’t she come up here?'”
In another case, one where decades later DNA would pinpoint a suspect in an unsolved homicide, the killer was exactly the “fatal attraction” type who couldn’t get over an ex she’d casually dated marrying someone else: Stephanie Lazarus, herself a police detective, drove to her ex-boyfriend’s home and shot and killed his wife, Sherri Rasmussen. The murder went unsolved until a cold case unit retested DNA from the scene.
But Lazarus had documented harassment: Rasmussen had confessed annoyance and concern over Lazarus frequently showing up at her home and work and contacting her husband for trivial reasons.
After the murder, Lazarus rekindled her romance with her newly widowed friend, at least briefly. Eliminating her rival wasn’t all she wanted. Considering how that confirmed narrative went, it casts doubt on this one. (She also gave a truly insane and uncomfortable interview before her arrest which I highly recommend.)
Mal points out that much of what they used against Patty as evidence of guilt applied to Andy too. My biggest question was why the police were so biased against him in favor of Patty, especially considering the partner statistics I mentioned.
Patty’s labeled convenient, but I don’t think so at all. It seems more like they got too deep into it, and had invested too much time, money and effort to refocus their investigation, so they started tampering with evidence to make it fit. Then they got lucky in court despite the prosecutor’s unlikely arguments, which I think the jury bought because of misunderstandings about DNA, still very much an emerging science at trial in 1997.
But, like Patty’s lack of motive for committing the murders, that’s still not really enough motive for me to understand why they zeroed in on her and not the husband. The whole thing is weird.
It seemed no one knew what happened to Joann and Alex on December 15, 1994. Like a child with a sticky ball, the prosecutor threw out one scenario after another, hoping something would stick. The entire case appeared to be based on speculation, yet they were asking a jury to sentence Patty to death on such.
Michael McIntyre, the prosecutor, said in his closing, “Either she’s guilty, or she’s the most unlucky person who ever walked this earth.” I remember the producer said that about Adnan in Serial, too: if he’s not guilty, he’s incredibly unlucky.
This case should scare the hell out of you because it does me. If [Pennsylvania] can bring someone to trial on the flimsy evidence they paraded here, then any one of us could be sitting in that defendant’s chair.
That’s why I think understanding cases like this are so important and it’s excellent that Mal researched and wrote this, and that Keith Morrison likewise tried to debunk some theories about it in his Dateline special from early 2017, “Murder in the Lehigh Valley” (highly recommended to watch after reading, Mal is interviewed too).
This is one in a recent string of wrongfully convicted true crime stories, like two on my reading list, Ghost of the Innocent Man and Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted. Plus other media, well-publicized cases like Syed’s in the Serial podcast, Netflix’s excellent Confession Tapes and Making a Murderer, among others. I’m glad reexamination of fishy cases is happening more, but it’s still frightening, sad, and frustrating to know all this is happening and often these cases can’t or won’t be reopened. I’m wondering what’s next for this one.
Compelling, page-turning read on a case that leaves you with more questions than answers.
My rating: 4/5
I received an advance copy for unbiased review.
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