Patty Inez Brightwell was born August 17th, 1964. She had what seems to be a pretty unremarkable, ordinary childhood. She enjoyed singing and had a fun social life. A few years after graduating highschool Patty settled down with her boyfriend Jerry Ray Vaughan, known to most simply as JR, and the pair married in 1985. JR had slicked back hair and a thick dark mustache. He was a good provider, working as a construction contractor and foreman.
The couple welcomed their daughter first, followed by two sons. By all accounts, Patty was a loving and wonderful mother. In an interview, her sister Jeannie states:
“She was the kind of mother who did everything for her children. She made them clothes, she made curtains for the house, she did everything. Even for me. She was like a second mom to me.”
Outwardly, the Vaughns seemed to have it all together. They had a nice home and Patty was able to be present for her children as a stay at home mom.. They were actively involved in their church, and Patty was a star member of the choir. Life seemed good! But by October of 1996, the relationship had fallen a bit out of favor, and the couple decided on a trial separation.
Patty told friends and family that she had grown increasingly frustrated by JR’s controlling behavior. According to these reports, he didn’t allow her work, he demeaned her regularly, and there was even suspicion of violence when some people noticed bruises that Patty couldn’t explain. After 11 years of marriage, the couple agreed to a 6 month trial separation and JR moved out of the family home to lease an apartment in nearby San Antonio.
With her new found freedom, Patty was thriving! She picked up a part time job that she loved, and she even very slowly began dating an old flame! Before Patty met JR, she briefly dated a man named Gary. Things were getting pretty hot and heavy with the two, but Gary’s ex came back to let him know she was pregnant, and so wanting to do the right thing Gary broke it off with Patty to raise his family. Now, all these years later they both found themselves single and were enjoying getting to know each other again!
But not everyone would consider them both single…. Patty came under some scrutiny when a church member saw Gary and her having lunch at a Dairy Queen and found it to be improper, since she was technically a married woman. This created a bit of a rift in the church, some people even taking it upon themselves to call Patty out about it in public while others defended her.
The rumors about the relationship circled back to JR, and as you may guess he was not happy. But the couple was good so far about being amicable for the kids, and the holidays began without a hitch. JR, the kids, and Patty all went to their annual church service together as a family where Patty sang her heart out, and they enjoyed a moving evening together. After church, JR parted ways with plans to spend Christmas day together at the family home. Patty and the kids met up with Gary, and the fiver of them went to Patty’s relative’s house for a lovely Christmas Eve. Patty’s family seemed to LOVE Gary, and they were all full of hope and excitement for her future.
The plan the next day was to have a family holiday at the home with JR, then afterward Patty’s aunt would watch the three kids so that Patty and Gary could see a movie. They said goodbye, see you tomorrow, having no idea that this was the last holiday they’d ever spend together.
The next day JR came to the house as planned, but by his own admission it did not go well. The couple argued extensively over Gary and the message that Patty’s newfound relationship was sending to the children and the community. JR thought her behavior was improper and irresponsible, and he told Patty that if she didn’t stop he would divorce her, take the house, and take the children. JR says the arguing got so bad, that Patty spent most of the day crying, locked in her room. At some point, JR has his sister come get the kids so that he and Patty can continue to talk things through.
According to JR, the couple continued to argue so much that Patty needed a break and stormed out of the family home around 6:30 pm on Christmas Day 1996. She gets in her messy mom mini-van and leaves the driveway. No one has seen Patty since.
The next day, December 26th 1996 Patty’s boss happened to be driving around town and noticed her 1991 Dodge caravan parked on the side of the road with a flat tire. This was extra notable for him, since he swears it had not been there when he drove by only an hour and a half prior. Since Patty was scheduled to work, he called the office to check on her and see if everything was ok, but Patty of course had never made it to work that day. Her boss immediately called her emergency contact- her legal husband JR. He said- hey let me help out with this car situation, can you bring me her keys? JR’s response gave me chills.
He tells Patty’s boss- sorry buddy. I can meet you halfway but that’s the best I can do. I’m on my way to file for divorce. According to JR this was his last ditch effort to scare Patty into abandoning her relationship with Gary.
Meanwhile, when no one in the family had heard from Patty her cousin filed a missing persons report. For the family, the most concerning factor was her children. One relative had spoken to Patty on the phone Christmas morning, and though she claimed to have a cold, she clearly had been crying. Another attempted to visit, only to be turned away by JR, saying that Patty was not up for visitors due to their arguing. But the fact that Patty would send her children out of her room, or even out of her HOUSE on Christmas day to be with JR’s sister was incomprehensible to Patty’s family. She’d have done anything for her children, and they do not believe that Patty would’ve put any discussion of relationships ahead of making their holiday special.
Searching began immediately, with many local people in attendance to volunteer their efforts. This included Gary, who was reported to have been very distraught. Not in attendance was JR, who stayed at the family home with the children. This did draw some speculation, and JR would go on to make many more decisions that would lead people to question his level of concern.
Investigators began with the car. There’s a lot to unpack about what they found. For starters, the car was in nearly pristine condition on the interior. Anyone who has kids can tell you that’s simply not how it goes, and Patty’s family says her car just was not that clean regularly. When the detective bent down to get a closer look at a reddish brown spot toward the back, he noticed his knees were damp with a murky brownish water. They also recovered a plastic covering on one of the seats, with a reddish brown condensation on the inside. All of this made investigators contemplate whether someone had tried to clean blood from the car, and samples were sent for analysis.
No prints were found in the car, but there was a pair of work coveralls like a plumber or mechanic may wear which had the initials JM. But perhaps the scariest discovery was not in the car, it was in the tire itself. The tire had intentionally had its air released.
Patty’s family was left absolutely reeling with the sudden knowledge that Patty had most likely met with foul play.
Boyfriend Gary was certainly an early suspect. But being Christmas day, multiple members of his extended family were able to confirm that he was there. Similarly, Gary eagerly ran directly to the police station and offered a polygraph. And as I mentioned before, he eagerly participated in the searches.
Husband JR however had a lot of circumstantial evidence that was beginning to add up. As mentioned he didn’t participate in any of the searches. One relative even reported that she gave him flyers to distribute with the kids, and when she returned days later to retrieve Patty’s personal effects for a reference for the search dogs, the flyers were still in a pile completely untouched.
Turns out, JR had requested his landlord to cancel his lease early, even though he’d signed it not long before. He stated that he’d been moving out in December. But JR had an answer for everything, and this was apparently because he felt his new neighborhood was unsafe. JR instead moved back into the family home the day after Patty went missing.
Rather than cooperate with the investigation, JR lawyered up and refused to submit DNA or comply with a polygraph exam. When investigators came to the home with a warrant, they attempted luminol and other analysis of the home, trying to identify if it was a possible crime scene. But the event turned into a bit of a circus when JR’s sister’s persistent hounding of the crime scene technicians caused a lot of trouble.
Nevertheless, the test areas lit up, revealing a positive test. However, bleach also causes a positive reaction in a luminol test, so they had to do further tests. Those further tests did reveal at least some of the blood to belong to Patty, including spots in the tub and on a mop in the garage AND in the van. Someone had clearly cleaned blood up, and why that has never been enough to arrest JR has been hotly debated. The fact is, without a body, it just wasn’t enough in the tough state of Texas.
Family and investigators did have a moment of hope in the search for Patty’s remains when they got a lead about the Natalia High School in the nearby town of Divine. You see, JR had been in charge of the foundation pouring as the school was built. Techs came in and used ground penetrating radar to search for abnormalities in the concrete and they found them. Holes were bored and cadaver dogs were brought in, but they didn’t indicate, and the results were officially deemed “inconclusive.”
So where do we go from here? To hear Patty’s family tell it, the investigation wasn’t handled properly and needs a second look. Jurisdictional differences, miscommunications, and potential crime scenes that were maybe contaminated all have left the family feeling frustrated and hopeless. But most of them staunchly believe that Patty’s estranged husband is responsible for her disappearance. In fact, in 1997 Patty’s mother broke into JR’s home at 3am and attacked him with a baseball bat. She was charged with burglary and assault, and was released on $50,000 bond. I think on behalf of mothers everywhere I say- I get it.
JR had Patty legally declared dead in 2005 and attempted to collect her life insurance money. Patty’s mother responded with a wrongful death lawsuit, and it was settled that the money would be put in trust for the children. JR moved away, legally changed his name, and Patty’s kids have not had a relationship with her family since her disappearance. For the family, that has been the hardest part.
In 2008, cold case detectives in Bear County where Patty’s car had been found took a closer look. Though JR still remains their primary suspect, they came to the conclusion that it was unlikely JR acted alone, and that he may have used up to 3 accomplices to help him dispose of Patty’s body. Further compounding this theory was a new bit of evidence that came to light when the samples were reanalyzed in 2012. While some of the blood in the van was positively identified as Patty’s, there was also DNA from another unknown female source. Police say they have suspicions on who his accomplices may be but they will not release them publicly.
Patty was last seen on December 25th 1996 in La Vernia Texas. At the time of her disappearance she was 32 years old and would be 57 today. Patty was approx 5’6-5’7” and 120 lbs. She was caucasian with curly light brown to sandy blonde hair. Foul play is suspected in her disappearance, and unidentified accomplices likely know what happened to her. It’s time for someone to talk. If you have any information in the disappearance of Patty Brightwell Vaughan, please call the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office at 210-270-6070
Disappeared by Investigation Discovery