Mystery: Sideswiped

The parking lot looks different.

Everything that I remember from that night seems a little off — the proximity where she died, the spot where I had come out of the restaurant — but I guess it’s pretty common for your brain to scramble traumatic incidents. Watching a woman die in a parking lot seems to fit into that category. But here I am again, standing in the lot at La Stalla restaurant in Newtown, next to a memorial for 34-year-old Heather Demou. It’s been almost two months since she died, but the memorial is still here, wilting flower-stands proclaiming “Mom” and “Sister,” burned-out candles, a waterlogged Bible.

Mike Butler, Heather’s brother, stands next to me. He has a hangdog look about him, one he’s carried since his older sister died. We examine the dashed-off outline of her body; it’s a little faded, but still there. It isn’t the typical chalk body outline you see in the movies. It’s more of a crude hexagonal coffin. Mike stares at it.

“Now, where were you again?” he asks.

I kneel down, try to remember.

Earlier that day, I’d testified in front of a state grand jury as a witness in the inquest into what happened to Heather Demou, whom I watched bleed to death in this parking lot. The facts remain hazy. As of August, no charges had been filed, and the cause of her death, at least publicly, was still in question. What had been reported was that she was accidentally struck in La Stalla’s parking lot by a car driven by her boyfriend, 51-year-old attorney Richard Patton, after they argued outside the restaurant a little after 10:30 that evening. I had come to La Stalla to pick up my girlfriend Kathleen, who was with some mutual friends from our alma mater, Council Rock High School in Newtown. I was in the restaurant for about 20 minutes, to say hello and take Kathleen home. I walked out to grab my cigarettes and take some leftovers — Kathleen hadn’t finished her chicken parm — to the car. That’s when I came upon Heather Demou, dying on the asphalt. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with trying to find the answer to one question.


I ASSUMED SHE’D FALLEN OFF the curb. Maybe she was drunk — these things happen — and my halfhearted intention was to do the courteous thing, make sure she was okay. I walked over, placed the container of chicken parm down on the ground. A man was now kneeling next to her, a stocky guy, with suspenders, neatly dressed, looked to be in his 40s. The woman appeared to be awake, but groggy. Her eyes had a strange film over them. Her hands began to reach toward something.

“Don’t you leave me!” the guy barked.

This was no fall from the curb. A girl kneeling across from me was yelling “Somebody call 911! Does anybody know CPR?” I knelt down and took off my coat; I wanted to put it under the woman’s head. Then I looked at her more closely. Blood seemed to be coming out of the left side of her head. I remembered something about not moving people when they were on the ground. So I held her hand. I looked around, waiting for someone to come and fix this. I knew I couldn’t.

“Come on, Heather!” the man was now yelling. “Don’t do this to me!”

He was trying to keep her awake, but she was drifting. She moved her head to the left and then spat up blood. An odd red trickle ran down from the front of her left eye, like she’d just been sprayed with a water pistol. Her head appeared to be open on the left side, its contents now spilling onto the parking lot. People began to gather around. I just knelt there, watching her die.

“What happened?” I managed to mumble to the guy, watching his shirt become mottled with sweat and red blotches as the seconds ticked, as he wiped the blood from her head.

He was manic, panicked, yet his voice was toneless, dead: “She jumped. … ”

Word had spread, as such word does; people were now hurrying out of the restaurant. I felt their eyes on me, felt they were waiting for me to do something. And here I was, doing nothing, with a crowd watching me do nothing. I let go of her hand, got up, skulked away, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. I let myself believe I wasn’t there. I went back to the front porch of the restaurant, got lost in the gawkers.

I watched the rest of it from there. Even from a distance, you could see how much blood there was — buckets, it seemed — and it was still oozing out of her. The EMTs arrived, too late. They lifted her, and I could see how badly her head was destroyed. Another girl, standing by the stretcher, turned and, horrified, silently mouthed to the crowd: “There’s her brain. …”

And there was my coat, and my leftovers, sitting there stupidly, about to get kicked away by the scrambling EMTs. I hurried down to get my coat out of the way, overwhelmed by a sense of foolishness. How dumbstruck had I acted as this woman slowly died in front of all these people? Should I grab the chicken parm?

As I drove home, my mind replayed the gruesome scene — her cloudy blue eyes, her crooked hand, all that blood — and I got lost. When I finally got home, I sat in front of the computer, tried to distract myself. But the heel of my hand had a red smudge mark. It looks like somebody kissed my hand, I thought. I looked at my clothes for more evidence, homing in on the shirt, the lines, the stitch pattern, the arc of the buttons. There it was: a red droplet, like a small paint splatter. Yes, this actually happened.

Kathleen was in another room, talking to a friend, finding out more of what had happened. This friend, who’d left the restaurant shortly before us, told Kathleen it “looked like she was tumbling out of the car, and it looked like she was pushed.” Later, Kathleen asked me, “Do you think he had something to do with it?”

“Yeah,” I said without hesitation, a little startled by the revelation. “I don’t know why, but I just do.”

THE DAY AFTER, I realized I’d gone to school with Heather Demou. She wasn’t “Demou” then, but rather Heather Butler. I didn’t know her well, but I did remember her vividly as an AquaNetted tough girl who had just transferred in. At 16, she’d recently had a baby. I also remember Heather Butler because she once had a free-swinging, hair-yanking fight with another girl in the middle of the hallway. To this day, it’s one of the best fights I’ve ever seen in my life.

Short and curvy, still with an enormous pile of hair, Heather was a realtor at Keller Williams real estate in Doylestown. Most of the people I’ve talked to describe her as outgoing and friendly, but she did have a palpable edginess about her, the result of a short life that had already included a divorce, young motherhood (she had a son, 18, and a daughter, 15) and a broken engagement. She’d seemed older than her 34 years.

Heather Demou and Richard Patton had only been dating for a little more than three months at the time of her death. Their relationship was no windswept romance. It grew out of the bar scene in Newtown and New Hope, one that, like similar ones in affluent suburban counties across America, is largely comprised of a mix of gym-happy divorcées, 20-something townies who’ve never moved away, and sleazy older men with striped shirts and gaudy watches, going back through adolescence, only this time with a better class of beverages.

Less than a month before Heather’s death, the Solebury police had responded to a 911 call that came from Richard Patton’s home in New Hope a little before midnight. When police arrived, they determined that Heather was “slightly intoxicated” but “unharmed” and drove her to a friend’s house in nearby Buckingham. No charges were filed.    

On the day she died, Heather visited her friend Kathy Landman in Doylestown. Heather had been Kathy’s realtor. It was clear to Landman that Heather’s relationship with Patton was going south. Heather looked diminished, and said she was becoming “very uncomfortable” with the relationship. “There was a stain on her shirt, and she looked like she’d lost some weight,” Landman says. “There were these subtle differences about her that led me to believe something wasn’t right.”

Mary Beth Allen, who worked with Heather at the real estate office, says Heather had mentioned nothing about her involvement with Patton until shortly before she died. In the office one day, Heather was having a tense phone conversation, forced to answer a series of nagging questions: where she was going, who she was with, what time she was leaving work.

“Heather, come on,” Allen said, making a face as Heather hung up. “Are you kidding me with that?”

“That’s what you get for dating a defense attorney,” Heather said, sounding resigned. “Always the third degree, every time.”

But just who was this guy, anyway? In 1986, Richard Patton had been an assistant D.A. hired to handle part of the Bucks County district attorney’s drug task force, bringing a swaggering, streetwise style to the office. A high-school dropout who later earned his GED, he’d served in the Marines and attended Temple law school. In 1990 he left Bucks, moving on to the state attorney general’s office, where he worked narcotics cases until 2001. He then started a private practice in Levittown, which he still has.

After Heather Demou’s death, the Bucks County legal community was, predictably, buzzing. As the facts slowly trickled out, the central question crystallized: Had Heather Demou been an emotionally fragile, damaged woman who had leaped in front of Richard Patton’s car? Or was it more sinister? Could Heather Demou have been murdered?

Talk to people who know Richard Patton, both in his public and private lives, and this much is clear: He doesn’t have a lot of fans. One Bucks attorney sums him up like this: “He’s a dirtbag, in the purest sense of the word.”

The Bucks County Courier Times website has, to this date, more than 300 comments underneath the online version of the original article detailing Heather Demou’s death — an enormous response to a news story. There are pleas from her family for witnesses to come forward, and sweeping allegations about why the case is taking so long to sort out. Amidst all the tragic rubble are quotes about Patton’s character, which range from the chilling to the distressing to the absurd. (“I remembered Rick Patton as a porn star from 20 years ago. … ”) Many of the message-board posts, and many people who’ve interacted with Patton or know of his penchant for nightlife, assume he’s to blame — and say his temper, especially when he’s drinking, is combustible.

 What’s the truth? No one knows — or at least no one’s telling. One early report stated that police believed Patton’s car did hit Demou. But autopsy results seem to suggest she wasn’t struck by Patton’s car. So how did she die? Theories abound. She jumped in front of the car, and fell as he tried to swerve around her. She was inside the car, and was pushed out. She was trying to get inside the car, tugging at the ­passenger-side handle as the car was moving, and she slipped, fell.

The day after Heather died, Patton conducted a bizarre, dreadfully inappropriate (especially for a defense attorney) interview with CBS 3’s Valerie Levesque. Proclaiming his innocence, he stated that he and Demou were “lovers” and that he “really cared for her.” His speech was slurred; he appeared disoriented, wobbly. He backpedaled while trying to explain what happened before the incident: “Things got out of hand … not out of hand.”

Levesque asked Patton if he had been drinking the previous evening. He raised his hand and said, “Stop this now.”

The night before, Patton had reportedly failed a Breathalyzer test. Still, he was never arrested. “If I’m the D.A.,” says a Bucks politico who knows Patton, “and there’s alcohol, a vehicle and a dead body, that person’s going to jail. No questions asked.”

Reached by phone, Patton referred all calls to his attorney, Brian McMonagle. McMonagle has a stellar reputation in the region as a defense attorney, having successfully steered some very major players (Deborah Merlino, Allen Iverson, Vince Fumo aide Mark Eister) through some very major charges. Legal wonks agree he’s the best guy to have on your side in a case like this — especially if you’re guilty.

As soon as a grand jury was convened, McMonagle stopped fielding phone calls. But I did manage to speak to him a couple weeks after Heather’s death. While he said he didn’t have all the details from Patton about what happened at La Stalla that night, he breezily summed up that his client was leaving the parking lot, heard a thud, and realized soon afterward that he’d hit Heather. He added that Patton quickly jumped out of the car and attempted to perform CPR, but it was too late. That’s when I told him I had been there, in the parking lot that night, and didn’t remember Patton doing CPR. McMonagle politely ended the conversation.

A friend of Patton’s who was at La Stalla that night says there didn’t seem to be anything wrong between Heather and ­Patton — that she was dancing and appeared to be having a good time. He says that he and Patton were at a fund-raiser prior to coming to La Stalla, and that Patton was surprised to find Heather at the bar when they arrived. When Patton tried to leave, the friend says, Heather followed him out to the parking lot and attempted to block him from going. The friend says that from what he remembers, at one point Heather tried to climb in the GMC Sierra while it was moving. One witness who testified before the grand jury, the one who had the closest vantage point to the accident, said that Patton was driving off at about 30 mph when she saw Heather tumble. Was Heather attempting to enter the truck, and fell? Or was she pushed?

Many who know Patton seem reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt. One of Patton’s colleagues suggests that even if Patton didn’t do it purposely, his lifestyle was going to catch up to him, and that eventually one of his volatile relationships was going to end badly. “Nobody’s surprised,” he says, “that Rick’s involved in something like this.”

EVERY DAY AFTER Heather’s death, in my quest to find out what had happened, I became more and more confused. It was a constant distraction for me. Sometimes I’d be home, sitting on the couch in a daze, trying to piece together the facts one more time. Sometimes it was all I wanted to talk about: There were always more details, more questions, and more armchair theories about what happened.

All of the unfounded rumors, the facts and the theories about how Heather Demou died that night — why Heather Demou died that night — had begun to burden me with a sense of responsibility that probably wasn’t fair to me or the Butler family or Richard Patton. And that perceived responsibility just made it more heartbreaking. I’d replay her death over and over, seeing her dying, coming to terms with the fact that I’d been kneeling next to the man who was, in some way, perhaps, responsible for her death. I’d told the Newtown police officer I spoke with afterward that I thought there was something amiss about Patton that night. To me, he just hadn’t seemed to respond the way I would — or anybody with a decent heart would — if the woman I was dating was bleeding to death. Maybe he was in shock. Maybe he was sad. Maybe he was angry. Maybe it was malice. Anything seemed plausible.

And it was all getting more complicated. Heather’s father and brother were calling me constantly, frustrated in their own stonewalled quest for answers and pressing me for what I’d found out.

It had become clear that no one in Heather’s family had known anything about her relationship with Richard Patton prior to that night at La Stalla. It was also becoming pretty clear that what they had heard about Richard Patton since her death — the miles of rumors about his lifestyle, his temper, his drinking — had convinced them that he intentionally killed her.

Heather’s father, Duke Butler, is a ­rugged-looking guy with a wild-man’s head of long white hair, workman’s knuckles, and a big smile. He resembles a raggedy Mark Twain. The first night I met him, three weeks after his daughter died, he asked me to tell the story of the incident again. He took notes the whole time on a big white legal pad, writing down names of people, my descriptions, even things that I didn’t think had anything to do with the case. He was almost manic: one minute smiling and laughing, the next angry. When I answered his questions, in uncomfortably graphic detail, about the last moments of his daughter’s life (“What was she wearing?” “Was there a lot of blood?”), his eyes welled up.

We spent close to five hours together. He has a vast array of theories as to what really happened — some completely nonsensical and incredibly libelous — but the reality is, he’s just a father still trying to save his little girl as best he can, even if her life is already over. I understand that. I was beginning to feel that way, too.

He asked how I knew Heather. I told him about going to school with her, sheepishly recounting the story about the fight in the hallway. He smiled, a big, knowing smile.

“She was tough,” he said, nodding as proud fathers do.

THE GRAND JURY investigation into Heather Demou’s death is still ongoing. More subpoenas are being handed out, and the Butlers are lining up their own legal team to prepare for the aftermath of whatever the grand jury decides.

It appeared to me that night that Heather died of a massive head wound. As I recall, that seemed to be the extent of the damage; I don’t remember any broken bones or obvious signs of trauma to her body that would indicate she was, as many local newspapers reported, “struck” by the vehicle. According to one source close to the investigation, her scalp wasn’t broken. Her official cause of death remains a busted carotid artery, caused by a skull fracture and leading to all that blood oozing out of her ears, eyes, nose and mouth. I could have sworn that her head was opened up as well, that there was too much blood for it all to be coming from the inside. That her head had been destroyed, that I saw her brain when she was being put on the gurney. Isn’t that what that girl had mouthed to the crowd?

No, I’ve been told by one official. You were seeing her blood-mottled hair. You only thought you saw her head opened up. It didn’t happen.

The Butlers disagree, and say they’ve seen autopsy photos that show a two-inch gash in the back of her head, plus bruising on multiple parts of her body. They claim that these signs show that Heather was assaulted before Patton even climbed in his GMC Sierra.

After seeing the autopsy photos, Duke called me, furious. “I’ve seen pictures of Heather’s dead body! Nobody has the guts to stand up to [Patton], and I’m intent on taking this scumbag down. Legally. If I don’t, I don’t have a set of balls between my legs!”

He calmed down, thanked me for talking to him so much. “We’re all depending on you to do right by Heather, A.J.”

Could I? After my testimony in front of the grand jury, I had my own doubts about what I saw that night. I also had my doubts about the investigation, for, most likely, no other reason than that I’ve become so immersed in this story that fact, fiction, hearsay, a family’s heartbreak, and the volatile relationship between two people who never should have been dating each other have all converged to cloud my judgment.

The reality is, I still don’t know what happened, and I may never know. Rumors continue to swirl around the courthouse, along with speculation as to whether Patton will be indicted, and if so for what: criminal homicide, manslaughter. Some think he’ll get nothing more than a DUI, thanks to his legal connections, the lack of witnesses, uncertainty about what really happened, and his past with the attorney general’s office.

What I do know is that we’ve all known couples like Heather and Rick: They’re constantly followed by creeping melodrama; they’re seemingly always on the verge of destruction; they always, always fight. I wanted to write this story for selfish reasons: for catharsis, maybe, but more to satiate the nagging, morbid curiosity about how something so random and tragically violent could happen in a town where I believed nothing like this ever happened — at least, not directly in front of me. But in a search for answers about how Heather died, I found only muddled half-truths, which left me with more uncomfortable questions. The initial shock of Heather’s death has dissipated, but an unsettling, ugly feeling still remains. That’ll be there a while.