ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) The line on the other end of the phone rang one more time before going to an answering machine. When I heard the beep, the words didn’t come naturally. I honestly had little idea of what to say.
“Hi there, this message is for Diann,” I began. “This is Chris Hurst at WDBJ7. I am calling about your aunt Thelma Lipscomb Lam and the man in prison for her death, Paul Patterson. If you could give me a call back at—“
“Chris!” the woman said on the other line, breathless. “We’re here. We heard you. Thelma’s son is here and he wants to talk to you.”
Then I was on the phone with Tyrone Lam, who just happened to be in the Roanoke Valley, visiting family on a trip from San Diego. I tried to spit it out as quickly as I could. His mother’s killer was being paroled. Tyrone was in disbelief. Even though this first conversation was just on Tuesday, I can’t really remember what he or I said except that I told him what I knew only 24 hours after I found that letter in my mailbox outside the newsroom.
The envelope had no return address, postmarked in Greensboro (which doesn’t count for much anymore,) and had “ATTN: Chris Hurst” on the bottom left corner. Inside was a single sheet of paper, what a law enforcement source later confirmed was a memo drafted for the Roanoke Parole and Probation Office.
“FULL NAME: Paul Edward PATTERSON
RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 27, 2016
History: 2x Convicted Murderer (Stabbing), Prior Death Row to Life Sentences. Arrested and Convicted in 1969 at Age 17.”
Immediately questions began to form: Why was this sent to me? Was this legit? Who else knows about this?
Later Monday afternoon, an official at the Bland Correctional Center confirmed the offender was there and was being released two days after Christmas. A source at Roanoke Police said his release back to a relative's house in the city was being discussed internally. So who did he kill? And why?
It soon became clear through archival searches that he randomly targeted Thelma Lam when he killed her at Wet Pets aquarium and pet store, where she was the only employee on shift the afternoon of September 19, 1969. Her son, Tyrone, remembered when a police officer came to the door-- then more officers, then other relatives. He lived with his older sister, Gina, who now lives in New Jersey.
"And then I think it was Aunt Bea who took me and my sister Gina into a back room and let us know [Thelma] wasn't going to be coming home,” he said.
His mother had a beaming, wide smile and laughed a lot, he said, but there’s still much he doesn’t remember. He was elementary school-age when she died and he later went with Gina to live with an aunt he from then-on called "mom." Years later, he was reunited with another brother and sister that were given up for adoption.
Thelma’s brother Jack Lipscomb said his family grew up poor on a farm in Bedford County growing tomatoes. When she grew up, she was always working hard to provide for her children as a single mother.
"I think that would've been her biggest goal- with her kids. That she could give them more than we had when we were growing up," Lipscomb said.
Newspaper and archive accounts from the time indicate she was a manager of the pet store on Williamson Road when her killer came in, bought some aquarium supplies, and ended her life inside the store. It quickly became a shock around Roanoke and Patterson was shuffled between different psychologists and psychiatrists for mental evaluations. It was mentioned often how he had been accused of killing a woman in Norfolk a few years before, when he was 13, but was not formally charged because of his age. A juvenile and domestic relations court judge allowed him to be tried as an adult, and in 1970, he was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury. That sentence was appealed and later a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, upheld the murder conviction but changed the sentence to life in prison.
But for inmates whose cases are finalized before 1995, a life sentence comes with an asterisk. That’s when parole was abolished in Virginia but offenders sentenced before then remain eligible. A “life sentence” with no additional stipulations generally qualifies an offender the right to petition for parole. It’s something Patterson did for many years, officials with the Virginia Parole Board and Bland Correction Center said. Each time it had been denied, most recently in April, 2015. Then, records show Patterson was denied parole for several reasons including that the Board “considers you to be a risk to the community.” In June, however, he was granted parole, online records show.
Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea is a member of the Parole Board and wouldn’t comment specifically on why parole was granted, saying it went to a vote and he got a majority. While Thelma Lam’s family emphatically disagrees with the decision, their pain and confusion was centered on why they were never notified he was up for parole, never asked to submit a statement to the Board if they wish (as codified in Virginia law,) and never told he was getting out next week to live in his childhood home in Roanoke.
"I just don't like the fact that he's moving back here," Lam said.
"I'm sorry it happened the way that it did,” Lipscomb said. "For me and for the rest of the family too."
I tried getting in touch with Patterson's family online and on the phone but haven't spoken with them yet. The chair of Virginia's Parole Board, Karen Brown, called to explain what happened. She said an attempt to notify Lam's family was made by the Board's Victims Services Coordinator but no next of kin was listed to contact. An investigative effort was made to locate someone but was unsuccessful, she said. Lipscomb said he was asked by the court in 1970 to give contact information in case his sister’s killer came up for parole. He’s lived in the same house ever since. He said Brown contacted him late Thursday night and they talked for a long time. He remains unconvinced enough effort was made to tell them about the latest developments in the case.
We talked about the difficulty of the job and the time that’s gone by since his sister was taken from his family.
“But you found us Chris,” he said. “How long did it take you?”
“About 15 minutes,” I said.