First Lead in Patrick Ryan Case in 17 Years
HOWE TWP., Pa. (EYT) – Pete and Debbie Ryan have been holding out hope for a break in their son’s case that started as a missing person and ended in the discovery of his decomposing body in the woods in Howe Township, Forest County. Seventeen years later, somebody says they know what happened to him.
(Photo above: Patrick Ryan at Bonnaroo Music Festival. Date unknown.)
This is Part Two in a series covering the 2005 disappearance and death of Patrick Ryan. Please see Part One linked at the bottom of this article.
Apprehension is the best word I can find to describe the feeling you have when you’re about to call the family of a murder victim for the first time. The initial call is the hardest part. You don’t know how the person on the other end of the phone is going to react. A hundred questions flash through your mind, with the first one being, “Am I about to inflict pain on this family by dredging up old wounds that may have healed by now?”
This is how I felt when I dialed Pete Ryan’s home phone number in late August. I was relieved when it went to voicemail.
“Hi, Dr. Ryan. My name is Gavin Fish. I’m a reporter from exploreClarion.com,” is what I remember saying into the phone before I apologized for calling out of the blue. “I’m reading old articles about the death of your son, Patrick. And, let me just say how sorry I am that I even need to make this call. I wondered if you’d be up for a chat.”
Pete called me back later that day. We talked on the phone for over an hour. This wasn’t the first time a reporter had left a message like mine. He handled it well, like a seasoned interviewee.
Over the next couple of weeks, Pete and I talked on the phone another couple of times. He let me record both conversations. Within a few days, he introduced me to his daughters, Erin and Katlin. We texted and emailed back and forth about the case. For them, this was part of their life, and they knew the case inside out. For 17 years, they’d experienced every emotion as they dug into Patrick’s death.
The last time anybody saw Patrick Ryan alive was in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 14, 2005. He was having a drink at the Captain Loomis Bar on Main Street in Clarion. He held a yard sale at the house he rented on Wood Street a few hours before. Then, later that night, he went over to the Captain Loomis Inn for a drink before he had to pack up the U-Haul trailer he was planning on towing with his dad’s Blazer to New Jersey the following day.
Patrick was graduating with a master’s degree in library science from Clarion University. His girlfriend, Mellissa Ernst, was already in New Jersey. They were about to begin their life together when he disappeared.
For a few days before I first reached out to Pete, I’d been inhaling every piece of information about the case that I could. Honestly, it wasn’t much. While there were dozens of reports written about Patrick, they all seemed to regurgitate the same information. When Pete and I talked, that’s when I really started to understand the case.
But, Pete said, the person who knew it the best was his wife, Debbie.
From the very beginning, Debbie Ryan wasn’t going to give up trying to find out what happened to her son. She just wasn’t. She spent countless hours on the phone and at the computer. She talked to anyone who’d speak to her. Over the years, Patrick’s case was transferred from the Clarion Borough Police Department to the Clarion barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police, then to the PSP’s Tionesta barracks, and then back to the Clarion barracks. Debbie stayed in touch with everyone who ever worked on the case. When she got a lead, or even just had a hunch, she shared it. Then, she followed up. Over and over. Over. And. Over.
Debbie was the expert on Patrick’s case outside of law enforcement, but that’s not the case anymore. She’s been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia with primary progressive aphasia. She no longer remembers her son.
Shortly after my first article about Patrick’s case was published, Pete reached out to me and said his daughters had reminded him that Debbie had kept notes on everything related to Patrick’s case while she was still in control of her mind. They told him where she kept the files. He checked, and found them. The file was big; he wondered if I would like to visit them in Coudersport to go through everything with him.
We decided to meet on a day in early October. As a full-time caregiver to his wife, Pete wanted to make sure it was on a day that didn’t interfere with Debbie’s schedule. She’s better if she can follow her schedule. I pulled up to their house just outside of Coudersport at the appointed time, walked to the back door as Pete instructed, and knocked softly.
When Debbie was healthy, she was an immaculate housekeeper. That duty falls to Pete now, and he’s doing her proud. At least I think she would be proud. One of the crowning jewels of their spotless home is their formal living room. It is a room that the kids weren’t allowed to venture into very often.
Like many of her generation (my own parents included), she set the front room aside as a place to welcome guests. She didn’t want dirt tracked-in, and she wanted the furniture just so. Pete was worried about how Debbie might react seeing a stranger in their house, and she kept her files in the front room.
Pete answered the back door and welcomed me in. Erin, their oldest daughter, had come into town for the occasion. We introduced ourselves and settled in for what was sure to be a big job. I wanted to scan in everything that I possibly could from Debbie’s files.
The front room of Pete and Debbie’s home is almost exactly like my parents’ front room. It’s elegantly furnished and has trinkets and knickknacks they’ve collected over the years on display for guests to see. Conversation starters, my mom calls them. The walls are decorated with family portraits. Photos of all three of their children are proudly displayed. Pete and Debbie have a lot to be proud of when it comes to their children. All accomplished. All educated. All beautiful. But, I can’t help but fall into a bit of melancholy as I look at a brightly-framed portrait of Patrick. He’s gone and won’t ever come back to this home again.
As the tour continues, Pete and Erin take me toward the girls’ room. As we’re visiting in the hall, Debbie makes an appearance out of their bedroom. She has a bright smile and is holding an empty coffee mug with a spoon rattling around inside. Erin had prepared me for this moment. Debbie, she explained, remembers different phrases, but doesn’t remember how to communicate. So, almost anything could come out of her mouth. She asked me to be patient and forgiving if Debbie says anything unkind. She called me “a good guy” and kind of nestled her way close to me. “She likes you,” Erin said.
Pete and Erin got Debbie settled back into her space and made sure she was comfortable before we went into the girls’ room. Pete and Debbie have kept it a bedroom, and set up an almost altar of photos of their daughters. They point out a couple of photos of Debbie when she was young. Next to each is a photo of Katlin at the same age. She’s the spitting image of her mom.
The next stop is Patrick’s room.
Before we get there, I see colored pencil sketches of the children on the hallway wall. Patrick’s seven-year-old self looks right at me; his eyes giving no indication that he even considers what the future has in store for him as his dad and sister show a stranger into his bedroom. Inside the room, an equally impactful homage to the long-gone boy is neatly displayed. Pete reaches into the closet and pulls out Patrick’s guitar. Once a beautiful instrument brought to life by Patrick’s fingers, it’s badly out of tune from years of idleness.
The tour wraps up in the kitchen where Pete and Erin bring a large plastic bin for me to open. Inside, the first thing I spot is Patrick’s medication. The familiar orange plastic bottle with a white childproof lid bears his name in bold serif lettering on a Rite Aid label. 50 MG tablets of Zoloft chatter as I shake the bottle, which says to discard after 7/29/2006. Pete keeps them around to show that Patrick was taking them as prescribed. “Count the pills,” he says to me. “He was following his prescription.”
This topic is a sensitive one because the medical examiner ruled Patrick’s death as combined drug and alcohol toxicity. But, The Ryan’s don’t buy it. I don’t, either. Who overdoses on Zoloft? It’s not a thing that I’ve ever heard. Is it possible that a combination of Zoloft and alcohol could kill a person? I guess I don’t know the answer to that question. But, I think it’s unlikely, especially considering that Patrick had been prescribed Zoloft for years. He took it twice a day to treat anxiety.
Pete, Erin, and I talked a lot that day. Ultimately, we didn’t get to the part where we dug deeper into the plastic bin and scanned-in all the papers inside. Instead, they let me pack them up and bring them home with me. I left the Zoloft with them.
A couple days later, I was sitting on the floor in my home office slowly scanning the handwritten notes, printed-off emails, articles, letters from friends, and legal documents from Debbie’s bin. Needing a break, I got up and sat up to my desk to check email. That’s when I saw it–a lead.
In Part One, I asked anyone who knew anything about Patrick Ryan’s death to reach out to me through my website. I have a form there where you can send me messages and files without having to tell me your name or any other identifying information. It’s a way to tell me what you know without telling me who you are.
Tips come into me from that form as an email from my website. The subject says Gavin Fish— Case Tip. I don’t get them very often. When I do, it’s a special event for me.
I begin reading, and the anonymous tip gives me some names–I won’t share them here–and describes a scene in which Patrick was purposely killed, the reason for the killing, and the weapon that was used.
Will this tip lead to the mystery being solved? I hope so, but I don’t know.
What I do know is that more than this one anonymous tipster knows what happened to Patrick Ryan. Clarion is a small place, and word travels fast when something like the grisly death of a grad student happens.
Somebody will lead us to Patrick’s killer or killers, but only if they have the courage to talk.
If you’re that person, reach out to me through my website. Have the courage to tell me how I we can connect, and let’s talk.
This is Part Two in a series covering the 2005 disappearance and death of Patrick Ryan. Read Part One here.
|Gavin Fish is a reporter for EYT Media Group and YouTuber based in Venango County. In addition to his YouTube Channel, he has contributed to investigations and reports for ABC News, Investigation Discovery, and Fox Nation, and has collaborated on projects developed for Netflix, Oxygen, Discovery Channel, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.|
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