TAMPA, Fla. — On May 30, Karen Pais was reported missing by her friends. Two days later her body was found buried in the backyard of her Carrollwood home.
The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered new details about her life, her death and a troubling letter from the person accused of killing her.
“The circumstances of this case are pretty egregious. The victim in the case is the defendant’s sister,” the Assistant State’s Attorney said at the bond hearing of Debra Patton, charged with second-degree murder and abuse of a dead human body.
“We were able to locate the body in the backyard. It was identified as being her sister and we know she was shot in the chest,” the prosecutor added. “She’s shown zero remorse. She tried to hide the fact of what she’s done.”
Wrapped in garbage bags, bound with Bungee cords, buried two feet deep
The heinous crime shocked the Tampa Bay community.
The body of Karen Pais was found buried two feet deep in a hole in her backyard, wrapped in garbage bags, bound with multiple green Bungee cords and duct tape.
A necklace with a charm that reads “Karen” was found around her neck.
Debra was arrested shortly after Karen’s body was recovered.
She had lived in the same home with Karen for the past 10 years.
“Right now, there’s no obvious reason leading us to believe why this person may have been involved in this death,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Crystal Clark, briefing the media about the arrest.
But those friends who knew Karen best say there were signs of trouble spanning decades.
“If I disappear or I’m dead, tell them my sister did it”
“I heard Karen say it many times, 'she’s gonna kill me one day,'” Jan Wilder said.
“She always told us if I disappear or I’m dead, tell them my sister did it. Tell them it’s my sister, she did it,” Pam Nelson said.
Pam met Karen while working at GTE more than 25 years ago.
She and Jan were among Karen’s best friends, spending birthdays, Gaspirillas and holidays together.
“We had a favorite place, Rick’s on the River. We would go there a lot,” Nelson said.
Pam and Jan tell the I-Team Karen was fiercely loyal to those she loved.
She lived with and cared for her parents until they lost their battles with Alzheimer’s and cancer, while Debra was nowhere to be found.
At the same time, Karen rose through the ranks at GTE.
She was initially one of the first female construction engineers, then rose through the ranks to become a manager.
“Karen had a nice nest egg from her many years of work, retirement and investments. The fact that she never married, never had any children of her own, she saved up a lot of money,” Wilder said.
At the same time, Karen’s older sister Debra struggled financially.
“Debra was very jealous of Karen’s financial well-being. That she owned the house,” Wilder said.
According to her ex-husband Don Patton, Debra never held a steady job.
“She worked at several early tech jobs that could have been a success for her, but always found a problem and had to leave,” Don Patton said.
Friends say Karen helped Debra along the way.
“When her mother died, she gave her all the insurance money. And Debra ran through that and pretty much, she had to take her in. She was family,” Nelson said.
“If she didn’t love Debra, she wouldn’t have done it. Karen was not the type of person to do anything anyone wanted her to do. She was her own person,” Don Patton said.
“She was just wonderful, just beautiful”
Debra was 13 months older than Karen.
Don met Debra when she was 18 years old.
“She was just wonderful. Just beautiful. She looked like Annette Funicello, who I had a crush on when I was a kid,” Don Patton said.
They got engaged, married and had a son, but Don says his wife changed during their 26-year marriage.
“She became distant. She didn’t go out. She didn’t want to make friends. To my knowledge, she has no friends,” Don Patton said.
When asked whether she had been violent during their relationship, Don replied that she had.
“To the point where she would be very angry, she would yell. Every once in a while, she would pound her fists on my chest, but she was a very tiny lady,” Don Patton said.
Don said their marriage ended in 1998 after Debra confronted their son Christopher over his plan to marry his fiance’ Lisa.
“She went over to get Christopher and tell him he wasn’t getting married. Lisa came to his defense and she attacked Lisa by slapping her. And that was the end of that relationship,” Don Patton said.
“Shortly after that, she gave me the choice of siding with her or Christopher. I chose my son,” Don Patton said.
“She’s got Karen under her thumb”
According to Pam and Jan, Karen said her relationship with Debra became volatile after Debra moved into the house in 2010.
“The mean things that they would say to each other. Awful things,” said Nelson. “She’d tell her she was going to kill her, according to Karen.”
Pam says when she learned Debra owned a gun, she told Karen to sneak into her bedroom and remove the bullets.
“I used to try to say stuff to her like that about the gun or this is ridiculous that you live like that, and Karen would look at me and say ‘You’re my friend. You’re just supposed to listen. I’m venting,’” Nelson said.
Friends say Debra never left the house, except to walk her dog. She took over the guest room, where she set up an office but did no work. Debra claimed the main refrigerator in the home, leaving the Coke and beer refrigerator in the garage for Karen. And they say she threw out Karen’s furniture, replacing it with her own.
Pam and Jan said Karen told them she wanted her sister gone, but never forced her out.
“She’s got Karen under her thumb, she’s got a roof over her head. She’s got somebody to feed her and pay her way now, why should she go to work?” Wilder said.
“There was a big hole… dirt pile in the back yard”
In late May, Karen’s friends became worried, when Karen went silent.
“I started calling Karen, calling Karen, calling Karen, texting her, texting her. We got some erroneous texts,” Nelson said. “If I was guessing, it wasn’t Karen texting.”
“We felt it was very strange that she was not communicating with us. Not returning any phone calls,” Wilder said.
So they went to her house to try to find her.
“We banged on the door and she never answered. And then we heard something in the garage,” Wilder said. “I had gone and peeped through that window and could see Karen’s car in there and that really got us going. We knew now that she hadn’t just run off for a fun time with somebody.”
“I saw Debra standing there in front of the washer and dryer,” she said.
They called 911. Deputies responded to conduct a welfare check.
When no one answered, they left, with no probable cause to search further.
Another group of friends later showed up and entered through an unlocked door.
“They had gained access to the house and Debra was there. And there was a big hole… dirt pile in the back yard. And her purse, driver’s license, wallet, debit card were all there,” Nelson said.
They called 911 again. Deputies returned and questioned Debra, who said in a police report that she “recently had a personal issue with the victim but did not want to disclose it.”
Jan saw Debra walking her dog after deputies descended on her property.
“I walked right up to her and I put my hand on her shoulder and I said ‘Debra, are you okay?’ And she was just blank-eyed. Zombie-like,” Wilder said.
“They found some inconsistent information provided during that interview. Deputies went on to suspect foul play,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Crystal Clark told the media.
Deputies stood watch as detectives sought a warrant.
The forensics team showed up and the crime tape went up and friends and neighbors began to fear the worst.
After Karen’s body was found, Debra was arrested.
According to her arrest affidavit, video from a neighbor’s surveillance camera showed Debra taking two trips in Karen’s car and throwing out six garbage bags.
Don Patton drove from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to help take care of arrangements.
He gave us an exclusive look at the hole police say Debra dug to hide Karen’s body.
Deputies gave him a list of items they recovered as evidence.
“They found a gun. They found the bullets and they found the casings,” Don Patton said.
A troubling letter found in a dresser
While Jan Wilder was helping clean out the house, she found a disturbing clue to Debra’s mental state.
“I found a letter in the bottom drawer of Karen’s nightstand that was handwritten. Probably 10 pages long,” Wilder said. “It was a suicide note. That Debra intended to kill herself after she went to kill her husband.”
The letter was addressed to Karen and her late mother Sofie, who died in 2005.
It said, “In many ways, I have been dead for a long time. In a short while, I’ll take my life, but hopefully not before I end Don’s.”
When we asked Wilder why she thought Karen kept the letter, she replied, “Maybe for this circumstance to say hey this woman’s had a problem for a long time. This is not the first time she’s considered murder as a resolution to her problems.”
Don also found a map of Baton Rouge, where he lived and a handwritten list Debra labeled “useful information.”
“She knew where I lived. She knew different places I hung out. What restaurants I ate at, what bar I go to,” Don Patton said. “She blamed me for everything that went wrong in her life. Simple as that. “
“It’s time to talk to a mental health professional”
Psychologist Dr. Catherine Salmon has studied siblicide, which is one when one sibling kills another.
“Just the fact that it’s taking place between women at that age is unusual,” Salmon said.
She says siblicide rarely involves sisters and accounts for less than 1% of all homicides.
Salmon says Karen should have sought help for Debra when she sent the note at least 15 years ago.
“If you found a note saying that someone was planning on killing their ex, it’s time to talk to a mental health professional and it may be time to go talk to the police,” Salmon said. “But they also can’t force people to get help if they don’t want to. And that’s the other real challenge. “
Don Patton believes there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy.
“Please pay attention to what’s going on around you with your family members. If you think someone needs help, try to research, resource, reach out to try to get help for them. There’s a lot of places you can go to get help, to protect yourself, but also to protect that family member,” Don Patton said.
“Given the opportunity, we would have done anything in the world to have either gotten Debra out of that house or gotten Karen out of that house,” Wilder said.
Friends set up a memorial for Karen. More than 40 people toasted her at a small service with her favorite whiskey, Jack Daniels.
“The hate that we feel for Debra is not what we want in our lives. So we have to concentrate and focus on the real truth and that’s that we had a really good friend that we love dearly and that loved us and that shared our lives and our family with us. And we will never ever forget her,” Wilder said.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, help is available through the National Alliance on Mental illness, which operates a helpline.
The Information HelpLine is an information and referral service which can be reached by calling 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264), Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., EST.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.