Published: Thursday, May 19, 2011, 3:10 p.m.
First published July 25, 1999
Nancy Stensrud remembers the strange scratching sound that came from her daughter Patti Berry's bedroom.
Her second-eldest child was about 14 then and working at the animal shelter in Arlington. Patti fed and watered cats and dogs and other pets that people had lost or simply no longer wanted.
The people at the shelter were good and kind, and like Patti, truly cared for animals. But they also followed the rules. If pets weren't claimed by their owners or placed in a new home within a certain number of days, they were killed.
Stensrud knew that bothered Patti. The girl had always been the most sensitive and giving of her four children.
Many people love animals. But Patti loved them double.
Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
Stensrud went to investigate.
"I finally opened up the doggone door and there were 15 dogs, 200 gerbils in the dresser drawers, cats all over the place. It was a stinking zoo!"
Patti's secret was out and she also was soon out of a job. She'd been smuggling home condemned cats and death-row doggies and hiding them in her room. She hoped to save the animals from their date with a lethal needle.
A decade and a half has passed, but the memory brings a smile to Stensrud's face. That's a rare thing these days.
There is just too much pain, she said.
Four years ago, somebody killed Patti Berry, stabbing the 26-year-old Arlington woman to death as she sat behind the wheel of her little blue Honda Prelude. The murderer put the lifeless woman into the back seat and then drove around awhile. Berrys blood-spattered vehicle turned up the next day. Her body wasn't found for a week, dumped in a strip of trees bordering the Everett Mall. The crime remains unsolved.
The killing was a hot story during the unusually cold, drizzly summer of 1995.
Patti Berry was the big reason. She made her living as a nude dancer, and disappeared early one July morning after leaving her job at Honey's nightclub south of Everett.
In a world where lurid criminal trials have their own cable channel, Berrys killing mixed sex and murder in a way that easily led many to view it as a modern morality play:
Patti Berry took her clothes off for money. Some pervert killed her. A bad end to a bad girl.
Nancy Stensrud knows that most people who heard of her daughter's killing then probably have forgotten Patti Berry's name. If they remember the case at all, it likely is as "that dancer who got herself killed."
But Patti Berry was much more than her job, or a person who somebody chose to murder, Stensrud said.
She was a daughter. She was a sister. She was a mother to a little girl, then just 2 years old.
She was the kind of person who would give up a paycheck to save a hamster or a kitten or a puppy.
She was worthy of a mother's tears.
* * *
It was sometime after 1:15 a.m. on July 31, 1995, when Patti Berry left her job at Honey's nightclub along Highway 99, between Everett and Lynnwood.
It was early Monday. But the night had been warm, and some people were still on the prowl, trying to squeeze in a few more hours of partying before heading to work. Their cars grumbled and screeched in the dark.
At 26, Patti Berry had been working in strip clubs for nearly a third of her life. She danced naked on stage, but Berry really made her money "table dancing," wearing scanty costumes and performing at close range for customers' tips, usually $10 or $20 a dance.
Berry, who adopted the stage name "Bridgett," cultivated a look that was calculated to attract attention at the clubs. She was busty. Her light brown hair tended more toward blond because of regular dye jobs. And she used her lean, 5-foot 10-inch frame to full effect, piling her hair up high on top so shed appear even taller.
Berry knew her body was her livelihood, and she kept toned, tan and in top condition.
The same couldn't be said of her car.
Her 1985 Honda was a beater, its passenger compartment littered with wrappers from Taco Bell, evidence of Berry's serious addiction to Mexican fast food.
In keeping with Honey's policy, she was escorted to her car that night by a burly doorman, whose job was to make sure she left unmolested by patrons.
But Berry wasn't going anywhere, at least not right away. The car had a flat tire.
The doorman stood by while two customers who were in the parking lot partially inflated the tire with a repair kit. They told her to go to a nearby service station to fill the tire the rest of the way.
Dance music was still booming from inside Honey's when Berry climbed into her car. She turned left out of the club's parking lot and headed alone into the night.
* * *
A dancer's life wasn't what Nancy Stensrud had envisioned for her second daughter, born Feb. 10, 1969.
Patti Berry was born in a year when the status quo seemed to have been picked up by its ankles, tipped upside down, and given a good, hard shake. There was marching in the streets against U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. An estimated 500,000 young people converged on a cow pasture in New York for a rock concert called Woodstock. An American astronaut walked on the moon.
Nancy Stensrud said that was the year she realized life wasn't going to turn out the way she'd thought it would.
Growing up, Stensrud believed all she needed to do to achieve happiness was find the right man, marry him and have his children.
She picked Matt Berry, a handsome guy who pumped iron to stay in shape and made his living in the trucking business. At that time in his life, Matt Berry was more interested in cars and trucks than family.
As the marriage disintegrated, Stensrud remembers cradling her newborn daughter Patti and trying to convince herself that life without a husband would be OK.
"I'll love you double," she told the little girl.
Life wasnt always easy. Along the way Stensrud had two more children. She wound up in another bad marriage, followed by divorce. She went job hunting and found work at a time when all she felt qualified to do was "pin a mean diaper and make beans."
Patti Berry had some challenges of her own. She was a clumsy little girl, running into things and falling down so much that she earned the nickname "Boo Boo."
Pattis progress in school was equally rocky. She was sickly. She had a difficult time learning to read and fell behind her classmates. When the girl's teachers and her mother agreed she should repeat the third grade, Patti was devastated. She cried. She was embarrassed.
But even as an adult, Patti wasn't much of a reader or thinker. She got most of her information from television, or by talking to friends. And Berry frequently misunderstood what she heard, like the time she believed the U.S. was fighting off an invasion in Florida because troops had been sent there for deployment to some forgettable Third World dust-up.
"I'm not stupid, you know," the young Patti Berry began saying when she wanted to make a point. It was a habit that followed her into adulthood.
What Patti didn't have in smarts, she more than made up for in a gentle, kind spirit, Stensrud said.
She was the child who lived for Christmas, not the presents, but the giving. She took special care in selecting gifts for everyone in her family, and sometimes spent her own money to buy presents for people she knew outside the home who had less than she.
Berry's love for animals was boundless, and her willingness to go to extremes for them, like when she worked at the animal shelter, was another lifelong trait, Stensrud said. One time a thief stole her car when she left the keys in the ignition while visiting a convenience store in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Her favorite cat, Hitcher, was inside.
Berry was inconsolable. She didn't care about the car. She was worried about her cat, she told her mother.
The young woman went all over Ballard putting up posters with the cat's picture. The effort paid off when somebody found the cat and reunited the pair. The car eventually was recovered too.
After the animal shelter job, Patti Berry began working with elderly people in her community, hiring on to help them with their chores, to do their shopping, to listen to their stories.
Berry still struggled in school, but she was a happy teen. She was a standout softball player, had plenty of boyfriends and was an amazing dancer.
When she was about 15, her father, who by then was the owner of a successful trucking business in Smokey Point, began showing interest in his children. Patti Berry welcomed the attention.
But tragedy struck in December 1985, when a supposedly empty diesel fuel tank exploded as Matt Berry was working on it with a welding torch. The fireball left him with burns over 95 percent of his body.
Matt Berry lingered, unable to see or move or speak. The man's final will and testament was prepared with nods and head shakes.
Patti Berry was 16 at the time. She visited her father nearly every day at a Seattle hospital, rubbing lotion into the soles of his feet, one of the few places on his body that was not burned.
When death finally took Matt Berry three months later, his daughter was devastated.
Stensrud remembers coming home and finding Patti Berry crouched in a corner, holding a pillow to her chest. "If I had a gun I'd shoot myself!" she cried.
Stensrud took Patti Berry to a counselor. The teen walked out of a session and didn't return. Within a few months, she had dropped out of school. Before long she asked to leave home, and moved in with an aunt.
Patti Berry went to work, supposedly caring for another elderly lady. But after she turned 18, she slipped up, and a relative deduced she actually was dancing at a nude club.
Stensrud confronted her daughter during a Thanksgiving visit.
Patti Berry told her she was old enough to make her own decisions. And to make good money. She claimed she could earn a couple of hundred dollars, or more, for a night of dancing.
But there were downsides, Patti Berry said: The men who went to those places were pigs.
"Patti hated them," Stensrud said. "The one thing that disgusted her most was the married ones. I asked her how she knew, and she said, Mom, I can spot the cops in here, and I can spot the married ones."
Stensrud told her daughter she thought the job was dangerous, exposing her to who knew what kind of people and any number of vices.
But Patti Berry said she was careful and knew how to play it straight and for the cash.
At work, she was a dancer named Bridgett. But in her heart, she was still a girl named Patti, who grew up in Arlington.
She danced through her teens and into her 20s. She met a man she thought she'd marry and at 24, had his child.
When the relationship fizzled she went back to work, dancing to support her daughter as well as herself.
Nancy Stensrud's life also moved along. She met and married her current husband, Ken, a kind and decent man who once worked as an investigator for the Snohomish County medical examiner.
There were holidays and birthdays and family gatherings. Patti Berry remained close to her mother and siblings.
Then one day Stensrud's phone rang.
Patti Berry was missing.