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Bryan Pata murder remains cold case
ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla.
The morning routine never varies for Jeanette Pata.
Each day, the 61-year-old mother of nine descends the stairs of her home nine miles from Florida's east coast. As she circles back through a living room lined with photos of the army of children she raised mostly on her own — six boys and three girls — she stops and places her hand on a framed, white No. 95 jersey hanging on the wall.
Tears are almost always soon to follow.
Bryan Pata, No. 95, the youngest of Jeanette's children, was murdered on Nov. 7, 2006, slain in the parking lot of his apartment complex by a single gunshot wound to the head. The University of Miami defensive lineman was 22 years old.
Seven years have passed since Bryan's death, and police are no closer to finding his killer than they were in 2006. Seven years have passed and the Pata family — vast, loving, broken and looking for answers — is no closer to closure.
“It's not easy, and it never gets easier,” Pata said in a mix of Creole and broken English, sobbing and dabbing her eyes with a bunched-up paper towel as she sat, hunched over, on her couch. “It's like it happened today. Every anniversary is terrible; the day before last, I couldn't sleep. I miss my baby, I miss him so much. He should be here.”
TEARS IN THE MORNING
The morning of Nov. 7, 2006, Jeanette Pata woke up crying, the kind of uncontrollable wailing that seemingly can't be reasoned with. To this day, Jeanette says she doesn't know exactly what rendered her so upset, but given how the next 12 hours unfolded, it seems safe to call her tears a visceral reaction to the type of harrowing premonition that only a mother could have.
Jeanette Pata, with her son Bryan Pata's jersey.Courtesy the Pata family
Jeanette had last seen Bryan two days prior, when he brought his girlfriend and a few teammates to her Miami home for a Sunday feast celebrating Bryan's prospects as a first-round NFL draft pick. He had turned down a to-go plate — a rarity for a 6-foot-4, 280-pound football star who loved his mom's cooking, especially her potato salad. And on Monday night, he didn't call at 10 to tell his mom goodnight, like he always did.
When Bryan didn't call Tuesday morning, either, Jeanette sensed that something wasn't right, and then later that evening, as she followed CNN's coverage of the midterm elections at her daughter Nelly's house, her life changed forever.
First, Nelly, her husband Khane, and Jeanette's son Fednol left the home suddenly, departing without so much as a goodbye after taking a quiet phone call. Then a short time later, Khane called to tell Jeanette that Bryan had been hurt, but provided little else in the way of details. Jeanette turned off the TV and anxiously awaited the next call, and when it finally came after the longest half-hour of her life, Jeanette's worst fears were realized — Bryan was dead.
Across town, Jeanette's daughter, Ronette, was bathing her 2-year-old twin daughters. She heard the house phone ringing in the other room, but her first inclination was to let it go, just wanting to get the girls ready for bed and relax after a long day of work. Eventually, after the ringing wouldn't stop, Ronette gave in and picked up. It was her mom, breaking the news.
“I just went into shock,” Ronette said. “I didn't know what to say to her, and I just started screaming, and my daughters, they started crying, too, because they didn't know what was going on. My mind just went blank, and within what felt like a couple of minutes my mom was at my door.”
Before she left for Ronette's house across town, Jeanette put on her custom No. 95 jersey, with the name “#1 MOM” stitched on the back. She wore it to every game — she attended them religiously — and she wanted to have it on when she arrived to see her son one last time. A co-worker of Ronette's drove the inconsolable mother and daughter to Kendall, where Bryan's apartment was located, and dropped them off in the midst of a hectic scene.
“I could see it was then that she realized it was real,” Ronette said of her mom. “It was real, and his body was just laying feet away from us.”
The sight of her son, dead on the ground, was a crushing blow to a mother who had formed a truly unique bond with her baby boy over the past two decades.
“My brother was a phenomenal kid,” said Edwin Pata, now an offensive line coach at Florida A&M. “He was my mother's favorite child, and I'm not afraid to say it. He was closest to her, even at 21, 22 years old.”
Bryan's father left the family when Bryan was 7, and Bryan and Jeanette grew especially close as a result. The two would even share a bed, a tradition that endured in adulthood, Bryan's head touching the headboard and his feet hanging off the end of the mattress when he would come spend a night at his childhood home.
“He was the boss in the house, and we miss him so much,” Jeanette said. “Anything that belonged to me, that was his. When I'd lay down in the bed, (he'd say) 'Mommy, move over. Please, move over.'”
Added Ronette: “She would cook for so many of us, and she would prepare everyone's meal separate and put it aside, and his meal, she would hide it somewhere where no one would find it, and he would have the biggest plate. We would get so mad, but that's the bond that they had.”
And there Bryan was, dead, 48 hours removed from celebrating with his family and friends and promising his mom, yet again, that soon he would be able to take care of her. Bryan wanted his mom to quit her job as a hotel maid — she worked too hard, he always told her — and he wanted to buy her a big house that the whole family could stay in together.
Seven years later, there is no big house. Jeanette no longer works, but only because she couldn't bear the thought of going back after Bryan's death.
The family received a $2 million settlement from the apartment complex's insurance company in 2007, and in 2008 Jeanette moved north, to Palm Beach County, to distance herself from the oppressive sadness that came with living in the town where her son was killed. But Jeanette would certainly give it all back to be able to see Bryan again.
“I'll never feel the pain of a mother, unless I lose one of my daughters, and I see why some people can lose their mind, because you're looking and searching and hoping that this person will come knock on your door, or pick up the phone and call you,” Ronette said. “You don't hear their voice and you don't see them anymore. The pain, it endures every day.”
There's some solidarity to be found in having such a large family during a time of grief. But mostly, Jeanette misses her son, and she's holding out hope that one day an arrest in the case will help her move on with her life, if such a thing is even possible.
“The family, we suffer,” Jeanette said. “We want justice for Bryan. I know I'm not going to see him again; he's gone forever. But we need the justice. We have nothing.”
Bryan Pata, second from left, with his mother (in red hat) and siblings.Courtesy the Pata family
COMING UP EMPTY
For the past seven years, Det. Miguel Dominguez has been the lead investigator on the Pata case and one of several members of the Miami-Dade Police homicide unit tasked with trying to bring closure to Pata's family. But to this point, his search for a killer has come up empty.
It's not because of a lack of effort, of course. Dominguez and his team have followed up on countless leads over the years, but few have turned out to be of any use. The problem in Pata's case, and so many of the hundreds of murder cases in Miami since Pata's death, is that no one is talking — perhaps for fear that they might meet a similar fate to Pata's.
“That's common in the majority of our homicide cases,” Dominguez said. “People don't want to get involved, and some people are afraid that there might be some retaliation. We come across that on an almost daily basis."
Unfortunately, Dominguez receives far fewer tips now than he once did — sometimes he'll get a few a month, other times he might go a few months with none at all. And after exhausting every lead he has received over the years, Dominguez is now in a place where the only hope for finding Pata's killer may lie in someone new coming forward with a confession or with intimate knowledge of the murder.
“Back in 2006, there were a lot of young people who knew Bryan Pata who possibly had some information but didn't want to get involved, which is typical,” Dominguez said. “But now that they're older, they might have a family or a different way of thinking, so maybe by continuing to put it out there, we can get somebody to come forward and assist us in solving this case.”
There are a few things Dominguez does know, however. The shooting is not believed to be gang-related, nor is it believed to be retaliation for something Bryan did to someone else. Dominguez says the weapons found in Pata's apartment are not believed to be a sign that Pata was hanging in bad circles, and he has no reason to believe Pata's killing was tied to the non-fatal shooting of Willie Cooper, Pata's UM teammate, just four months prior.
Dominguez also confirmed that Pata's shooting is not thought to be related to the FIU-UM on-field brawl, which took place just 24 days before Pata was killed. Dominguez wouldn't comment on whether he believes that Pata's killer was someone Pata knew, but for Pata's family, that seems like a virtual certainty.
“It was someone who knew him, who knew his whereabouts — maybe someone just right in his face, every day,” Ronette said, almost wistfully.
“The timing, with him, his roommate went to get gas, (Bryan) picked up a freshman to give him a ride home. They knew what time he was going to be home, their arrival time was right on the spot, they walked up to him, shot him on the left side of the head, and it had to be someone just about his height. So it had to be someone who saw him every day, who watched him, maybe within that same circle.”
When asked whether it could have been a friend or even a teammate, Pata's sister was noncommittal, but hardly dismissive.
“I don't know, we don't know,” she said. “Within that circle, within that group, within that organization, jealousy was probably right up under his nose every single day, and that person watched him, was jealous of him, was envious of him.
“But we don't know, and we'll never know until someone actually comes out and speaks up. It's more than one person involved, though, because there's the trigger person, and there had to be a driver, and someone watching — there's always more than one person in a car. They did it in a matter of not even a minute, probably. They knew what they were doing."
Despite all of the frustration over Bryan's unsolved murder, the Pata family insists there is no bad blood between them and police.
“I'm sure they sense (frustration) from us sometimes when we go and we speak to them, and there is that frustration of, 'Can't you get this right? Can't you solve this?'” Edwin Pata said. “But it seemed like the person who committed this crime planned it out, thought this out, and that made it more difficult for them to solve this case.
“I know they're doing their job, and we know there's nothing they can do to reverse what happened. I know they've worked hard on this case. They weren't responsible for what happened, and all that we can ask is they go and do their job, and I think they've done a good job of that.”
To that end, Dominguez says he has no plans to give up on the Pata case until he can close it with a conviction.
“Obviously I feel very bad for the family, and I want to do the best that I can do to catch the person responsible for killing Bryan Pata,” said Dominguez, who has been with Miami-Dade PD for 18 years, including 10 as a homicide investigator.
“It's the worst news that you can give a family, especially a mom or a dad. You're not supposed to bury your kids, it's supposed to be the other way around. We care about people's families and that's why we choose this profession."
Bryan and his mother, Jeanette, in happier times.Courtesy the Pata family
HONORING BRYAN'S MEMORY
Every year on the anniversary of Bryan's death, the Pata family gets together and visits his grave to honor their lost brother and son. They bring flowers and talk about the good times, because there's no sense in sitting there crying all day, Ronette says. Ronette will usually play some India Arie — “The Truth” was one of Bryan's favorite songs.
The rest of the year, the family works to honor Bryan's legacy through the P.A.T.A Foundation. The acronym stands for Providing Academics and Athletics To All.
Each year they host a back-to-school drive around Bryan's birthday, Aug. 12, as well as a one-day football camp that features speakers and instructors from the college and NFL ranks. They hold events promoting gun violence awareness, and around the holidays, they team up with AllCanes.com to give away $95 gift cards for underprivileged kids to spend on Christmas presents for their families.
Next year, they're hoping to be able to give away a scholarship in Bryan's name.
It's a worthy cause, but it's also a necessary distraction from the constant pain that Bryan's death still brings to the family. And no one has taken it harder than the matriarch, Jeanette. The years have not been easy on her as she mourns the loss of her son, her best friend.
“As time has gone on, I realize how much it has affected us and our family, and especially our mom in particular, how much she's aged,” Edwin Pata said. “As a family, our life has changed, and that's what I've noticed over time. It's something that you could never really prepare for.”
The Pata family lifestyle once revolved around sports — Bryan was a star and Edwin played at FIU and FSU. Jeanette, who came to the U.S. in 1978, became a 49ers fan in the '80s because she loved Jerry Rice. But these days, Jeanette can hardly stand to put a football game on TV because, she says, she can't stop looking for No. 95 on the field.
Just last year, the mom, who attended all of her son's games at the Orange Bowl, attended her first game since Bryan's death, as a guest of Louisville defensive line coach Clint Hurtt — Bryan's position coach at Miami — when the Cardinals visited FIU.
“(Hurtt and Louisville coach Charlie Strong) took her from the stands, they hugged her, they told her how much they loved her and how much they were thinking about her,” Edwin Pata said. “That was really special.”
Instead of football, Jeanette focuses on the Miami Heat for fun, and went to their championship parades in 2006, 2012 and this past summer. But even that provides only a brief respite from the pain that you can see in her aging face and graying hair, and she readily admits that she's just a shell of the vibrant woman she used to be.
“I'm not the same person anymore,” Jeanette said, the tears returning once again. “I think about this every single day. . . . (Bryan's killer) is out there enjoying himself, with his wife, his kids, his family, while another family suffers. One day that will end. We don't know how long it will be, but we hope one day it happens.”
Her family can only pray she is around long enough to finally receive that closure.
“I can sit here and tell you about my pain, but a mother's pain will not be the same,” Ronette said. “She goes through depression, and she wakes up and touches those pictures every single morning throughout the house. Mentally, (Bryan's death) took a toll, and, in the end, I feel like it's going to kill my mom, too.”
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone with information regarding the murder of Bryan Pata can anonymously contact the Miami-Dade Police homicide bureau at 305-471-2400 or the Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers line at 305-471-TIPS.
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