One cold day last month, television news cameras captured the very public grief of a Gwinnett County man who lost his wife and daughters in an intense house fire. “My whole life is over,” Brent Patterson said. “My whole life is over.”
At first, nothing about the fire, as horribly sad as it was, seemed out of the ordinary. But details are emerging about Patterson and his family that could cast the tragedy in a different light.
The family was the subject of a four-month child-neglect investigation in 2014, and Brent Patterson has an extensive criminal record, from the 1980s and '90s, as a drug dealer in two states, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Neither the child-neglect case nor Patterson’s criminal history is necessarily related to the Feb. 9 fire. Gwinnett County authorities say they are still investigating the fire and have noted “inconsistencies” in Patterson’s story as the sole survivor. Investigators recently searched the fire scene for signs of arson, as well as medications, diaries or journals, and evidence of financial problems, according to court records.
“The conflicting statements given by Mr. Patterson could not explain the fire behavior, fire patterns, or the speed of the fire spread,” an affidavit filed by investigators said.
Patterson, 54, lived in a quiet subdivision in Tucker with his wife, Kathy, 36, and their daughters, 12-year-old Kayla and 9-year-old Madelyn. Patterson told authorities the fire erupted suddenly and he couldn’t rescue his wife or children. Their bodies were found upstairs in the two-story house. Patterson has not spoken publicly since shortly after the fire. Authorities have filed no charges.
By all outward appearances, the Pattersons were a close family. Brent Patterson managed a restaurant. Kathy Patterson was a stay-home mother who also taught dance lessons. She frequently updated her Facebook page with pictures of her husband and daughters and news of the girls’ good grades in school. On Jan. 1, 2015, she posted, “I love my husband! He’s truly the best!”
She wrote a week later about baking cupcakes with Kayla. “I never want these moments to end! Kayla wrote a list of 11 wishes for her 11th birthday. She put wanting to grow up to be like mommy as #4. I made the list!!!”
But a few months earlier, the state Division of Family and Children Services had received a troubling report about Kathy Patterson.
Educators at the girls’ private school, Smoke Rise Prep in Stone Mountain, had identified “many red flags” in Kathy Patterson’s behavior, according to a May 5, 2014, DFCS report obtained by the Journal-Constitution. The caller to DFCS, whose identity was redacted from the document, suggested Patterson was putting her children and others at risk by driving them home from school while intoxicated.
The report said one of the Pattersons’ neighbors, who worked at the school, had been called to the family’s home numerous times because Kathy Patterson was “unable to function.”
“This neighbor has assisted Mrs. Patterson in getting up off the floor and into her bed when Mrs. Patterson was no longer able to walk or pull herself up,” the report said. The children witnessed their mother’s incapacitation, the report said.
Other parents had complained of smelling alcohol on her breath during school events, such as a classroom party the previous Halloween. And with slurred speech, the report said, she often left angry voice mails at night for school employees but would not remember the calls the next morning.
The caller told DFCS that Kayla “cries almost daily, usually just before lunchtime,” before complaining about physical symptoms. Madelyn, according to the report, sought attention daily for her own physical ailments.
“We are concerned that this environment is causing extreme stress” for both girls, the caller said, according to the DFCS report.
DFCS immediately opened an investigation, largely because of the possibility Kathy Patterson was driving drunk with children in her car. But a caseworker failed to document initial interviews with Kayla and Madelyn at school. The caseworkers soon left the agency, DFCS spokeswoman Susan Boatwright said Thursday.
More than a month after DFCS received the report, supervisors instructed another caseworker to visit the Pattersons’ home.
“When we walk away,” a report from June 17, 2014, said, “are we assured that the (mother’s) drinking will not place the children in danger?”
The caseworker saw lights on inside the Pattersons’ house, but no one answered the door. DFCS summoned the Gwinnett County police, but an officer got no response, either.
It apparently wasn’t until July 12, more than two months after the investigation began, that a caseworker met with Brent and Kathy Patterson at their home. Both accused their next-door neighbor and the school of making false allegations. They said they had hired a lawyer because the school was not providing needed services to Kayla, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity. They denied any substance abuse.
The caseworker later interviewed family friends – but not the person who made the original allegation. Under current policy, Boatwright said, the agency requires workers to “circle back” to the complainant.
Two months later, another caseworker visited the Pattersons’ home, this time with four days’ notice.
Brent Patterson denied allegations against his wife.
The girls told the worker that both parents drank sometimes, but never drove with them afterward. Kayla told the caseworker she was not afraid of either her mother or father.
Seeing no immediate threats, the worker decided to close the investigation.
DFCS reports do not indicate whether the caseworker examined Brent Patterson’s criminal record.
He served 15 months in prison, from September 1993 to December 1994, on charges that he sold marijuana and narcotics, according to North Carolina corrections records. He was sentenced to probation on several earlier drug charges, all filed between 1985 and 1993, public records show.
From 1994 to 1997, he also served three years of probation for drug-related charges in Orange County, Florida, according to public records.
Boatwright, the DFCS spokeswoman, said caseworkers might have discounted Patterson’s criminal history because the convictions were so old.
“It appears the case manager talked with people who knew the family, talked with the children, and did the due diligence to determine whether there was danger in the home,” Boatwright said.
Kathy Patterson made no reference to the DFCS investigation on her Facebook page. Just three months after the investigation concluded, a WXIA-TV story featured her work with a “special-needs ministry” at her church, culminating in a dance performance during a Christmas pageant.
“I had been praying for an opportunity to open up,” she told the television station, “wherever God wants to take me.”