The Oilman’s Daughter
A dark family secret, an immense fortune, and one woman’s search for the truth.
In the summer of 1972, when Judith Adams was 16 years old, a strange woman knocked on the front door of the shotgun house where she lived with her mother, on the south side of Baxter Springs, Kansas. Judith opened it. The woman was small and thin, a brunette, and Judith detected an angry edge, as if she were in a hurry to get somewhere and the teenager now in front of her was standing in her way. She demanded to see Judith’s mother. “Mom!” Judith shouted back to the kitchen. “There is someone here who wants to speak with you.”
Sue Adams stepped past Judith onto the front porch, pulling the door closed behind her. It was a small deck, just wide enough to set out a couple of chairs when the weather was nice, looking out over a flat little front yard with a maple tree and a driveway that ran up the side. Judith heard the women raise their voices and tried to peek through the little window in the door. Her mother glanced back at her, then reached her hand up to block the glass. Moving to the living-room window, Judith saw three men at the end of the driveway, next to an old black pickup truck. What stuck with her most, remembering the moment decades later, was the way the men stood with their backs to the house.
After a few minutes, the strange woman stormed back to the truck. She and the three men climbed in and drove away. “What was that?” Judith asked when her mother came back inside.
“It was nothing,” was all her mother would say. A few days later, however, she sat Judith down for a talk. “If a lady ever pulls up in a car and tells you to get in with her,” she told her, “don’t go with her.”
“Why?” Judith asked.
“That woman that came the other day said she was your mother,” Sue Adams said.
Judith had known for most of her life that she had been adopted. Sue and George Adams had thought she should hear the truth as soon as she was old enough to understand it. But they’d never said who her birth parents were, and Judith never asked. Her early childhood had been hard; she was born with scoliosis, forced to wear a Milwaukee brace to straighten out her spine. Sue and George had helped her through it, been the only parents she felt she needed, even after they divorced when she was 13 and she and her younger sister had stayed with her mother.
Judith’s friends always laughed about how Sue could be overprotective to the point of paranoia—how she kept Dobermans in the yard and guns in the house, and waited for Judith in the parking lot when she attended school dances and went roller skating. Sue had a thing about strange cars, always telling Judith and her friends to watch out for them. Her sister was also adopted, but it was Judith whom Sue seemed to worry about the most.
In 1989, Sue Adams was terminally ill with heart disease. Judith was 33 then and working at a collection agency in Joplin, Missouri, just across the state line. She got a call from her father, George. “I need to talk to you about something,” he said.
When Judith arrived at his house, her adoptive father told her that he’d just heard from a woman named Ethel Louise Williams. Williams, he told Judith, was her birth mother. “I didn’t want to hold this back from you,” he said. “I want you to make your own decisions. I’ll give you this number and stand behind you whatever you do.” Five days later, Sue Adams died.
The timing of Judith’s biological mother’s appearance was unfortunate, even cruel. Judith couldn’t imagine what the woman wanted with her now, three decades after she’d given her up and just days before her adoptive mother’s death. But after a couple of days, curiosity got the better of her. She called up Williams and agreed to meet at the home Williams shared with her husband in Baxter Springs, just a few blocks from the house where Judith had lived as a child.
She drove over from Joplin the following afternoon. When she knocked on the door, a small woman with graying brown hair opened it. “You look just like your father,” she said.
Judith followed Williams inside. “I’ve got something for you,” Williams said, “and I’ve been holding on to it for a long time.” She handed her daughter a clutch of papers. “A lot of people want this transcript, but I told them that nobody gets it but you.” It looked like a typed letter, and contained in its pages, Williams said, was the story of Judith’s birth. Then she proceeded to tell it herself.
“Your father is a very important man,” she began. His name was M. A. Wright, and he was an oilman in Texas—not just any oilman but a wealthy and prominent one who had run Humble Oil and Exxon, two of the most powerful companies in the world. And he was still alive, down in Houston.
Judith stared at the papers. Though she didn’t yet realize it, the woman in front of her had forever divided her daughter’s life into two parts: the time before she knew, and everything that would come after.
Five years ago, I was visiting New York City from out of town and sat down for lunch with my literary agent. Or at least he was an agent who generously allowed me to think of him as my agent, despite the fact that it had been years since I had sold a book to a publisher, a book that was purchased by only a few thousand people. But this agent had been loyal in the way you’d hope agents would be but most probably aren’t. He always made time for me amid his successful clients.
One of them, as it happened, was Dominick Dunne, the well-known writer of sordid crime stories. It was because of this fact that the agent had recently received a phone call, out of the blue, from a woman who introduced herself as Judith Wright Patterson. She was from Missouri or Kansas—the agent wasn’t sure. The story of her life, she’d insisted, was the kind of tale that Dunne should write for Vanity Fair magazine. Her story seemed rather convoluted, but as far as the agent could make it out, the woman had discovered in midlife that she was the daughter of a wealthy oilman in Texas who’d quickly disowned her. Now she was trying to prove it, but the oilman was dead and her mother’s family had turned against her.
At the time, Dominick Dunne was working on a novel, and my agent thought he was probably too busy to tell her story. Dominick Dunne probably heard a dozen stories as crazy-sounding as this one, every day. But the agent took down Judith’s number anyway. Over lunch, he recounted the story to me. “Actually, that sounds kind of interesting,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “maybe you should call her then.”
A few days after I got home from New York, I dialed Carthage, Missouri. Judith picked up after the first ring—she is without question the fastest phone answerer I’ve ever met—and I introduced myself as a reporter. I told her that I’d only heard the outlines of her story but that it sounded remarkable.
“Evan, I’m going through a living hell,” she said. “I need your help.”
She then spoke for a half-hour, maybe. I interjected rarely, typing notes as she talked; she spoke slowly and carefully, so it wasn’t hard to get everything down. Later, when I met her in Missouri, I found that this deliberateness carried over in person. She was a natural storyteller, a presenter of the highest order. Her hair was always permed, her eyelashes curled, and her makeup touched up before I arrived. She walked gingerly due to lingering back problems from her scoliosis, which only served to enhance her sense of purposefulness. She had almond eyes and a can-you-believe-I’m-telling-you-this smile that exposed a set of prominent canines.
Five years after that first call, I am faced with hundreds of pages of notes describing dozens of hours’ worth of conversations with Judith Wright Patterson, in which I have dutifully recorded her telling and retelling a story as complex as it is strange. For most of that time, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. But I kept returning to Judith’s tale, I realize now, because I was seduced by the question at the center of it: If a stranger suddenly appeared in your life and offered you the chance to become someone else—to rewrite your own history and possibly your future—would you take it?
The story that Ethel Louise Williams told Judith began in 1955. That spring, Williams—then Ethel Louise Harris—took a Greyhound bus headed south out of Baxter Springs bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking for a new start. Her life so far had been one set of troubles after another. She was 21 years old and already had three children: two daughters, Diana and Roberta, and a son, Rickey. At 17, she had married a local man named Robert Harris and moved to California with him, but he had abused her and so she’d moved back home, though she had left Roberta with him. Now Louise, as people would later come to call her, was heading south to find a way to support the two children she had left.
Somewhere on the way to Tulsa, she noticed a man asleep in the backseat of the bus. She didn’t pay him much attention until there was a commotion and she looked back to find that he’d rolled off the seat and onto the floor. The passengers around him laughed, realizing that he hadn’t been asleep but rather stone drunk and passed out. Something about his expensive-looking suit caught Williams’s eye, though, and she took the water bottle and washrag she’d brought for her kids, helped him back into his seat, and started washing his face.
He reeked of alcohol and drunkenly introduced himself as one M. A. Wright. As the bus rolled on to Tulsa, he told her that he worked in the oil business and was headed to Oklahoma from New York. He said that he’d just traveled to Peru and Venezuela, where he’d been scouting property.
When the bus arrived in downtown Tulsa, she started to take him over to skid row, thinking that he’d find a place among other down-on-their-luck folks. But Wright insisted that they walk around. When he was on his feet, she noticed how handsome he was in spite of his oversize ears, with olive skin and brown hair just graying at the temples. And he was tall—tall enough that Louise could stand under his arm.
They wandered around, her two kids in tow, while he tried to find his bearings. He kept saying over and over that he was looking for a suite. “I’m sweet,” she said, flirtatiously.
“I know you’re sweet,” he said. “Boy, I sure can tell you’re from a hick town. I’m looking for a room with a bathroom in it. That’s what I want.”
They passed by the Adams Hotel, an art deco building on Cheyenne Avenue downtown. Wright seemed to know it and decided he’d find a room there. Louise, not understanding how he’d pay for it but needing to find a room of her own, took her kids and headed for a boardinghouse.
For Louise, Tulsa was bustling with the opportunity that had been lacking in Baxter Springs, a declining lead-mining town of several thousand residents whose primary claim to fame was the historic Route 66 highway that passed through its downtown. Within a few days, she had landed a job working as a waitress at the Dutchman’s, a steak house on the east side of Tulsa. But she hadn’t forgotten the man from the bus. One afternoon, walking down the street near where she’d last seen him, she ran into him again. She was pleased to find that he recognized her.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said. “Where have you been?”
They were standing next door to the Mayo Hotel, far and away Tulsa’s finest at a time when the city was awash in oil money; industrialists, oil barons, and celebrities regularly crossed its marble floor. Wright told her he’d taken a suite there. “Come on in,” he said. “I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”
As they sat in the hotel’s café, several of Wright’s acquaintances happened by: a pair of sisters who said their last name was Phillips, accompanied by two men. It was only when the older of the two introduced himself as Waite Phillips that Louise realized she was in the presence of one of America’s great oil families. The Phillips brothers—Frank and L.E.—had built the oil company of the same name that now spanned the globe. Waite, their younger brother, had started his own oil company to rival his brothers’, made a fortune, and sold it to them in 1930. From the way the Phillipses joked with Wright, Louise could tell they were good friends.
She started spending the evenings with Wright. They would eat at the Mayo and tour around the bars downtown, the meticulously dressed, 44-year-old oilman in his suits and turtleneck sweaters, the diminutive 21-year-old beauty wearing the jewelry he’d bought for her at Vandevers department store. She loved the way his hazel eyes changed color depending on the light. He smoked cigarettes out of a little silver case and grabbed nips from a flask he kept in his boot. Then one evening he invited her up to his room, and they kissed. She stayed the night.
They fell into an affair, and he moved her into a room next door at the Adams, paid for her to board Rickey and Diana with a woman in south Tulsa. He bought Diana a fluffy pink dress and put her in a private preschool. He told Louise that he’d been married and also had a daughter. Although she was never quite clear on the details, she was under the impression that he was divorced. Louise herself was still married to Roberta and Rickey’s father, but in name only; she didn’t even know where her husband was.
Wright bought her a set of luggage and a mink stole, a diamond watch and a diamond bracelet, pearls and earrings to match. He gave her a glamorous evening gown, made of a metallic-looking fabric, and squired her to dinners and parties with his wealthy friends. At a white tablecloth banquet out at the Tulsa Fairgrounds—part of some kind of oil exhibition, she remembered—she got to meet John Paul “J. P.” Getty, a real oil baron, the wealthiest industrialist in the world and one of its first billionaires. He was a jolly man, she said later, always laughing. The Phillipses were there, among other oilmen, whose names all ran together. And she certainly remembered Howard Hughes: He had a thing about washing his hands, she would tell people when she would recount the story decades later, and carried a shirt under his arm—an extra, she assumed, in case he spilled something on himself. When Wright introduced her to him, though, all Hughes said to him was, “What are you doing, trying to rob the cradle? She’s nothing but jailbait.” He’d said it right in front of her.
Spring edged into summer, and they remained lovers. She talked about getting their engagement photograph put into the paper; it seemed to her that things were moving in that direction. But Wright hedged. He didn’t like to have his picture taken, he said.
He was mysterious with her in other ways she didn’t understand. For one thing, he hadn’t told her what M.A. stood for. “I want to know who you are,” she finally told him one afternoon, walking down the street. “It’s not right for you to do me this way.”
“Marcus Arrington Wright,” he said.
“No, that’s not right,” she said, “because up there at the Mayo Hotel I’ve heard them call you Mike.”
Wright started to get agitated. “Call me M.A.,” he said.
So she dropped it. And then one night she was in his room at the Mayo. He put his arms around her and then stopped. She was pregnant, and he knew it.
What happened after that became all mixed up in Ethel Louise Williams’s memory. She later recalled that M. A. Wright became upset, hysterically so. He “couldn’t even lay his pants on the bedpost,” he told her, without her getting pregnant. It was no good for them to get married, he said, because she’d have a dozen kids.
But he also told her that he would take care of everything. He called someone—she thought it was a lawyer maybe. He argued with the man. It was his property, Wright shouted, and he could dang well do what he pleased with it. She later remembered he hung up the phone and told her not to worry. “Go ahead and get your picture in the paper,” he said. He had business in Houston, had to get out of town in a hurry. He wrote down some numbers and told her to hold on to them.
Something about it all made her feel cheap—“like a whore or something,” she later said. So she tore up the numbers and threw the scraps in the trash. The day he was supposed to leave they fought again, and he stormed out of the hotel room, leaving her crying and reaching after him. At the bottom of the stairs, just above the marble floor of the Mayo Hotel lobby, he looked back at her and told her that he’d never see her again. She knew in that moment that he was speaking the truth.
“So when he left you knew he was gone?” she was asked in a deposition 40 years later.
A: I knew he was gone. You know, I knew that I had—I was in a spot. I knew that I was in trouble because I would never ever see him again.
Q: Then why did you go get your pictures made?
A: I didn’t.
A: I did get my pictures made. I went down and got pictures taken, taken and everything because I was so proud of what I had. You know, I come from nothing, you know, and if you’ve got—maybe I’m wrong but the way I felt personally myself, back then, if you’ve got some nice clothes and you’ve got real jewelry—I’m not talking about stuff that’s cheap. I’m talking about something that’s real. A real set of pearls, a real diamond watch. You knew it was real, real. You want to show it off, you know.
So I went ahead and had a picture taken of me and—but I didn’t—and I thought about putting it in the paper but then when I got to thinking about it, you know, and then putting it all together, piecing it together, and then him telling me that—that he would never be back. I’d never see him ever again. And I didn’t know very much about him. He hadn’t told me who his family was, you know. How can I put something in the paper, you know?
So Louise gathered her things and her kids and moved home to Baxter Springs. On January 30, 1956, she gave birth to a daughter and named her Judith.
Louise’s own mother was furious with her, cursed her and humiliated her. Louise was still married, but her husband was missing, so she gave the child her maiden name, Bryant. Not long after, she divorced and then married a local man. They had a son and daughter, but that didn’t last either. In 1960, she married Charles Williams and took his last name to become Ethel Louise Williams. By then she’d given Judith up for adoption.
As Louise told her story, Judith remembers trying to keep from laughing in her mother’s face. Look at this sad poor woman, she thought, telling me that my father was a big oilman down in Texas. It was a strange way to assuage her guilt over giving her up for adoption. But now she at least knew who her birth mother was. She also found out that she had seven half-siblings and got in touch with one of them, Louise’s oldest daughter, Diana Stiebens, who lived in Kansas.
As the two were getting to know each other on the phone, Judith brought up what her mother had told her. “Can you believe this crazy story that my father was M. A. Wright?” she said. “How ridiculous is this?”
“It’s not ridiculous at all,” Diana told her. “That is your father. I met him.”
Stunned but still suspicious, Judith decided to do some research of her own, just to find out if M. A. Wright was real. She started with the library in Joplin, figuring that if the man had existed, and he was as big as her mother had said, there would be some record of him there. The librarian agreed to help her and a few days later called back to say she’d found news stories about an M. A. Wright meeting with politicians. Then she called the Tulsa library, which sent her an article with a picture of an M. A. Wright who had been an executive at Exxon.
His name was not Marcus Arrington but rather Myron Arnold Wright, and he had been born in Blair, Oklahoma, in 1911. As a child he’d moved with his family across the state from one tiny town to another, from Altus to Shattuck to Waynoka. Wright was industrious even in his youth, selling newspapers as a boy and working his way through Oklahoma State, where he captained the tennis team while earning a degree in civil engineering. After graduating in 1933, he passed on a municipal engineering position in favor of an $87.50-a-month job as an oil field roustabout for Carter Oil, a division of Standard Oil of New Jersey.
It was a gamble for an educated young man in the thick of the Great Depression, eschewing the security of a civil servant’s job for life on an Oklahoma pipeline gang, living in a $4-a-month bunkhouse. At the time, the oil industry in the United States was suffering as a result of market surpluses, a situation compounded by the country’s broader economic woes. When the business started to pick up, though, Wright’s engineering background proved valuable; college graduates with technical skills were few and far between on the oil patch. He soon moved into management, and the company relocated him from Oklahoma to New York City.
Mike, as his colleagues called him, held executive jobs at two Jersey subsidiaries and eventually became the production coordinator for Jersey itself, overseeing the company’s expansion in Libya. He earned a reputation, as a profile in the company magazine The Lamp described it, of a corporate everyman who “enthusiastically tackles the mountain of paper that daily rises on his desk” and made his way through half a dozen cups of coffee before lunchtime.
Wright was “a full-briefcase man,” in the words of one associate. “He always does his homework and always knows what he’s talking about,” another executive explained. “There’s no magic about getting ahead in a corporation,” Wright told an interviewer, “but you do have to work harder than the fellow next to you.” In hiring, Wright said he looked for similar qualities, judging “how hard a man works, for one thing, and his determination to succeed.” But he also looked at a man’s “character, his integrity, basic honesty, his personal life—all of these things are also extremely important.”
Wright and his wife, Izetta, an Oklahoma native he’d married just out of college, settled down in Scarsdale, New York, as he climbed the ranks of the company. Wright was active in a local civic group and kept up his tennis game. He passed the summers in Colorado Springs with his family and filled his office, one visitor said, “with paintings of Indians and the Old West.” The oil business over which he presided, meanwhile, was shedding its cowboy past and growing into a transnational colossus. In April of 1955, around the time that Ethel Louise Williams boarded the bus for Tulsa, world oil output hit a record high, with U.S. production averaging 6.9 million barrels a day. At age 44, Wright “had the looks of a streamlined John Wayne,” as one interviewer put it, and had climbed his way to the top of the industry that powered the new American empire.
In 1966, Wright was named the CEO of Humble Oil, at the time the country’s largest producer of crude. That same year he was made president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. He’d already served on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Water Commission, and by the late 1960s he was named to the board of governors for the U.S. Postal Service by President Richard Nixon. On his desk he kept a ceramic tiger representing Humble’s famous slogan, “Put a tiger in your tank.”
In demand on the business speakers’ circuit, Wright hired on a sharp young economics graduate student named Kenneth Lay as his ghost writer, who helped him pen speeches decrying the creeping dangers to capitalism from government regulation and environmentalism. (A published version of one of his stem-winders was deemed worthy of a 1974 hatchet job in The New York Times by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who described Wright as “a man of profound, even perverse, inadequacy in communication.”) Then, in 1973, Humble and other Jersey companies were realigned under the name Exxon, and Wright was chosen as the first chairman and CEO of the new conglomerate, commanding one of the most profitable and powerful companies in the United States—one that could project more influence in some corners of the world than the U.S. government itself. He presided over a corporate structure known for its ruthlessness and enforced loyalty, along with a value system that preached faith and piety above all.
Wright finally retired from the company in 1978 and worked for another decade as the CEO of Cameron Iron Works. After retiring from Cameron, he returned to a kind of emeritus position at Exxon. He was in his office in the company’s Houston offices one day in 1990 when he received a surprising phone call.
At the time she began digging into M. A. Wright’s life, Judith was divorced and living in Joplin, the mother of her own teenage son. The details of Wright’s ascent seemed like dispatches from another universe, and she was seized with the desire to know whether the man in the newspaper clippings was truly her father.
One day in 1990, she called the number for Exxon’s corporate offices in New York and managed to get the chairman’s secretary on the phone. Judith told her she was trying to reach an M. A. Wright whom she believed worked for Exxon. The secretary asked what the call was about. “I’ve found out I’m his illegitimate daughter,” she said.
The secretary told her she’d have to look into it. “We can’t help you,” Judith recalls the woman saying when she rang back. “But you sound like a determined person. You’ll find him.”
Next, Judith tried Exxon’s office in Houston, where she worked her way through the company’s automated voice mail until she reached a man in the royalties and deeds department whom she remembers as Mr. Fitch. Fitch appeared sympathetic to her story and told her that yes, M. A. Wright did still have an office there. He put through a message to Wright’s corporate secretary with details that Judith had given him, like Louise and Diana and Rickey’s names.
“Those names got you through the door,” Judith recalls Fitch telling her when he called her back. But Wright had denied that he was her father, he said, and refused to speak with her. Then Fitch, for reasons that Judith could only guess at, gave her Wright’s office number, in exchange for the promise that she wouldn’t call for a few days.
Judith dialed the number the next day. When Wright’s secretary put her through, she told him who she was. “This is kind of an awkward situation,” she said, “but I’ve been told that you are my biological father.”
“You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” Judith recalls Wright saying. She apologized and hung up.
But Wright’s answer did not sit well with Judith. She didn’t want to accuse the wrong man of having a child out of wedlock, but the more research she did, the more the details of Louise’s story seemed to point right back to the man from Exxon. So she called him again.
This time Wright was unexpectedly polite, and he answered Judith’s queries with an enigmatic question of his own. “What’s this about, your grandmother?” she remembers him asking. “Let me ask you a question,” he said when she seemed confused. “Is your mother’s husband bothering you wanting money?”
“No, they’ve never asked me for anything,” Judith said. But when she thought about it, it was strange how her mother had suddenly sought her out after all those years. “I will be honest with you,” she told Wright. “I do think it was about money that they looked me up.”
“Your thoughts are the same as mine,” he said, according to Judith. “I don’t want to talk anymore, I think this is blackmail.” And with that, he hung up again.
Judith pulled out the document that her mother had written, the one telling the story of how she and Wright had met, and called him back. Before he could get out another denial, she said, “I have a transcript of detailed things that only you and my birth mother would know. I want to send it to you.”
“Read it,” he said.
She did. Before she finished, she remembers, she could hear him crying on the other end of the line. “I owe you an apology,” he said. “This was not what I thought it was. You have not gotten what you deserved.”
After that conversation, Judith would call and speak to Wright regularly. They talked about their lives, Judith says, and he peppered her with questions about her family. Wright would never fully admit to being her father, and after a while she decided not to press him on it and risk what little relationship they had. “I said, ‘All I want is just to meet you,’” she later told me. “‘Just meet me one time. I’ll go away and never see you again.’” He said it wouldn’t do either of them any good to meet. “I have a family, too, you know,” he said. His first wife, Izetta had passed away in 1967, but he’d married again two years later, to Josephine Primm Wright, who had five children from her first marriage. And he had his own daughter to think about.
But Judith says that he apologized, at least, that he couldn’t seek out more of a connection with her. “He said, ‘This is not your fault,’” she told me. “If he said it once he said it a hundred times.” He warned her to be careful around her birth mother’s family, even though he was never clear on why exactly. “You do not belong in that circle,” he told her.
One day in the late summer of 1991, finally feeling like she wanted answers, she called and confronted him with the facts she had acquired in her research. “I know you were married at the time” of the affair, she told him.
“A lot of what you are saying is true,” he said.
“I know that you are my biological father!”
Wright stayed on the line but didn’t say anything. She repeated herself, and still he remained silent. Finally, she hung up on him.
Over a year passed before she called him again. When she did, his secretary, whom Judith had come to know well, picked up. “Mr. Wright passed away,” she said.
Some people might say that what Judith did next was about greed. But those people wouldn’t understand how close she’d grown to the man she now believed was her father. Precisely because she felt so much for him, she also felt aggrieved by his silent rejection, his refusal to own up to her existence or complete the fragmented story she’d begun to assemble. “My thoughts weren’t about money but that I could find the truth,” she told me. “This was a big mystery to me. It was like a jigsaw puzzle.”
She’d never asked Wright for anything when he was alive, except for the chance to meet him. But now that he was dead, she began to think that maybe she was owed something. That phrase he’d once uttered was lodged in her mind like a splinter: You have not gotten what you deserved.
A few weeks after Wright’s death, she got a lawyer down in Tulsa, a friendly ex–Marine Corps JAG officer named Terry Funk, to file a claim on the Texas estate of Myron A. Wright in Houston. Wright had died with a substantial fortune; how much exactly Judith didn’t know. But a portion of his will later released in court showed that he held $7 million in stocks and bonds alone. Most of his assets were to be divided between his second wife, Josephine, and his daughter from his first marriage—unless, of course, Judith could prove that he was her father as well.
In February 1994, a lawyer for M. A. Wright’s estate traveled from Houston to Tulsa to depose Ethel Louise Williams. Once Louise was sworn in, the lawyer coaxed from her an intimate and at times excruciatingly sad account of how she and Wright had become lovers. The lawyer pressed her on her specific memories of the man, asking if she remembered anything unusual about his physical appearance.
A: I recall his ears being big. He had huge ears, I mean—
Q: Big ears?
A: I mean, big ears.
Q: Was he well built? I mean, was he muscular?
A: He was a very well-built man. He had a—large shoulders and he was—he carried hisself very well.
Q: You did have an intimate sexual relationship with him?
Q: Was he circumcised?
A: I don’t think he was.
Q: What sticks out in your mind as being the most—the thing you remember most?
A: The thing that I remember most was that he was—he was such a gentle person, you know.… I deeply loved him.
When it came to the events that occurred after their affair had ended, however, Louise’s recollection grew muddled and contradictory. She remembered that he sent or gave her a deed—to what exactly she couldn’t say, maybe an oil field in Texas—and that she tore something up. She remembered receiving some checks, perhaps, in the first years after Judith was born—checks with little holes punched along the edge, signed by M. A. Wright. “It was very nice handwriting, penmanship,” she told the lawyer. “It was just—it was really nice.” She’d deposited a couple of them at a bank in Joplin, but they’d stopped coming.
She said she had not spoken to Wright after she last saw him, at the foot of the stairs of the Mayo Hotel in July 1955, until March 1990, when Judith—who had already contacted Wright—had asked her to call and confront him with the truth. “I don’t want to hear this,” he’d repeated over and over when she told him who she was, Louise testified.
“You don’t want to hear no more about it because you, you made a mess out of everything,” she’d replied. “You didn’t give a damn what happened to me.”
“There’s nothing I can do about this now,” he’d said. So she hung up on him and never called back.
Judith had come down to Tulsa for the deposition as well; Funk had told her to bring paperwork from a blood test, to be submitted to the court, and she’d done so. Louise, too, was to supply her medical records or a blood test. If there was a match, Funk had told Judith, the estate would likely want to settle.
After the deposition, Judith and her mother drove back north. Then, a few weeks later, according to Judith, Funk called her and said that the estate was offering her $50,000 to end the case. “He said, ‘Judith, you should take it,’” she told me. But something about it didn’t feel right, not having the results of the blood tests, not having seen any documents. “I asked for some kind of paperwork,” she said, “and that’s went it all went strange.”
In July of 1994, Funk abruptly withdrew from the case. Not long after, the judge threw out Judith’s claims. Her pursuit of a share of M. A. Wright’s estate, and with it a court’s seal of approval of her identity as his daughter, seemed to be over.
Judith’s former life, the one in which she was just the daughter of George and Sue Adams couldn’t be recovered. She came from somewhere else, she knew, not just a physical place but an unfamiliar world populated with rich and powerful people. But what good was that knowledge? It destroyed something and built little in its place.
The court case in Texas, as Judith understood it, had ended mysteriously. She couldn’t figure out why exactly she’d lost, why the blood-test results that would’ve revealed the truth had never come back. In any case, M. A. Wright’s money was gone, most of it to Wright’s second wife and his daughter by his first marriage. By the mid-1990s, Judith was, irrespective of her lineage, a struggling single mom with another young son to raise: Ryan, who had been born in 1993. Another marriage came and went, but she kept the man’s last name, Patterson. She worked as a telemarketer and then sold cosmetics. There wasn’t much time to dwell on what the money might have meant for her and Ryan.
But if Judith’s newly discovered birthright hadn’t brought her a fortune, her mother’s reappearance had brought her a new family. Louise’s other children came to accept her as a blood relative, and Judith reached out to as many of them as she could find. She kept up with her half-sister Diana in Kansas and occasionally talked on the phone with Vicki, who was out in California. She got to know her mother a little better, too, although they were never what you’d call close.
Judith spent the most time with her half-brother Rick Harris, who turned out to live just a few miles down the road. In 1995, he had opened up Rick’s Appliances in Joplin, which wasn’t far from Carthage, where Judith and Ryan now lived. (Shawn, her older son, was in his early twenties by then and out of the house.) One day, Rick called to ask if she could fill in for an absent employee at the appliance store. What started out as a favor soon became a regular job.
There was a darkness around the edges of her mother’s family, though. It crept up on Judith slowly, as she and her son were drawn into Louise’s orbit. Robert Harris, Louise’s first husband and Rick’s father, was said to have killed himself sometime in the 1960s or 1970s—“stuck a gun in his mouth and blowed his head off,” Louise had said in her deposition, although she couldn’t remember when it had happened. There were drug problems in the family. One of Louise’s sons had some kind of brain condition that prevented him from working; Louise had once said matter-of-factly that it was the result of her own mother hitting her in the stomach with a chair when she was pregnant with him. Vicki, Judith later told me, died mysteriously in 2001.
But Judith figured they were family now, and every family came with some drama. Maybe this one just had a little more than usual.
For several years, Judith had a recurring dream. She was at an opera with M. A. Wright, sitting in an ornate hall filled with people. He was dressed in a suit and tie but never spoke. She couldn’t remember much about the opera itself; in real life she’d never been to one. The vision haunted her in her waking hours. Every time she managed to bury her thoughts about the man she believed to be her father, the dream would exhume them.
After the dream came to her again one night in 2006, Judith called her friend Alice Burkhart. “We need to pray about this,” Burkhart told her, and they did. Judith asked God to help her find out everything, to uncover the truth about who she was and what had happened to her family.
The first step was finding out what exactly had happened in the Texas case more than a decade earlier. So she called up the lawyer down in Houston who had represented M. A. Wright’s estate in the battle over his will. “I know I’m late in looking,” Judith told her, “but what happened?”
“I really can’t talk to you about this,” the attorney said, according to Judith. “But it was that lawyer that you had.” Judith hadn’t lost the case really; her filings had been thrown out because her attorney, Terry Funk, hadn’t been licensed to practice law in Texas.
It shook Judith deeply to discover that someone she’d trusted to help her had failed her like that. Even worse, she thought, was the fact that he’d never told her what had happened, so that she might somehow fix it before it was too late.
Judith got to talking with the Wrights’ attorney about Judith’s scoliosis, and the lawyer told her that M. A. Wright had suffered from it as a child as well. Judith asked what had happened to Josephine, Wright’s widow. The lawyer said she heard that she’d died, but she didn’t know the details.
Tracking down an obituary for Josephine, Judith discovered that Wright’s widow was living in Seattle at the time of her death. She located a lawyer in Washington who agreed to represent her on contingency and filed a petition in an attempt to recover something from Josephine’s estate. The money had already been dispersed back in 2004, most of it to M. A. Wright’s daughter from his first marriage. (According to the terms of the will, once Josephine died, a good portion of Wright’s money was designated for his “issue.”) But under Washington law, if Judith could prove that she was Wright’s daughter and had been unlawfully excluded from the will, she could still recover whatever portion of the money a court deemed should have been hers.
M. A. Wright’s first daughter fought the petition—her name, incredibly, was also Judith—and was joined by one of Josephine Wright’s daughters. Judith’s lawyer handed the case off to an accomplished litigator named Michael Olver, who argued in filings that when Wright’s will stated that he intended his fortune to pass to his children, it was written in a way that should include not just his legitimate daughter but Judith as well. The blood tests that could have proved definitively that Judith was Wright’s daughter had never been completed, but DNA could now provide the answer just as easily. “The biological mother has twice sworn that Judith Patterson is the issue of M. A. Wright,” they wrote “Simple noninvasive testing with cotton swabs will confirm it.”
To fully pursue her new identity, though, Judith was going to have to undo her old one. To bolster the case, her Washington lawyers suggested she go to court in Kansas to have her adoption nullified. Josephine Wright happened to have moved to a state that specifically barred children given up for adoption from later claiming inheritance from their biological parents. The lawyers contacted a well-respected attorney in Kansas City named Gene Balloun, who agreed to represent Judith and filed to have her adoption vacated in the state of Kansas. To do so, however, he was going to need Louise’s testimony.
So one morning in August of 2006, Judith drove Louise two hours up to Kansas City. Ryan, now 13 years old, came along, as did Judith’s friend Alice Burkhart. That afternoon, Judith and Louise sat in Balloun’s office with a court reporter, and just like back in 1994, the lawyer asked Louise to recount every detail of her affair with M. A. Wright. Balloun walked her through the whole story, from the bus ride to the idyll at the Mayo Hotel to Wright’s discovery of her pregnancy and her return to Baxter Springs. The deposition was wrapping up when Balloun decided to clarify one detail for the record. “How long was it then before you ever saw your daughter again?” he asked.
“What was it, ’89?” Louise said.
Judith turned to her mother. This wasn’t right, she knew; she remembered the afternoon when she was 16, the strange woman on the porch, the men standing around the truck in the driveway. “You came to my house on 413 22nd street,” she said.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Louise said. “Probably around ’72, but I didn’t actually see her.”
“And how did that come about?” Balloun asked.
Louise suddenly looked wild-eyed and scared, Judith remembers. “I came down there to see if Sue would let me take her to Houston,” she finally blurted out. “Because they wanted me to—they wanted to see her. They didn’t believe that there was a daughter or something.”
“So you went down to Baxter Springs to see her?” Balloun continued.
“Did you actually get to see her?”
“No, not really. I saw her from the door, but I didn’t. Sue had two kids.”
Judith broke in again. “I answered the door, Mama.”
“Well, I didn’t know it was you.”
Judith felt the room pressing in on her. For a second time, the woman sitting across from her had collapsed the story of her life as she knew it. After that last night at the Mayo Hotel in 1955, Wright hadn’t disappeared without a trace. Louise had somehow been in contact with him, or his proxies at Exxon, and then he’d even sent someone to find her—to bring her to Houston so that he could see her for himself. You have not gotten what you deserved. Now that statement contained so much more meaning than Judith had understood.
When the deposition concluded, Judith drove back to Carthage, Ryan in the front seat and Louise and Alice in the back, all four sitting in near silence. When Judith and Ryan returned to their house late that night, there were messages on the machine from her half-brother Rick Harris wanting to know how the trip to Kansas City went. That’s odd, Judith thought. She didn’t recall telling him that they were going.
The next evening, a stranger came to the door. When Ryan answered it, the man asked if his father was home. Thinking better of revealing that it was just him and his mother living there, Ryan said, “He’ll be home any minute.”
The man had left the trunk of his car open. He walked over to it and returned with three peaches. “There’s three of you?” he said. “Here are three peaches.” He handed them to Ryan and Judith, who had joined her son in the doorway, then got in the car and drove away.
A week and a half later, Judith was napping in the bedroom when Ryan rushed in. “Mom, that man is back, and he’s driving a different car,” he said. “He’s trying to disguise himself.” The man had parked in the driveway, left the driver’s side door and back door open, and was ringing the doorbell. This time, Judith called the police. When they arrived, the man pulled a box of peaches out of the trunk and said he was just delivering an order. The cops laughed at that. They started calling the man “Peaches.”
Up in Kansas City, Gene Balloun had obtained the depositions from the original court case over M. A. Wright’s will, nearly 15 years earlier. He mailed Judith copies, and when she opened them her unease turned to dread. Now all the inscrutable things that Louise had said back then suddenly made sense. M. A. Wright had once tried to make things right, and something had gone terribly wrong.
At the end of the deposition, Louise had described to the lawyers how her mother and her aunt had taken the jewelry that Wright had bought her, stolen it from her flat out, along with the deed. “The pearl necklace, it was wrapped up in real pretty velvet,” she said. “And I had the ring in a ring box and the watch in a box. My mother’s sister, June Van Horn, came over there and started taking my stuff away from me, and her and I got into a fight. And she broke my necklace and Diana stuck the pearl up her nose and I had to take her to the doctor and get the pearl.” Van Horn, she said, had ended up with everything.
Later, after she’d moved out of her mother’s house, Louise had been back there and found “envelopes after envelopes from Humble Oil Company.” They were empty, she told the lawyers, and her mother had told her that they’d just been utility bills.
The tale grew stranger from there. In the 1960s, Louise had said, she found a letter at her mother’s house from a Houston lawyer named George Devine, telling her she urgently needed to contact him. When she called him, her mother took the phone away and hung it up. Then her aunt called Devine back pretending to be Louise.
Louise said that after that she wrote letters for years to Humble Oil in Houston, always addressed to “dear sirs,” trying to get ahold of Wright. “I had built him on a pedestal,” she said. “I felt like he would protect me and all my things was taken away from me, and I felt like that he would help me get Judy back.”
She never got an answer, she said, but in 1972 she did get a letter from Humble Oil asking her to return any documents she had. So she decided to go down to Houston and try to find M.A. herself. After she was unable to convince Sue Adams to let her take Judith, she brought her third husband and her son Rick, now a teenager, and managed to meet Humble’s then-president, Randall Meyer. “He said that he wanted me to come back that afternoon and we would probably get this matter all straightened out,” Louise recalled. But her husband had gotten a parking ticket when they went for lunch. Flustered and fed up with his wife’s oilman tales, he demanded that they drive back to Kansas and abandon the whole thing.
Louise’s memory seemed uncommonly sharp on certain details but foggy on others. “A lot of this stuff is blank in my mind,” she said at one point. “I’m going to tell you the truth, the way it’s happened. My mother beat on me ever since I was a child, and my mother was very angry with me when I got pregnant by M.A., because back in the ’50s, you didn’t get in trouble. You didn’t have a baby out of wedlock, and you didn’t live with people not married or anything. And lot of this stuff I don’t remember. I can’t remember.”
The family Judith had begun to feel close to, she now saw, had some connection to M. A. Wright beyond just Louise’s several-month affair. Once-cryptic details—Wright’s query, “What’s this about, your grandmother?”—suddenly clicked into place.
And yet the story remained a collection of fragments: Wright had somehow tried to send money and oil deeds to Louise, and maybe even to Judith. They had been intercepted along the way. It was unclear if her mother was a perpetrator or—if her deposition was to be believed—a victim of her own crooked family. Whichever it was, Judith was beginning to suspect that the new family she’d embraced had drawn her close for reasons she’d never imagined.
Still, Judith pressed on with her attempt to nullify her adoption. Even if elements of the family she was joining appeared increasingly sinister, she needed to be legally part of it to attain the place among Wright’s heirs that she so badly wanted. In November 2006, a district judge in Cherokee County, Kansas, issued a judgment voiding Judith’s adoption and confirming the facts of the case as Judith herself now understood them. “Ms. Patterson was born Judy Diane Bryant on January 30, 1956,” he wrote. “Her birth mother was Ethel Louise Harris, also known as Ethel Bryant, and now known as Ethel Louise Williams. Her birth father was Myron A. Wright.”
There it was, at last, on paper. As soon as the verdict came down, Judith started going by Judith Wright Patterson.
When I called Judith for the first time in the spring of 2008, it had been two years since her adoption had been dissolved. Her suspicions about her mother’s family had calcified into a certainty shot through with anger and fear. She knew now, she told me, that her mother’s family had robbed her of the money that M. A. Wright had sent her for decades—and she was convinced that they were now conspiring to do worse. “My life will never be the same,” she told me.
In September 2007, Judith had lost her initial lawsuit in Washington over Josephine Wright’s will. The case hinged on the fact that the will specifically bequeathed most of M. A. Wright’s remaining fortune to his “lawful issue,” excluding any illegitimate children. Her lawyers were appealing the verdict. Meanwhile, she was engaged in a new legal battle, this one in Missouri, against her mother’s family. She’d enlisted a local lawyer to pursue a civil case alleging that her mother and her half-brother Rick—whom she saw as the ringleaders—along with half a dozen other relatives, had engaged in a conspiracy to intercept money from Wright that was intended for her.
“I think basically my dad did try to stop this, at least make sure this money was going to me,” Judith told me on the phone. “But I think these folks stepped in and had him over a barrel, saying that we are going to expose you. There wasn’t anything that he could do.”
“Were they living high on the money?” I asked her.
“That’s the catch: this is where they fooled everybody,” she said. “To look at these people, around this area right here, you would not suspect them in any way.”
Bit by bit over months, Judith described to me the scattered but tantalizing documentation she’d collected to prove that her family was not what it seemed. Through a blend of Midwestern friendliness and an almost frightening persistence, she had amassed a small mountain of papers. She’d employed private investigators in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri to run traces on family members both immediate and distant. They’d found evidence, she told me, of aliases and hidden bank accounts, of money-laundering vehicles and strange trusts in distant states, of oil wells deeded to names that matched up with members of her family.
She’d pried loose some documents from Exxon, too, including one concerning an oil field that Louise had mentioned in one of her depositions. It was in Tomball, Texas, just outside Houston. The field had changed hands over the years, but Judith had followed the trail of ownership through a series of oil companies until she found a link between one of the Tomball leases and an address Louise Williams had once used in Coweta, Oklahoma.
The documents indicated that some oil royalties had been sent to that address. According to a letter she received from Exxon, the payments had begun in the 1950s, only to be suspended sometime in the next decade. “It dawned on me: That’s why my mother contacted me in 1972!” she told me excitedly. “My father must have known that the money wasn’t going to the right people, so he sent an investigator down and stopped the payments.” She suspected that her mother had used another relative to impersonate her—which would explain some of the confused conversations she’d had with Wright on the phone before he died.
The most important document that Judith had gotten out of the Exxon archives, however, was a handwritten letter that the company had received back in 1958 when it was still Humble Oil. The letter read:
Humble Oil and Refining Co
m. a. wright passed away after spending 3 years in a state mental hospital. I cashed his checks and sent him clothes until he died the bank will no longer cash them unless they are made to me. I am his sister the last in his immediate family the checks are not much but I am nearly blind and I can use it I want to put a marker at his grave. Wright’s funeral home Coweta okla could furnish death certificate.
Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a half-filled-out document marked “Record of Funeral” for one Marcus Arrington Wright. It was the name that M. A. Wright had given Louise during their tryst at the Mayo Hotel.
Judith and her lawyers were certain this meant that Louise had tried to extract money from Wright’s company by duping its executives into believing their employee was dead. It seemed like a clumsy con, but if that’s what it was, Judith believed, it proved that her mother had been trying to get her hands on Wright’s money for years.
Judith took the information she had gathered to the police department in Carthage, hoping to secure an identity-theft claim against her mother and half-brother. The cops didn’t laugh about “Peaches” this time, but they were flummoxed by the complexity of her allegations. They quickly ascertained that whatever had happened had occurred mostly outside their jurisdiction; Judith’s story ranged across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New York.
But before the police dropped the case, Judith had managed to procure one more piece of evidence that would later prove valuable. One afternoon she went to Louise’s house and—despite their ongoing legal dispute—convinced her to ride down to the nearby Baxter Springs police station and give a new statement. Why her mother agreed to it is entirely unclear. Later she’d claim that her daughter had “kidnapped” her—raising the question of whether the statement was written under duress. But at the station that day, Louise hand-wrote and signed an affidavit witnessed by a clerk. “My entire family blackmailed M. A. Wright for money for gas and oil stocks property trust fund,” she admitted.
The document, like all the scraps that Judith had gathered, seemed at once to suggest everything and add up to nothing. But at the very least, someone had admitted, on paper, to blackmailing Wright.
In early 2009, Judith’s lawsuit in Missouri was thrown out. If the family had stolen money from M. A. Wright, the court concluded, the proper place to pursue the claim would be in Harris County, Texas, where Wright’s estate had originated. Judith found a lawyer there and filed suit in Houston, where Wright’s will had been adjudicated back in 1994.
It was at this point that I began to discern a pattern in Judith’s legal representation. Her lawyers almost always took up her case on contingency, hoping to make their money back when she won—Wright’s estate, after all, had been worth millions, and in its basic outlines Judith’s case seemed like a promising one. But Judith would inevitably part ways with them along the road to justice. Whether the attorneys somehow lost faith in the cause or just grew weary of struggling with Judith’s story wasn’t always clear.
Every time I talked to her, it seemed, she’d added one lawyer and subtracted another, to the point where, after several years, I had trouble keeping them straight—even as she continued to bring up names I’d not yet heard. There was Terry Funk, of course, and a character named Jim Lloyd who had once represented her mother. There was Daniel Whitworth, a local attorney, and Gene Balloun, out of Kansas City. There’d been Michael Olver and Richard Wills in Washington, and then there were others who seemed to pop up in our conversations once and then never appear again. “Gary Richardson, attorney in Tulsa, I’m going to see if he can’t line up with this attorney that I have here,” read my notes from a conversation with Judith in September 2008. Richardson never did. Judith once suggested she was going to engage the famed celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro. Nothing ever came of it.
When I tracked down Judith’s lawyers and investigators, they usually told me versions of the same story. “She gets excited and she just kind of goes on a roll,” Whitworth told me. “Normally, when you talk to people like that, you weigh it with a grain of salt. But the interesting thing is that when you dig into it, there appears to be merit in what she is saying. My opinion is that she’s right.” He paused. “I suppose I represent her, so I’m supposed to say that.”
When Michael Olver first heard Judith’s story, it sounded to him like “a Friday night movie of the week.” But over time, he told me, he came to trust her. “I can tell you that in dealing with Ms. Patterson, every time we’ve heard her describe something and we’ve checked it out, it’s been accurate,” he said.
Then there was Joseph Norwood, another Tulsa attorney who briefly seemed like the man to talk to about the case; Judith had described him to me as “kind of like my spokesperson” at one point in 2008. “Right now I’m still kind of getting my head wrapped around it and figuring out where to take the deal,” Norwood told me when I reached him at his office. “I do believe there is merit.” I began running through the litany of accusations and conspiracies that I’d piled up in my notes. “Here’s the problem,” he said. “Judith has been completely overwhelmed and turned obsessed on this situation. She sees things that are not there. She’s become damn near full-blown paranoid.
“I daresay I can’t blame her,” he added. “She’s been through a lot.”
A few months later, when I brought up Norwood, Judith told me he was no longer representing her. “He’s not wealthy enough to put together the case,” she said. “Brilliant man.”
And so lawyers came and went, drawn in by Judith’s story and then driven off by its complexity and the expense that would be necessary to make anything out of it. Judith herself, however, remained undaunted. By 2010, she had lost her appeal in Washington but was still confident that she could win in Texas. “I think this thing is going to blow wide open, is what I think,” she told me. She had enlisted the services of Jeff Zimmerman, a litigator from Kansas City, who had found out about Judith’s case when she rented a house from a former client of his. Now he was serving as a kind of consigliore, interpreting between Judith and her own lawyers.
When I called Zimmerman, I found myself listening to a refrain that by now was so familiar I could practically mouth the words along with him. “If you asked Judith to sit down for a couple hours and tell you the story, you’d say ‘that’s really kooky,’” Zimmerman told me. “But when you start to tie together all the evidence—I tell you, it’s probably the strangest case I’ve ever been involved with.”
Even as her legal battles were flagging, Judith was at last finding some purchase in the world Wright had inhabited. In 2005, she had looked up the phone number for the Oklahoma ranch that had belonged to the Phillips oil dynasty. In her depositions, Louise had described a pair of Phillips sisters and Waite Phillips as being close friends of Wright. Perhaps one of them could shed some light on the affair.
Judith eventually found her way to Jean Phillips, one of the few remaining members of the Phillips family from the same generation as M. A. Wright and a good friend of his. Phillips “wasn’t surprised at all when I contacted her,” Judith told me. “She said, ‘You were a secret through the Phillips family and in the oil industry for years.’”
The two women became friends. Phillips was one of the few people who accepted Judith for who she now wanted to be. “It was never like, ‘What makes you think he’s your father?’” Judith told me. “She knew he was. She said, ‘Honey, you need to hold your head up high. You come from good blood.’”
Phillips took a particular interest in Judith’s son Ryan, then a teenager, and once invited the two of them to Tulsa. “This was a million-dollar neighborhood; J. P. Getty had lived across the street,” Ryan recalled. “And walking in there, it was a whole different world.” Phillips, he said, treated them like they belonged. She told Ryan that he should get into the oil business like his grandfather had. “She said right off the bat, ‘That was your grandfather, be proud.’ We hadn’t taken any DNA or brought pictures, and she is showing family photos.”
But at the end of the day, it was time to go back. “You’ve got all these thoughts, and then you come back to your little town where you grew up, and you don’t see the same future in it,” he said. “You suddenly don’t feel like you belong. You go back to your friends—you can’t be that and be here. You’re in a Cinderella world. And you come back to this world and you are trapped in between.”
In December of 2011, I went to visit Judith in Carthage. I pulled my rental car up to a yellow one-story condo with a gravel front path, in a new-looking development of cookie-cutter buildings on the east side of town. When Judith opened the front door, she greeted me like an old friend. Which, in a way, I was; we’d talked every few weeks or so for the better part of three years now. She had dyed her hair black and wore it long. Her eyebrows were painted on, and her face was framed by oversize hoop earrings.
By this point, I’d evolved almost by sheer force of exposure from a reporter to someone she seemed to view as a mixture of confidant and potential advocate. At times I found myself overwhelmed by the complexity of her tale and the strange menagerie of characters who drifted in and out of it. Now, at least, I could cross-reference it with the evidence she’d described to me so many times on the phone, contained in bankers boxes of documents stacked up in her closet.
By the afternoon, we were sitting in her living room—decked out for the holidays with wreaths and a tree—with papers and photographs stacked in concentric circles around us on the carpet. The files seemed to be ordered according to some methodology that only Judith understood, so I leafed through documents randomly, occasionally setting aside ones that seemed to hint at some significance.
Judith pulled out a photo album. “These I treasure,” she said, paging through the pictures. “This is my heart. This is what I’m leaving to my kids. These pictures I’ll never be able to replace.” The album contained what looked like official corporate photos of M. A. Wright, along with photocopies of his college yearbook. These were interspersed with pictures of Judith on her trips to see Jean Phillips and encouraging letters Phillip had sent her over the years.
On the phone, Judith had recounted evidence that seemed to fit perfectly into the narrative she had assembled. When I sat down with her and went through all the documents myself, the puzzle was more challenging. It wasn’t that the documentation didn’t exist; it was that the conclusions Judith drew from it required a chain of connections that each rested on an additional piece of evidence. Documents like her mother’s letter to Humble Oil seemed tantalizingly close to proving her story but in some ways only invited more questions.
The evidentiary touchstone to which Judith kept returning was always Tomball. The oil field outside Houston that Humble Oil once operated had been transferred to another company and then another. But Judith had called all of them and eventually turned up a record of unclaimed money in M. A. Wright’s name, which indeed appeared to have been headed for Rural Route 1 in Coweta, Oklahoma, and was now held by the Oklahoma state treasury. One of her investigators found the same Rural Route 1 address associated with Louise Williams. That much of the story seemed tangible: At some point, oil companies had been sending checks in an M. A. Wright’s name to a Louise Williams, whether he knew it or not. Judith even convinced the Oklahoma Unclaimed Property Division to send her one of the checks, for $76.96.
Where the conspiracy had gone from there was a matter of speculation. Judith met and befriended a local woman named Violet Jean Vasquez, who had grown up down the street from Louise’s family and described having heard, while playing at their house as a child, Louise and her relatives discussing how they were collecting money from an oilman. Vasquez later dated Rick Harris and worked at Rick’s Appliances, and reported a wealth of suspicious details to Judith: his handling of large amounts of cash, strange life-insurance policies, and mysterious government checks.
By this point, Judith’s relationship with her mother’s side of the family had long since soured. This wasn’t surprising, given that they’d all been served papers for the fraud lawsuit she’d filed against them. Her half-sister Diana, who had once described to her meeting M. A. Wright in Tulsa as a child, now refused to speak to her. Things only worsened after a 2007 story on Judith’s lineage by local TV news anchor Dowe Quick. Quick managed a brief interview with Louise at her front door in which she angrily declared, “I’m the victim of all of this. I’ve had this stuff stolen from me, years ago.”
After that, strange events kept happening around Judith’s home. Her car’s engine went haywire, and one of her tires blew out not long after. She called the police about possible prowlers out behind the house and to report that someone may have tampered with her heating vents when she was out. She thought the house might be bugged. And there’d been the man who’d showed up at the front door claiming to be delivering peaches; later, Judith became convinced that he was connected to Rick Harris.
Years before, when Judith worked at Rick’s appliance store, she and her sons would attend weekend barbecues at his house. They took trips and even spent holidays together. But as they grew close, Harris had always struck her as a volatile man, with a lighting-quick temper and a haughty pride born from the fact that he’d come from nothing and made something of himself. To outward appearances, the appliance store never seemed like a thriving business, but he was extravagant with his money, flashing it around and gambling liberally on weekend trips to casinos outside Kansas City and spur-of-the-moment jaunts to Las Vegas. He bought new cars and a wood-paneled hot tub that he put in the yard out behind his house.
In July 2008, I called Judith and found her in an unusually agitated state. “I had something very traumatic happen today,” she told me. “There wasn’t much air coming in, and I called somebody to look at the air conditioner. And the guy said, ‘Ma’am, you better come out and look at this. Somebody has opened up your box and pulled out one piece, the relay. You’ve got somebody mad at you.’”
Judith said she didn’t know who was behind it, but she thought it quite a coincidence that Rick owned an appliance store and here someone had vandalized her central air. She called the police, who filed a report and agreed to send a patrol car by periodically to check on the house. Not long after, while out to dinner with Violet Jean Vasquez, a man followed them out of a restaurant and, Judith says, ran them off the road.
After one too many scares, she stopped letting Ryan ride the bus to school. He took to sleeping with a butcher knife between his mattress and box spring. Judith started sleeping in a chair in the living room, not knowing if she would wake up with someone standing over her. “I was scared to leave my own house for a long time,” she later told me. “I didn’t know if I was going to get a bullet put to me or what.” For a while, she and Ryan moved into Alice Burkhart’s house and only returned home by day to pick up clothes.
By then, however, it was too late for Judith to turn back. Unraveling the story of M. A. Wright had become her full-time occupation. The job at Rick’s shop had ended, predictably, when she served him with papers. She had thrown her back out working as a massage therapist back in 2006 and was living off the disability payments. By the end of 2008, she’d lost the house in Carthage and moved out of town temporarily, to a cheaper place in Loma Linda, a town outside Joplin. But the Texas lawsuit was up and running, and she felt like there was light coming at the end of a very long tunnel.
In April 2009, she flew down to Houston for a few days to meet with her lawyers. Ryan stayed with Alice, and they picked Judith up from the airport when she returned. As they made the last turn back to the house in Loma Linda, they passed a car coming the other direction.
“There’s Rick,” Ryan said.
“No way,” Judith replied.
When they pulled into the driveway, however, Rick pulled in behind them, blocking the way out. “He didn’t get out of his car,” Judith told me. “He just sat there” and stared. Ryan jumped out and ran to the neighbor’s house, but no one was home. So the three of them made a break for the garage, and inside Judith called the sheriff. Harris left before the sheriff arrived. Later, her neighbors said Rick had been asking around for her.
The next week, Judith went to court and got an order of protection against Rick. By the time I visited her in Carthage, she had become convinced that her half-brother was the mastermind, the linchpin to the whole conspiracy and the reason she’d feared for her and her sons’ lives for years. But after reading the police reports from the incidents Judith had described, I’d begun to wonder if they were really anything more than the confrontations you’d expect between feuding relatives. The only way to find out, I figured, was to go to Joplin myself.
Joplin, like Carthage, is nestled in the southwest corner of Missouri, where it meets Kansas and Oklahoma. Once famous for being the site of some of Bonnie and Clyde’s first bank robberies, it acquired a grimmer place in the national consciousness after the 2011 tornado that killed 158 people. Driving toward downtown, I could still see the lingering devastation: Whole tracts of suburban-style homes had been obliterated down to their foundations and never rebuilt. The local high school looked liked it had been hit with a bomb.
The section of Joplin’s Main Street where Rick’s Appliances was located had seen better days, but it at least appeared to have been spared the storm’s wrath. It was 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday when I pulled up there. The store was locked, despite the sign out front that said it was open until five. When I peered through the glass, no one appeared to be inside. At first it wasn’t clear that the store was in business at all. The showroom was virtually empty, with a few battered-looking washers and a refrigerator haphazardly arranged across a stained carpet.
I cupped my hands to the glass to get a better look and noticed a bearded, heavyset man visible through an open doorway to a back room. I knocked loudly on the glass and waved. The man turned his head slowly toward me, then turned back and wandered away. A moment later another man walked out from the back and approached the front door.
He was small—five foot eight, according to the arrest records I later obtained—with brown hair and brown eyes, wearing a pair of large metal-rimmed glasses. His hair was slicked over to one side. He unlocked the front door and cracked it open, glaring at me suspiciously. I introduced myself as a journalist and said I was writing about a lawsuit related to M. A. Wright. Did he know anything about it?
“Yeah, and it’s bullshit!” he shouted.
“OK, I just wanted to find out what you thought about it,” I said. “That’s all.”
“Get in here,” he said, opening the door wider and waving me inside.
“Alright,” I heard myself saying.
He slammed the door fully open against the wall and held onto it while the sound reverberated through the mostly empty shop. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes, as if he was trying to hold back a tide of fury and anguish that was about to pour forth. “That fucking lawsuit is by Judy”—here he let out a kind of angry grunt—“fucking Patterson over in Carthage. That sonofabitch needs to be arrested!”
He leaned in toward me, and for a moment it looked like he was going to hit me. “OK,” I said again, leaning back. “I just want to talk about it.”
“She had that same goddamn lawsuit here in Joplin, back in ’08, and had three court hearings here! The case was dismissed because there was no damn truth to it whatsoever,” he said. “She’s a worthless motherfucker, man.” He slammed the door against the wall again. “Fucking sonofabitch pisses me off, man!”
“I can tell,” I said.
“Nobody owes her nothing!” he shouted. “My family don’t owe her a goddamn fucking dime. And the sonofabitch is just trying to get money out of everybody so she doesn’t have to fucking work for a living in this goddamn fucking world.”
Harris started backing me out of the store, stepping in close enough that I was forced into the threshold and then onto the sidewalk. I asked if there was a phone number where I could reach him. He stared at me blankly. “I’m not going to be here,” he said. “I’m locking this sonofabitch up.” He closed the door and disappeared into the back.
Judith wasn’t surprised that Rick had come undone in front of me, nor that the store itself seemed to be barely functioning. “That place should have been folded up beaucoup long time ago,” she said. “There’s not enough money there to keep the place going, but he was laundering money through that business.”
If that was the case, however, none of Judith’s investigators or lawyers had ever managed to produce any hard evidence of it. And the visit to Rick’s Appliances had brought to mind a lingering question I’d had since Judith first told me about the money that her family allegedly had stolen: Where had it all gone? Rick, for all his volcanic rage, struck me as an unlikely financial mastermind. His house was small and simple, on the edge of a trash-filled culvert. From what I could discern, none of the other relatives seemed to be living much better.
Louise, meanwhile, had gone missing. Judith hadn’t seen her in over a year. Judith was, in some sense, back where she’d started. And it wasn’t clear if by pressing on she had any hope of winning back more than she’d already lost.
Back home after the trip to Carthage, I tried to navigate the thicket of facts I had dutifully set down in notebooks and tape recorders. The longer I talked to Judith, the more difficult it became to write anything about her saga. The evidence was so simultaneously scattershot and voluminous that it seemed impossible to corral. Something extraordinary had happened to her, that much was certain. And something dark clearly had taken place in her family—indeed, it seemed to still be happening. But a great many of the answers lay in a time that was now out of any reasonable reach of memory. Judith was fighting a war against a basic erosion of historical facts, and I had unwittingly ended up fighting it alongside her.
At times her motivations seemed to slip into something like revenge. “I probably will never be able to ever, ever get back all this money that these people have taken,” Judith admitted to me at one point. “I hate the fact that Rick has any of this. But the public humiliation that he is going to have to deal with down the line, I wouldn’t want to be walking in his shoes.” The further I waded into the story, the more I wondered how I could possibly untangle what was important from the petty grievances of a messed-up family.
Several months later, I was reading through the court filings for Judith’s lawsuit in Texas, as it wended its way toward trial, when one document caught my eye. It was a note postmarked November 29, 2010, from Louise Williams to the court:
Dear Judge Weiman,
I have no money to travel and my Doctor won’t let me go that Far because of my Health. And Just about everything Judy Patterson has Said is a Lie.… This is about the Fourth time She has Done this she Wants to make a Movie of me and my family & Smear our names all over the world. If I had any money I would sue her.
Something Bad is going to happen to Because [God] Don’t like ugly.
Ethel Louise Williams
Smear our names all over the world. Was she referring to me? I remembered back to my visit, when I’d been sitting in Judith’s living room and she’d answered a call on her cell phone. “Can I call you back?” she’d said. “Evan is here.” Not “that reporter” or writer or any of the ways I’d described myself to try and make clear the boundaries of our relationship. As many times as I explained to her that we weren’t really on the same side, that my journalistic motives were not necessarily aligned with her legal and personal ones, it never seemed to sink in. “I’m beginning to think that some sort of media attention would help us,” she confided to me at one point.
Reading Louise’s letter, though, I realized it was more than that. I’d set out to make Judith a character in my story, and instead I’d become a character in hers.
On January 30, 2012, Judith Wright Patterson finally got her day in court. She and her lawyer Seth Nichamoff appeared before Judge Larry Weiman of the 80th District Court in Harris County, encompassing Houston. By this point, the defendants in the case had been whittled down to Ethel Louise Williams and Rick Harris. Although she still suspected many of her other relatives were involved, she’d dropped her accusations against them after her half-sister Diana had fought the case with attorneys of her own.
Neither Rick nor Louise had ever hired a lawyer to defend themselves, nor did they show up that day for the court appearance. Even so, the judge proceeded to rule against Judith. Whatever her relatives might have done to M. A. Wright, she hadn’t proven that they’d stolen from her, and they didn’t owe her anything as a result. And that was it.
I was relieved to find that Judith considered the verdict final and, oddly, something of a victory. Even if the judge hadn’t ultimately ruled in her favor, she told me when I talked to her just after her court date, his comments in open court had persuaded her that he believed M. A. Wright was defrauded. He just didn’t believe there was enough evidence that she had been. Her decades of legal battles were over, and she’d lost nearly all of them. She would never see a dollar from Wright’s family or her mother’s.
Later, Nichamoff admitted to me that while he had hoped for a different outcome, he knew they’d never truly tied together the story’s loose ends in a way that would satisfy the judge. “Did they take property that specifically belonged to Judith?” he told me. “We just don’t have any evidence of that. We never did.
“My guess,” he went on, “at the end of the day, did these people extort money from Myron Wright? Yeah, it did happen. Absolutely, there is no doubt. But then what? These are people living in trailer parks. There is no honor and no victory, morally, legally, or financially, in making people’s lives more miserable than they already are.”
My conversations with Judith tapered off after the verdict, but a year later, in early 2013, I decided to go back to see her. I flew first to Tulsa and spent a few days driving around town, looking for the landmarks that had figured into Louise’s account of her affair with M. A. Wright. The Dutchman’s steak house where she’d worked is now a small strip mall anchored by an out-of-season Halloween store. The Adams Hotel, where she’d first left Wright and later lived for several months as a kept woman, still has its ornate art deco exterior, but it has long since been transformed into an office building, with a Mexican restaurant on the ground floor.
The Mayo, next door, fell into disrepair in the 1980s, but it recently came under new ownership and has been restored to something approaching its original glory. It now houses a small museum dedicated to its history, and I wandered through it, past the photos of the celebrities and politicians who’d stayed there in its heyday: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. I stood atop the steps where Louise remembered standing when M. A. Wright told her that she’d never see him again.
On the other side of town I stopped in on Terry Funk, the lawyer who had represented Judith in her first lawsuit back in 1994. Judith had filed an ethics complaint against him, but they’d halfway reconciled, and she still called him occasionally to fill him in on the case’s progress. It was like that with Judith.
Funk, wearing a white button-down monogrammed with his initials, genially welcomed me into his glassed-in high-rise office. I sat across from him at his desk and pressed him to remember what he could of the case in which he had once been embroiled. “She had a good story,” he told me. “You get a lot of b.s. cases, but for some reason I tended to believe her.”
He remembered filing for her in Texas and warning her that he wasn’t licensed—“that ended up getting me in trouble,” he said—and confirmed that Wright’s lawyers had “made some kind of offer, I don’t even know what.” Nor could he remember the blood tests or the audiotapes that Judith told me she’d given him of conversations with Wright. It had been two decades almost, and many of the specifics of the case eluded him. But Judith’s other lawyers had long suspected that Funk remembered much more than he let on. Hoping to force his memory, I reminded him of something he had said in Louise’s deposition. He paused. “I kept a diary in Vietnam,” he said after a moment, “and I was reading through it the other day. I saw that ‘he did this, we did that,’ and I said to myself, I don’t remember that. But there it is on paper.”
The next day I drove up to Carthage and checked into the Best Western Precious Moments Hotel, just off the highway. I wanted to try one more time to talk to Rick Harris and Ethel Louise Williams, the two people who could still, if I managed to get them to talk, fill in the story’s gaps. With the legal battle over, I figured, maybe they would finally tell their stories.
Judith had told me that she’d heard that Rick had grown more erratic, attacking customers at the store. Indeed, on the website for the Joplin police I found the record of an arrest the previous year for assault, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest. He’d failed to show up in court several times since. Now, she said, he’d disappeared, having moved out of his house to nobody knew where. When I drove by his shop, I saw it had been transformed into an antiques store. The proprietors had never met him but had heard stories of his outbursts.
The next day, on an oppressive ash-sky afternoon, I drove across the Kansas border to Baxter Springs, to the last address I could find for Ethel Louise Williams. The house was just off the old Route 66, but without the historical markers the street looked like any other in a small town. Williams’s home was a gray two-story house with a green roof. The yard was overrun with junk: an empty blue barrel, a small sculpture of a lighthouse, a green plastic cactus. The most prominent item was a wood-paneled hot tub with one side caved in.
There was a car in the driveway; I parked behind it and walked up to the front door. A sign on it read, “This is a no smoking house. Oxygen tanks in use.” Through the little window in the door I could see tanks strewn around and a stack of moldy-looking mail on a nearby table, but not much else. I knocked, then rang the doorbell. Nothing stirred.
I drove over twice more in the next two days, but nobody ever came to the door. In truth, I felt relieved. Ethel Louise Williams would be 79 years old, and apparently was in poor health. Her doctor had written a note to the court saying she had dementia.
Most of our stories pass into oblivion along with the dead. M. A. Wright died in 1992. Jean Phillips passed away in 2010. Wright’s second wife, Josephine, died in 2004, followed by Wright’s daughter by his first marriage, Judith Wright Reid, in 2008. They all died before I found time to call and ask them what in Judith’s story was true to their own experience. Even Dominick Dunne died in 2009, suggesting the counterfactual possibility that if Judith had really gotten to him, the account of her story might’ve died with him. I doubt it, though. Judith would have found someone like me eventually.
There are dozens of possible versions of the truth in Judith’s life story, alternate explanations for all the pages in the boxes stacked in her bedroom closet. I have hours of tape of Judith telling me the story in different configurations, starting at different points. After years of wading through it all, my own best guess at the truth is this: That M. A. Wright likely did have that affair with Ethel Louise Williams, and Judith was the result. That Louise, by her own admission, tried to obtain money from Wright after putting Judith up for adoption—money that, it should be said, she and Judith both would have deserved from him. That her family tried to get that money, too, an effort that may very well have metastasized into decades of blackmail and grifting. That Wright made a mistake of passion fifty years ago and largely avoided the consequences.
But that’s all it really is, in the end: a guess. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I still wonder if this all could be some great hoax. That I sometimes wonder how Ethel Louise Williams’s memory of those days in 1955 could be so cloudy at times and yet so perfect when it came to the details that mattered. That after examining the chains of evidence I have concluded that they are almost all circumstantial, and sometimes even contradictory. That I, with a vested interest in my guess being correct, am perhaps no more reliable a narrator of Judith’s story than she is.
One day not long ago, I finally managed to track down Diana Stiebens, Judith’s half-sister, and reach her by phone. She had long since stopped talking to everyone in her family, she said. She’d felt betrayed when Judith named her in the lawsuits, and she’d spent thousands of dollars defending herself from accusations she claimed to not even fully understand.
But she was willing to tell me what she remembered about M. A. Wright. “He came to a boarding house where I was staying with my mother,” she said. “He was very, very pleasant, kind, spoke to me very nicely.” She remembered the nice preschool she’d been put into, but had only been told years later by her mother that he was responsible for it. I asked her if he seemed like a wealthy man, a man from another class. “This was from a child’s point of view,” she said. “It was a man dressed in plain khaki clothes, and he took his hat off in the presence of ladies. I remember those kind of things.”
As a girl, she’d heard her family talking about a child that Louise had given up for adoption, and she pieced together herself that it was the young girl named Judith in her town. She used to follow Judith around at a distance sometimes, she told me, curious about her mysterious sister. Diana had run away from home not long after, and she ended up in foster care as a teenager.
As for M. A .Wright’s money, she said, she’d never seen any of it. “Now, if I had all that money came to me, I wouldn’t have ended up in a foster home, for example,” she told me. “The only thing that was ever given to me, that I know, was that he bought me a pretty dress and put me in a preschool.” In any case, she said, “what difference does it make? My mother is probably about 79 now. My brother is about three years younger than me. I’m 62. My point of opinion is, why do we have to continue this on? There’s really nothing that can be done about it.”
I asked her whether, deep down, she thought there was some larger conspiracy in her family around Wright’s money. “One person says one thing, and another person says another, and all I can give you is what I believe and what people have told me,” she said. “What is the truth in all that? I know that a man visited my mother. I know that they called him M.A.”
Early on the morning before I was scheduled to leave Carthage, I awoke at the Best Western to the sound of my phone ringing. It was Judith, calling to make sure I had directions to get over to the police station, where I had an appointment to catch up with a sergeant there. As always, a brief call turned into a longer one, and she told me that she’d finally decided that she needed to get out of town. There were just too many bad memories here. Her adoptive sister had been in the hospital for years, unable to communicate after a brain aneurism. Her adoptive father, now 95, didn’t really even speak to her anymore. He’d remarried, and his wife didn’t want Judith to have anything to do with him since she’d dissolved her adoption. “I want out of here so bad, I can’t stand it,” she said.
She still had her sons, at least. Twenty-year-old Ryan was getting ready to move out of the house; he was doing well in his a job as a legal clerk and going to school part-time at a local college. But beyond that, she had few connections, just friends like Violet who’d backed her through the ordeal. “People like you, people like lawyers became my family,” she said. Over the course of a decade of lawsuits, Judith had managed to lose both her old family and her new one.
I remembered something Jeff Zimmerman had said when the three of us were sitting in Judith’s living room one evening more than two years earlier. “I think the moral of this story is that if you are curious about something, be careful,” he’d said. “I’ve told Judith several times, ‘You know, you might have been happier never knowing this.’” The danger of putting your life into the legal system, Zimmerman always warned his clients, is that “it requires you to live your present in your past.”
Judith didn’t deny that she might have been better off if she’d never responded to that first entreaty from her mother. But something had steeled her resolve. “I’ve got some pictures in my room that I’m going to show you,” she said. “When you see this, you’ll understand.” For a long time she’d seen photographs of M. A. Wright only in his later years, as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or giving corporate speeches for Exxon: an older man with thinning hair, standing at a dais in a boxy suit. But a few years ago, one of her investigators had found a photo of him as a young man, just after he graduated from Oklahoma State.
“Ryan always had this look of his own,” Judith told me. “I could see me in him, but he kind of had a look of his own. And when I got that picture of my dad—oh, my God. I went around the house for, I don’t know, a good month off and on and all I did was cry. I saw my son. There was my innocent little boy, and I thought how innocent my father was of all of this also.”
Judith had blown up a photocopy of one of the pictures and hung it on her bedroom wall. Looking out from the wood frame was a relaxed and confident young man, with his prominent ears and his hair swept across his head. His mouth was set in a line, with just a hint of a smile reflected in his eyes. Below it was a framed picture of Ryan in high school, his lips pursed in the same way, his eyes displaying the same look of assured intensity. The more I stared at them, the more the two men seemed to resemble each other.