Where's Patty? Decades later, question remains
Stan Woodman's oldest son was just 8 or 9 years old when the child told him a chilling story.
His mother and stepfather, the boy said, had drowned his little stepsister in the bathtub and buried her in the backyard.
At the time, Woodman recalled, "I just said that's too preposterous to be true. I just kind of dismissed it."
It was the first hint that something terrible, even murderous, had happened to little Patricia Ann Wood, who lived with her father, stepmother and three stepsiblings in the Swanzey area in the 1970s - until she vanished without a trace.
But all these decades later, hints are all that authorities have about what happened to Patty Wood. Her case recently came to the attention of the state's Cold Case Unit, but investigators say they have no real hope for a break in the case.
That's because the two people most likely to know the truth - John and Judith Wood, Patty's father and stepmother - committed suicide together at their Swanzey home on Aug. 21, 1987, one day after police confronted Judith Wood about Patty's disappearance.
"This is just one of those cases where there are unanswered questions, and they're probably forever going to be unanswered," said state police Sgt. Scott Gilbert of the Cold Case Unit.
Cpl. Mike Miles was the trooper assigned to investigate Patty Wood's disappearance. Retired since 1998, he said his memory of the case isn't what it used to be.
But he remembers this: Patty "got lost in the system."
Patty was born on Oct. 12, 1972, in South Carolina; her birth mother gave up custody to John Wood when Patty was a baby. The little girl came to live with Wood, his wife and his wife's three children from her marriage to Stan Woodman.
Then Patty disappeared, sometime around 1976.
"The story concocted down here when the girl was missing for a long period of time was always that she was with the mother," Miles recalled. "And the mother ... had been told a story by John and Judith that she had been killed in a car accident. So the mother never made any inquiries about the daughter because she thought that she had passed away."
By the time police got involved, he said, "we were already 12 years behind the eight ball. Nobody had any real clear recollection of what had gone on."
Police did order the back yard dug up at the home where the Woods had lived in 1975, but they found nothing.
A witness reported seeing the Woods' car in the Gilsum-Alstead area the night police questioned Judith Wood, Miles said.
"There are old mine shafts up in there. Whether they had gone up there to see if maybe we'd found something, we don't know that. We never talked to them again."
Woodman, who battled his ex-wife for years over visitation rights with his three children, said his son Keith never changed his story.
Woodman even asked Judith Wood about Patty once, and she told him Patty had gone to live with her birth mother. "I had no reason not to believe it," he said.
But over time, he came to believe his son. And finally, in 1987, Keith told his story to the police.
Miles recalled when he interviewed the three older kids about Patty, "They talked about her being the one who was always being disciplined - more so by Judith than by John."
The day he went to interview the Woods, only Judith was home, and she "became very defensive," Miles recalled. "But she never really answered the question: Where's Patty?"
There was no doubt in his mind, Miles said: "She was lying."
His one regret is that he didn't track down John Woods that night, "that we didn't catch them both at the same time."
"It was late when we talked to her, and the next day they were dead."
He heard the report on the scanner on his way in to work. "They were found in their car. They had hooked up a hose to the exhaust pipe and were sitting in the front seat with the car running."
The Woods left a note but no answers, Miles said. "My recollection was that they denied any involvement in anything that happened to Patty Ann, and they were kind of pointing the finger at the kids as being upset with something and they were making it all up. They didn't admit to anything."
The Woods' obituaries mentioned only the three other children as survivors; there was no mention of Patty.
After the suicides, local reporters began looking into Patty's disappearance; they turned up disturbing evidence of abuse.
According to published reports, Patricia Ann Wood was treated frequently between 1972 and 1974 for a variety of injuries. In April 1974, she ended up at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover with brain swelling and convulsions and lapsed briefly into a coma. Doctors reported suspected abuse.
When the little girl was released from the hospital, she was put in foster care for four months. Then she was sent back to the Woods.
And apparently, despite concerns voiced by doctors to child welfare officials, the state stopped monitoring the family.
Woodman said, "the state dropped the ball" in not protecting Patty.
If he had it to do over, he would have gone to the authorities the first time Keith told his story, he said. "And yes, I do feel guilty about it."
He can't forget one time he went to pick up his children from Judith Wood, who was living in Troy at the time.
"I walked in that house, and there was Patty sitting in a high chair," he recalled. "This kid was the most unhappy, forlorn-looking kid that I've ever seen in my life, and my heart went out to that poor baby."
He thought about asking Judith to let him take the little girl along with his own kids for the weekend. But in the end, he said, "I said to myself, this is none of my business; stay out of it."
Judith Wood could be violent, Woodman said; when they were married, she came after him once with a butcher knife.
The night before the suicides, he was with his three children at his daughter's house in Swanzey when they saw John and Judith Wood drive by.
Later, he said, "I got to thinking about how the night before, they had driven by. And I said, 'My God, they could have taken all of us with them.'"
Woodman has been married for 39 years, and he and his wife have tried to provide a happy family life for all of their children and grandchildren.
But he said his kids were "devastated" by everything that happened back then, and the scars remain. "It was such a scary time, and I still feel badly for my children, I really do."
"It should never be painful, growing up as a kid."While his now-adult children did not want to be interviewed, Woodman said they did make one thing clear: "If Patty's remains were discovered, that they wanted to give her a decent burial.""If we all had to chip in to do something like that, I would be willing to do that," he said. "Just to see that poor baby get a decent burial.
"My heart goes out to her because I remember her sitting in that high chair, and it stuck with me all these years...."
At the Cold Case Unit's office in Concord, cardboard boxes are labeled with the names of the missing and murdered. Maura Murray, Patrick Merrill, Carrie Moss, Luella Blakeslee: All have boxes bearing their names.
For Patricia Ann Wood, there's just a single file folder.
If it happened today, police say, it might be different. With 24/7 cable TV news, a missing child gets noticed.
"I'd like to think that the system doesn't allow these kids to fall through the cracks anymore," Miles said.
Here's what the retired trooper wants to remind anyone who knows something about what happened back then but never came forward: Patricia Ann Wood "was a human being."
"She should have some dignity in where she ends up at the end of life. She shouldn't just be in a hole, somewhere no one knows anything about."