Days of Love and Basketball

Patty and I spent much of our seventh-grade-year at Funston Field. Just like Fort Funston, the name was a nod to General Frederick Funston, regarded as  “the man who saved San Francisco” during The Great Fire.  We’d cut class whiling away entire days lying on the grass. We’d scheme ways to make money or get new clothes. We’d gripe about the popular kids, kids who didn’t have to scheme for what they wanted.

The highlight of our week was the basketball games held in Funston’s gynmansium on Friday afternoons. One day we hiked from our plot of grass over to the gymnasium early to get the God seats. We sat in the last row on the second floor. We sat staring down on the players as from Heaven itself. The team from Washington came bouncing onto the court. 

“What do you think about number 14, Johnson?” Patty said.

Johnson sported a perfectly round afro that bounced with his every leap and jump. Did you know the male peacock as part of the mating ritual rattles the female’s head by sending out shock waves? To do this he shakes his tailfeathers an average of 25 times per second.  Something similar seemed to be going on here. Because Patty was sure acting agitated. Last week it was the star player from Everett. Before him Washington’s lean dunking machine, number 13. I remembered only because that was how old we were at the time. 

The score on the board was 60-64 with Marina Middle School, our team, trailing. I chided Patty about her one track mind, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the boys either. They gleamed with sweat. Their turns, their jumps, their muscles. They looked like gazelles, all sharp turns and bounding jumps.

As the game was winding down Patty rushed to the main exit from the gym hoping to sideline number 14. When he departed out a side door, her jaw dropped. Just as suddenly she clenched her teeth in determination. Just then the victory cries rung out from the front of the building. We crashed through the doors and saw the school bus idling. I was sure Patty would march onto the bus and pulled Johnson out of his seat by his team jersey. Instead she planted herself by the window where her sat, peering up at his profile. He was oblivious.  

She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Johnson.”  

I stood chewing my nails and slouching. I had braces when they were made of stainless steel not clear plastic. My body was that of a ten-year-old boy. I was as likely to attract athletic, popular boys as I was to be knighted by the Queen of England. Johnson was laughing with his head thrown back, reaching for a handful of streamers in mid-air. Patty scooped up a fistful of pebbles from the landscaping and tossed them at his window. He jumped. I expected him to appear frightened, but he appeared curious. Who was this bold red headed girl? Patty fell short of bending a knee and reciting where-for-art-thous. She clutched at her chest instead. The bus pulled its heft into traffic and Patty broke into a run. I could still see 14, his face darkening with fear as he realized she was chasing the bus, chasing him.  She angled around and into pedestrians. People stopped to stare at us darting down the street, Patty waving her arms over her head in a “stop the bus” gesture. Please don’t let the bus stop. Please don’t let the bus stop, I repeated in my head. Ditching her right then would be completely justified. But I didn’t. As was typical, I let myself get swept along. I took off in a dash behind her. I wasn’t interested in the boys really. It was Patty. I was pulled into her wake. Almost against my will. But not quite.

After two blocks our lungs had a word with us. “Do you not remember you are chain smokers?” We hunched over to catch our breath, our hands on our knees as if in a huddle. 

“You got your point across.” I wheezed until I coughed.

“Yeah, what other girls are going to chase his bus? It let him know that I’ll do anything for him.”

“Yeah, go the extra mile.”

We laughed until our eyes got wet.

“I need a smoke.”

“Me too.”

We retreated back to Funston collapsing on a patch of grass. Patty pulled a crushed pack of Marlboros out of her sock. We bent our cigarettes straight. Patty tapped hers on her Chuck’s across the pink I ♥ Xavier she wrote with a felt trip marker on the outer sole.  

“Did you see him? He was looking at me the entire time.”

“The last time I saw him he looked kind of scared. Maybe chasing him scared him.” I lit my cigarette and made rings with the smoke. 

“I had to send a sign.” Patty poked her finger through my smoke rings.

“Do you think he liked you?” I tossed my Zippo in her lap. 

“What’s not to like? But I bet he has girls follow him everywhere.” She did the trick of igniting the lighter with her jeans. 

“We were the only girls at his school bus.”

“They’re from Washington. It was an across-town game. I meant his groupies at the home games.”

Patty made connections for me when I couldn’t. We complemented one another. If she had a question about books, I was her go-to. At least I pretended to be. I tossed more books under my bed with my dirty dishes than I read. She asked me once what the big deal was about Huckleberry Finn.  “Runaways.” Patty got it right away. We fantasized about being out from under our parents’ thumb every minute of the day.   

“How can I ever bare my feelings like you?”

“You’re too shy. It’s not going to happen. You can never be me.”

 Patty thought we were so different. The truth was in so many ways we were just alike. And the adage opposites attract just wasn’t true. The greater the degree of attitudinal similarity between people, the greater the liking. The one piece of evidence that came to mind that stood out and marked us as two peas? We both were in need of heaps of “sivilizing.”

Another Namesake

Patty Vance and I were well aware of how lucky we were to be living in San Francisco. We were never going to be one of those kids who pined away their whole lives about when they’d get to leave their name-your-podunk-town for the big city lights. We could find excitement any time of day, any day of the week. Sometimes it would find us, but that was the exception. Besides, the chase itself was half the fun.

One afternoon in spring, Patty and I were dragging ourselves along Chestnut Street. We’d just come from Doggy Diner, and the franks smothered in chili were like bags of sand in our stomachs. Just one was enough to slow us down. To our left a shiny stretch limo was cruising in the lane closest to us. A miniature flag attached to the antenna whipped around too fast for me to make out the emblem. Diplomat was my first guess. Then CEO. The back window was tinted black, but was partly opened. A stunning blonde was in the back seat, not rubbernecking to get a look at the people walking by, not bothering to push aside her hair that was whipping up. She looked to be staring at the knob that locked the door. I knew immediately, even in profile, it was Patty Hearst. She was a hometown girl. Still she’d held the entire nation transfixed for three years. The two daily newspapers carried the photograph of her in a black wig and a loose-fitting beret, carrying a semi-automatic rifle on the front page. 

Her nom de guerre was Tania and although she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) their message of unity and feminism was likely seductive. They denounced racism and capitalism. That last bit probably went down as a lump in her throat. Her entire family lived the capitalist’s wet dream. Even at ten years old, I was rooting for her. Sure she robbed the Hibernia Bank, and I worried constantly about my meager savings having gone out the door in a black bag. “Your twenty dollars is safe,” my mother assured me. Patty Hearst, at nineteen, was only a few years older than Patty and me. Being scooped up to further a social revolution impressed the two of us to no end. If only we were the grand daughter of William Randolph Hearst, we sighed. It wasn’t until I watched Citizen Kane, a movie based at least in part on grandfather Hearst’s life, that I realized I should be careful what I wished for.

My DOJ Dead End

When I wrote the Department of Justice (DOJ) I was hoping to find some information on Patty Vance. Unfortunately, they found nothing I can have access to. I wanted to post this because anyone can write the DOJ in his or her state to compile information about someone. In my case, I’ve adhered to the belief from the beginning that information is power. If I can use a bit of what I’ve heard or read to prompt one of the cold case investigators to reveal more information, then my effort has been worth it.

Sadly, this effort only lead to a dead end. Here’s a copy of the letter. Maybe someone can use the link provided to start his or her search for a loved one.

Dear Sir or Madam:

This correspondence is in response to your online request form submission dated July 7, 2019, which was received by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) on July 8, 2019, in which you sought records pursuant to the Public Records Act contained in Government Code section 6250 et seq.

Specifically, you are seeking: “I am looking for any record I am privy to under the name of Patricia Vance, DOB: June 30, 1961. I have her death certificate already.”

Absent a request for representation, DOJ responds solely on its own behalf and not on behalf of other agencies.  We have searched our records and legal indices and found no records responsive to your request.  You appear to be seeking records that are not in the control or custody of the California DOJ.  We have no obligation or ability to provide public records that are not in our custody.  (Gov. Code, § 6253(c).) 

Please note that the DOJ is not the depository for records for the entire state of California.  The scope of our records related to individual citizens is limited to matters that fall within our Department’s purview.  If you wish to review records that are in the custody or control of another state or local agency, you should direct your request to that agency.  For example, vital records such as birth, death, marriage, and divorce records may be available through the Department of Public Health, Office of Vital Records (OVR).  Please review the information at the OVR website to determine if the record you need is registered with the OVR and if the request processing time frames meet your needs.  The OVR website is located at:–Marriage-Certificates.aspx.  They may also be available through the County Recorder or County Court, depending on the nature of documents sought.

In the event that you are seeking criminal records, the Public Records Unit is unable to produce criminal history records as they are exempt from disclosure pursuant to Penal Code section 11105. Penal Code section 11105 expressly authorizes the Attorney General to disclose state summary criminal history information to law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes only, or to the person who is the subject of the record.  If an individual wishes to review their own criminal history records, they would have to submit a personal request.  Information relevant to obtaining Criminal History Records may be reviewed on the Attorney General’s website at:

We hope this information has been of assistance.

Public Records Coordinator
California Department of Justice
Office of the Attorney General

How To Go “Up the Ladder”

When I decided to make contact with the law enforcement agency that was handling Patty’s cold case, I was ultimately told that I should “go up the ladder” if the help I was receiving wasn’t satisfactory. So, I realized I didn’t exactly know what “up the ladder” might look like. Should I just make contact with the detective’s immediate boss? Probably. But how was I going to find out who that was? When I was finally able to track down an organizational chart for the SFPD, it didn’t detail every employees’ position in the hierarchy. But it was a start. 

Then there was the descriptions of how the different offices within the SFPD are organized.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office

This office investigates and prosecutes crime in San Francisco and supports victims of crime. It’s made up of prosecutors, victim advocates, paralegals, and other support staff. The office contains three major departments: the Operations Department, the Special Operations Department and the Support Services Department.

I’m only interested in knowing about the Operations Department, so that was the only department that I researched. This is what I found.


The Office’s Operations Department is responsible for prosecuting violent crimes and lesser offenses committed within the City and County of San Francisco that diminish the livability of our community. This Department is led by Chief Assistant District Attorney Sharon Woo and includes the Criminal Division, Victim Services Division and the Collaborative Courts Division. The criminal division is organized into 10 units and files approximately 3,300 misdemeanor cases a year and 3,300 felony cases a year. The Criminal Division is divided into 9 different units, including: misdemeanors, preliminary hearings, general felonies which includes narcotics, domestic violence and physical elder abuse, gangs, sexual assault, child assault, juvenile, and homicide. Marshall Khine is Chief of the Criminal Division – Horizontal Units, and David Merin is Chief of the Criminal Division – Vertical Units.

Investigations Divison

District Attorney Investigators play a critical role in prosecuting offenders. The District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigations (DAI) is composed of sworn peace officers who work closely with our prosecutors to fully develop documentary, physical, and testimonial evidence for trial. In addition, DAI also investigates certain types of White Collar Division cases. James Kerrigan is the Chief of DAI.

The upshot of all this is that you have to educate yourself about how the system works if you want it to work for you. I can’t say if going “up the ladder” is the answer for me right now. But at least I have a better idea what that means. So one of the steps in researching the progress of someone’s cold case is to know how to contact an officer’s superior if you’re not getting any results. The truth is, in my situation, all the detectives I’ve spoken to seem as though they’re doing their best. There is actually no need to reach any further except as an act of desperation on my part. I wrote this mostly because it might be informative for someone else. 

On Redemption

“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” – William Blake

Everyone is capable of redemption. I heard these words today while listening to “Writer on the Road.” Amen. I don’t mean it in a religious sense, however. Maybe “being forgiven” is the better expression. Forgiveness seems to be what I’ve struggled with most during this project.

People have continually asked me to provide the “why” for my attempt to get Patty’s file dusted off. Especially after they hear that I felt betrayed by her. I want to tell them it’s because it’s my way of forgiving her. But I assume they wouldn’t understand. If they did, they wouldn’t ask in the first place. 

Recently, I was thinking about the potential audience for the book (should it ever see daylight). And then I attended a writer’s event during which two memoir writers stressed the importance of making your story universal. I have trouble identifying what might be universal in my story. The concept of betrayal? Haven’t we all been wronged by a friend, or done wrong by a friend? Maybe not. But a lot of us have. And haven’t those very same people struggled with either forgiving the betrayer or forgiving themselves for betraying someone else? That’s all I can come up with.

It’s tricky business mulling over how to forgive someone who’s passed away. But, again, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. Not everyone relives the past. Some, like me, do. I’m here to tell you it’s easier to forgive people once they’re gone. Somehow, either with the passage of time, or the passing of the person, you become more empathetic. Or once you grow older, you’re capable of more nuanced thinking. And that is essential to forgiveness. I’ve been accused of being a “black and white” thinker, but I long to see the world in shades of gray. That is what I’m after in this project: the shades of gray. 

Just like Detective Cunningham said the last time we spoke. He believed that the perpetrator was not a stranger. He also believed in redemption: 

“…apparently she might have messed with the wrong person. And that doesn’t make her a bad person overall. She never got a chance to redeem herself. Because this person took it into his own hands to take her life away.”

I know Patty would have redeemed herself given a chance. She was a good person. She was a complicated person like most of us. She made bad choices like most of us. Still, she deserved to be forgiven. He had a big heart. Her big-heartedness shouldn’t get lost in the story.

The Illusive Autopsy Report

Is the autopsy report public record? That was a question I had at the beginning of this project, but didn’t research that intensively. Here’s a little more of the low down:

Autopsy reports are generally public records. There are exceptions for (1) deaths from natural causes not referred to the coroner and (2) reports pertaining to criminal litigation, and others as directed by court order or subpoena.

California law bars the copying of photographs taken for the coroner at the death scene. They are available for use only in a criminal action or proceeding that relates to the deceased, or as a court permits. So getting the photographs that accompanied Patty Vance’s medical examiner’s report is out of the question. I can’t say if photographs exist. They should. And probably it’s for the best that I don’t see them.

Most states exempt from disclosure law enforcement investigatory records. And often the autopsy report is considered one of these records. Just as it is considered a medical record in some states, which precludes it from being public information and is governed by privacy laws.

Whether a particular document can be withheld under this exemption in a particular state will depend on the circumstances. In addition, the scope of the investigatory records exception varies among the states. Some of the variations include whether the exemption:

1. is limited to active investigations or prosecutions (such as in Louisiana, La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 44:19);

2. gives law enforcement agencies discretion to release investigatory records (such as in Mississippi, Miss. Code § 25-61-12) or entirely prohibits their disclosure (such as in Vermont, 1 Vt. Stat. § 317); or

3. restricts access only when certain factors exist, such as when disclosure would (a) interfere with enforcement proceedings; (b) constitute an unwarranted invasion of a suspect’s, defendant’s, victim’s, or witness’s personal privacy; (c) deprive someone of a fair trial; (d) disclose a confidential source or investigative technique; or (e) endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel (for examples, see laws in Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, and Kansas (Alaska Stat. § 40.25.120, Idaho Code §§ 9-340B(1) and 9-335, 5 ILCS 140 § 7(1), and KSA § 45-221(a)).

Some states also have statutes prohibiting disclosure of a record when disclosure would invade a person’s privacy. For example, Hawaii, Illinois, and Kansas prohibit disclosure of records that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, and Kentucky law requires a court order before disclosing a record that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 92F-13(3), 5 ILCS 140 § 7 (1)(b), KSA § 45-221(a), and Ky. Rev. Stat. § 61.878(1)(a)).

Other provisions may be relevant to whether these records can be disclosed in some states. For example, Washington prohibits disclosing information revealing a victim’s identity, without the victim’s authorization, if it would endanger a person’s life, safety, or property, and Florida prohibits disclosure of information containing a person’s confession until completion of the person’s criminal case (RCW § 42.56.240 and Fl. Stat. § 119.07).

Are autopsy reports available to the public? The cause and manner of death is a matter of public record and can be released, unless release of such information will hinder or harm an ongoing criminal investigation [Iowa Code 22.7(41)]. The remainder of the information contained within an autopsy report is confidential and treated as a medical record.

Obtaining California Autopsy Reports. … The pathologist then prepares a written autopsy report. An autopsy report is public record in California unless it is deemed to be confidential under public-records exemptions because it is being used in a pending criminal case.

What’s in a coroner’s report vs. autopsy report?

A coroner’s report is the report produced further to an investigation by a coroner identifying the deceased person, the date and place of death, and the causes and circumstances of death.

A coroner’s report is the report produced further to an investigation by a coroner identifying the deceased person, the date and place of death, and the causes and circumstances of death. In some cases, the report may also contain recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths. This document is public and available to anyone who requests it.

Autopsy reports are appended to the coroner’s report. Other appended documents include the toxicology report, the medical record and the police report. Coroners use these documents to produce their reports. Access to these appendices is restricted and is allowed only if applicants can show that the requested document will be used to uphold their rights.

An Overview of Death Investigation

At all death scenes there are two scenes: location(s) of the incident and the body itself. If a crime is suspected, the incident will belong to the investigating law enforcement agency; and the body, together with all items on or about it, will belong to the medical examiner’s office. The agencies will work independently of each other with overlapping goals. The death investigator has certain responsibilities and a duty to pursue those responsibilities. The body is exclusively under the custody and control of the death investigator. Until they arrive on scene, no other person can touch, move, or remove the body or those items on or about it. The assessment includes complete photography, documenting wounds and injuries, or lack thereof, rigor and livor mortis, body position and relationship to the scene, and condition of the body due to postmortem interval and environment. If the body has been moved, possibly to a remote area, there will be another crime scene at the place the death actually occurred.

Medical records are a very important component of a death investigation and may be referred to in the autopsy report. In addition to medical history, these records may include mental health history, prescription and medication history, family history, and social history. It is important for the medical history to be shared with the forensic pathologist at the time of autopsy or as soon thereafter as possible. What might be seen as a fall and head injury at autopsy may instead be a spontaneous bleed with previous history and consequential falls.

Autopsies are valuable and are a component of a complete investigation, if one is performed. All violent, suspicious, unnatural, and unattended deaths are investigated (these account for a small percentage of reported deaths). A preliminary investigation, statute, and protocol will dictate if an autopsy is performed. The authorization of the autopsy depends on the circumstances of the death and the protocol of the medical examiner’s office. The autopsy consists of the gross external examination (detailed examination and documentation of the body), gross internal examination (detailed examination and documentation of the organs and internal body structure), toxicology tests, and microscopic examinations. The external examination is head to toe and includes measurements of all wounds, scars, marks, tattoos, and condition of the body and structure.

The internal examination is what is often thought of when “autopsy” is mentioned. This surgical procedure includes the in situ examination of the organs, removal of them with weights, and complete external/internal examination of the organs. This examination also includes the assessment of bullet trajectory, wound tracts, ligature markings, etc. One area of specific forensic pathologist training is wound (all injuries and trauma) examination. Specimens of each organ are collected for microscopic examination, part of the anatomical and clinical certifications preceding a pathologist’s forensic certification. At the conclusion of the autopsy the functions of the forensic pathologist and death investigator temporarily separate into two different tasks. The death investigator will submit his report, detailing the findings of his scene investigation, evidence review, and medical records review. The forensic pathologist will review the death investigator’s report and case file to finalize his autopsy report and certify the Cause and Manner of Death.

Autopsy reports are not casual or interesting reading material. They are very informative when reviewed with all concurrent investigative reports and evidence. All autopsy reports follow a general format as approved by the National Association of Medical Examiners ( Although they may differ in appearance, the general content format consists of: Diagnoses, Toxicology, Opinion, Circumstances of Death, Identification of the Decedent, General Description of Clothing and Personal Effects, Evidence of Medical Intervention, External Examination, External Evidence of Injury, Internal Examination, Samples Obtained – Evidence, Histology and Toxicology, and Microscopic Examination. When the autopsy report is reviewed by the lay person their focus is on the first four items, as these are the summary of the remaining medical details of the report. It is important to review the report and all of the information contained therein for the complete picture. It is also important to understand what is in an autopsy report before we can begin to decipher all the latent and patent information it contains.

Circumstances of Death

This section consists of one to two paragraphs briefly describing the perimortem circumstances as known at the time of autopsy. Autopsies are often performed within 24–48 hours of discovering the body, with the full medicolegal and law enforcement investigation ongoing, medical records have likely not yet been received or reviewed. This narrative is important because it summarizes initial investigative findings and hearsay reports of witnesses, it also includes evidence found at the scene, such as: projectiles, syringes, paraphernalia, disarray of the scene, vomitous, etc.

Death certificates and autopsy reports contain personal identifying information and clinical information protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. These documents are used, for example, by the families of the deceased for settling estates, bereavement and closure, and genetic counseling of relatives. Insurance companies, public health and law enforcement officials, and the legal community also have legitimate claims to this information. Critical ethical questions have not yet been settled about whether and when this information should be public and under which circumstances making this kind of information public incurs benefits, harms, or both. Additional considerations include which organizations—the media, academic institutions, or government agencies, for example—are best suited to interpret these questions and respond to them.

Legally, ethically, and clinically relevant, however, is that MEs and coroners are not “covered entities” under HIPAA. To be clear, all MEs are forensic pathologists in appointed positions, while coroners are elected officials. State-to-state variations abound: sixteen states do not have laws requiring coroners to have specific training requirements, and four states require them to be physicians though not necessarily pathologists [7].

AMA Journal of Ethics:

For example, in some states (e.g., Kentucky [11]), if a death is determined to be a coroner’s case, an ME or coroner has the authority to order an autopsy without obtaining consent from the deceased person’s survivors and to release information about the cause and manner of that person’s death to the public. Is this ethically appropriate, particularly considering the legal, ethical, and professional standards that typically apply to patients’ rights to have their PHI protected? Which protections should be afforded to the deceased and to a deceased person’s loved ones? How much value should be attributed to survivors’ distress?


After four years of waiting, Patty’s brother finally accepted my friend request. I think it’s her brother. His birth date seems right. I’m so grateful. Somehow his accepting translates in my mind to at least he doesn’t hate me. Or hopefully that means he’s not pissed at me. All he may know about me is that I wanted to step in and buy a grave stone for Patty because she didn’t have one. I’m assuming he’s the owner of the plot. He might have heard via the grapevine — meaning Holy Cross cemetery — because he bought and placed a stone finally.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to visit it. But it’s going to be the first thing on my agenda when I go back to visit California. That and talking to Detective C at the Hall of Justice. I don’t think he’d refuse to meet with me. But that is the fear. That speech I’ve rehearsed in my head a hundred times about how the police are basically in the citizen’s employ is destined to stay in my head. I’m too much of a coward to confront law enforcement.

While watching “Blue Bloods” last night, the daughter of the Police Commissioner, Niki Reagan, said that “you’re either on one side of the law or the other.” She didn’t mention how you could change sides. I’ve found myself shuffling off my in-your-face attitude that worked for me in my youth. Now I’m all deference and gratitude. I used to lump them together, now I realize there are just bad eggs in the bunch. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t rubbed up against any of those. 

I wrote a note to her brother asking him to confirm that it is or is not him. Maybe that’ll take another four years. Who knows. Still, I was hovering for a full day after I found out he’d accepted my friend request. I don’t even know what I’d ask him first. How did things turn out for her son? How were the last four years of Patty’s life during the time we were estranged? Clearly some of those years were not so great. I could say the same for myself. Did she push away her family like she pushed me away? Is there any fucking chance that her case is going to be solved? Maybe he has some inside knowledge, some hopeful tidbit since he is a police officer himself. Not only that, but a friend of Detective C. Or maybe he knows just as little as I do. I really just want to talk to him.