Thursday, May 10, 2018

Disappearance on the Delta


California Delta (J.Rubio)
One warm June evening back in 1980, along the sleepy tributaries of the California Delta, 30 year old Pat Malone of King Island was heading home after finishing up a repair on a houseboat that had been stranded at Snodgrass Slough, when he simply seemed to vanish into thin air.

Pat, who was a private contractor repairman working through the Holiday Flotels Houseboat Rental company on King Island had been dispatched earlier that day around 5 p.m. to repair one of their disabled rentals, but when neither he nor his work boat was seen docked the very next morning, Nita Jackson (owner of Holiday Flotels) knew something wasn't right. It was an employee of the company, Russell Crow, 21, who initially noticed that Pat's maintenance boat was missing so he headed out onto the Delta, retracing the route Malone might have taken back home thinking perhaps Pat's boat might have broken down on the way back the night before. When he discovered the vessel on the the south fork of the Mokelumne River, it was near Hog Slough. As Crow approached the boat, it was clear to see there was no trace of Pat. He immediately notified authorities, and before anyone knew it, Pat Malone's whereabouts were one big mystery.

All initial newspaper reports claimed that the vessel Pat was piloting was found in tact and undamaged. In fact, even the owner of the Holiday Flotels was quoted saying,

“It’s just as if someone reached down and picked him up,” said Holiday Flotels Delta Houseboat Rentals owner Nita Jackson. Malone, a private contractor, was returning from a houseboat repair  mission for the King Island rental firm when he disappeared. "His father and mother are still out there searching,” she said. “It’s such a mysterious situation, with the boat not damaged in any way.  You can’t give up hope. Everybody is in a high emotional state – he’s missing and there’s no evidence of anything.”-- Lodi News-Sentinel (6/21/1980)

When I first began researching this story back in 2014 it was a personal quest to get answers not just for me, but for my dad. You see, Pat Malone was a good friend of my father growing up in Anaheim back in the 1950's and 1960's. I grew up hearing about all the crazy shenanigans that they got into as kids growing up. Although they became adults and moved on in their lives, they both kept in touch every so often to see how each other were doing. I remembered as a kid hearing dad mentioning what happened to Pat, and how the whole thing didn't feel right to him.

Pat lived just down the way on North Street, the same street dad grew up on along with other close friends and fellow school mates. The Malone family's house, just across the street and several houses down from my grandparent's, became like a second home to dad in his younger years.

Dad graduated Anaheim High in '65 with Pat's older brother, Mike, while Pat graduated in '67. It was by chance that I discovered Pat's photo recently after looking through my mom's yearbook. I wasn't going to get my hopes up at first, but as I turned the pages through the Junior year photos, there it was. This person I have been researching for a good 4 years, now I have a face to place the name and the story to.

Back to the story....

"The 20-foot repair craft used by Pat Malone, 30, was found undamaged along the bank of the Mokelumne River’s south fork, near Hog Slough, Friday morning. The boat’s ignition key was on but the motor was not running, the throttle was three-quarters open and there was plenty of fuel in the gasoline tank, according to Sheriff’s reports. Malone’s dog was discovered on a nearby island......Nothing on the deck of the boat, including the pilot’s chair which is not tied to the craft, was disturbed. All the boat’s life preservers were still on board, so apparently Malone was not wearing a life preserver, according to reports. But he has been described as a good swimmer, and as being familiar with the Delta....The boat is not equipped with running lights, and under Holiday Flotels policy, was not supposed to be used after dark."  -- Lodi News- Sentinel (6/21/1980)

According to Pat's fiancee, Gail Skelton, who lived with him on their houseboat on King Island, Pat had called her Thursday night around 7 p.m. to let her know he finished the repair and was heading home. The trip from Snodgrass Slough to King Island by boat was about an hour long, and when Pat didn't come home she began to worry.  The houseboat renters who had seen Pat the night before when he repaired their vessel, mentioned that Pat left around the same time, confirming Gail's story.

One thing that was mentioned twice in the newspaper was that Pat may have stopped by Wimpy's Marina near Walnut Grove. The bartender stated that someone who fit Pat's description was there between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. No one ever confirmed that it was actually Pat, just that someone who fit his physical description was seen there. It was also mentioned that the person seen at Wimpy's "did not appear intoxicated."

A spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department stated several times in the newspapers that followed day by day, that the search was continuing and that they dispatched boat and ground crews in the area, as well as calling in the U.S. Coast Guard air and boat units to aid in their search efforts.

Suddenly by June 25th, the newspapers oddly changed the narrative of what might have happened to Pat. They were now claiming that the boat had been damaged. Remember, for several days each statement given by the owner of the rental company (who owned the boat) and by authorities who had made official statements all said the boat was "in tact" and "undamaged," which was why the mystery behind Pat disappearing was so strange. Initially there was no trace of evidence that anything happened. No accident, no struggle, nothing. He had simply vanished. Now, the story seemed to have changed.

“There was a hole underneath the bow of the boat,” said Sgt. Wilbert Vierra, chief of the Sheriff’s marine division. “It (the craft) did hit something, a rock maybe. He could have been thrown off and hit his head.” The circumstances surrounding Malone’s disappearance remain largely a mystery, but authorities do not suspect foul play.  The search for Malone, a private boat repair contractor, will continue indefinitely, said Vierra. Four men, working two shifts during daylight hours, are dragging the river. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary is aiding the search periodically, he said, and farmers and boaters are being alerted.Vierra said that on Monday he flew over the area in a plane rented by the Sheriff’s Department.  Friday, U.S. Coast Guard air and boat units aided the search. “We get some strange disappearances in the Delta,” said Vierra. --- Lodi News-Sentinel (6/25/1980)

After an 8 day search of combing the Delta, the newspapers reported that the body of Pat Malone was discovered about 200 yards from where his "intact but deserted craft was discovered June 20." The newspaper dated June 28, 1980 claimed that his cause of death was "drowning."

"Everything has been found to be consistent with drowning," said a spokesperson for the Coroner's office. They also mentioned that extensive tests were going to be carried out to determine the exact cause of death. Continuing to go with the later theory that Pat's craft had ran into some obstacle on the river, they also continued to adamantly assert that Pat had to have fell overboard and hit his head in the process.

You have to remember again that the reports showed the vessel had no indication that anything had happened to it. It had no damage to it and nothing seemed out of place on board. It wasn't until later that the theory that the boat suddenly had damage to it, and they believed he was thrown from the craft and drowned came into the picture.

It gets worse, much worse.....

According to the newspapers later published in January of 1981, it claimed that Pat's cause of death was drowning because of being drunk.

"Malone had a high level of alcohol in his system at the time of his death, according to the coroner's report, and authorities theorize that his drowning was an accident." -- Lodi News Sentinel (1/29/1981)

This is a red flag that there is something terribly wrong with this case. You see, when our bodies die, they naturally start producing ethanol in order to start the process of decomposition. The production of ethanol within the body begins shortly after death. As the hours go by, the bacteria begins to grow within the body and the bacteria itself produces the ethanol by converting it from sugars such as glucose. Another thing to consider is the fact that alcohol distributes itself unevenly through the body after death. Because of the fact that alcohol production in the body after death is the same as that from drinking, the blood-alcohol level alone cannot determine precisely whether or not the deceased was actually intoxicated at the time of death.

Blood plasma has a higher water content than whole blood, therefore it can show as 10 to 15 percent higher in an alcohol level test. The most accurate way to differentiate between the levels of consumed alcohol in the system and the postmortem produced ethanol, would be by testing the vitreous humour (gel-like substance inside the eye.) Testing that part of the body shows to be most accurate due to the fact that the vitreous humour collects little to no postmortem alcohol (the kind the body produces on its own). Still, this must be done within 48 hours after death.

Clearly 8 days would be long past the point of getting an accurate reading, thus it is my own opinion that Pat Malone was not drunk when he died, and there really is no way of proving that he was.

I have written the Sacramento Coroner's Department requesting copies of Pat Malone's coroner's report under the California Public Records Act. I haven't heard back from them yet, but I hope to add another blog in the future with the coroner's report findings.

Pat Malone and Gail Skelton, a couple very much in love, would have been married on St. Patrick's Day that following March, but sadly that never came to be.

So does the story end here? Sorry to tell you the answer is "no."

The Plot Thickens....

 Gail Skelton (Galt High School)
Just three months after Pat was declared dead, and his name disappeared from any further headlines in the papers, another disappearance took place along the Delta. This time it was further south, within San Joaquin County on the Delta at the western end of Eight Mile Road, and it was none other than Pat's fiancee, Gail Skelton.

On September 26, 1980, Gail was attending a party at Herman and Helen's Marina on Empire Tract when she also vanished without a trace, literally, along with her 1978 blue two-door Toyota (which was never found). The few witnesses who had seen her claimed that she was seen in a heated conversation with a man that they had seen earlier in the evening and again just before she went missing.

According to the January 29 issue of the Lodi News-Sentinel, detectives were able to make a break in the case after the last person who had seen Gail underwent hypnosis in order to help produce a composite sketch of the man that was seen arguing with Gail just before she disappeared. Even with the sketch, none of the detectives on the case could seem to identify the man. 

Several times in articles about Pat's disappearance, authorities stated that the cause didn't seem to be from foul play. Although the newspaper managed to bring up in the article about Gail's disappearance that "there was no reason to connect the cases", they admitted the two incidents were "surrounded by a lot of strangeness." (quote by Detective Nancy Sumers.)

 (Unidentified Person of Interest
White male, 25-30 years old,
with dark hair, over 6 feet tall and thin build) 
Gail's family searched tirelessly for years, especially Norma, Gail's mother. She would often spend days searching the river by car and by boat and would use bamboo poles taped together to poke the water hoping to find Gail's car or something that would lead to finding out what happened to Gail. Norma and the detectives on that particular case believed it was possible Gail had lost control of her car and plunged into the water, but since they never found her car or her body, they could never say for sure.

Norma continued searching and hoping that one day her daughter would be found, but eventually a marker at the Galt Cemetery was placed  with Gail's name on it. Although it doesn't actually say she died. It only mentions Gail as "Missing since 1980." I am unsure when this marker was put in, but it might have been around the time Norma passed away in 2013, since they share the marker along with Gail's other sister who is buried there with Norma.

So the question now is "What Happened To Gail?"

There has never been any trace of Gail over the years. No body, no car, nothing. It truly is like she vanished off the face of the earth. Originally when I was looking into Pat's death, I had no idea who Gail was, let alone that she had vanished, too. When I found the case about Gail going missing, it really bothered me a lot. It seems too strange to be a coincidence that both incidents happened 3 months apart to two people who were engaged. Both scenarios didn't fit to me, so I decided to start digging. I emailed the San Joaquin County Sheriff's "Missing Persons" page on Facebook to see if Gail was still missing, and they confirmed that she was. They didn't offer any further information though.

But during my research into her case, I found an oddity,  a public records search that listed a residence in Stockton having Gail's name as a resident there from 1995-2004. Was it possible that it was some sort of clerical error when the information was uploaded into the public records database? Or was it possible that someone was using her identity (since she was never legally declared dead)?

I have since notified the Cold Case Division in San Joaquin County, leaving them a message about this information I have found in the hopes they might do a follow up.

Over the years there have been other rumors or gossip floating around about possible reasons for Pat and Gail's disappearance (and or death) besides Pat accidentally drowning and Gail possibly driving her car into the river. Although there is absolutely no evidence to support these theories I thought I would list them down here for you to see anyway.

1)   DRUGS & ALCOHOL—
One theory thrown out there claims that Pat had been engaged in illegal activities that involved drugs. That he was drunk or under the influence when he fell off the boat, hit his head and drowned. 

*Note: Those who really knew Pat, claimed that he was NOT involved in any drug activity or illegal activities of any kind, and that was a made up excuse to make Pat and Gail look bad.

 2)   MURDERED-
Another theory claims that Pat pissed off some unidentified people in high places and he was silenced. Then possibly later on Gail was threatened by someone and she too disappeared. Bottom line, the theory is that they were murdered. 

3)   WITNESS PROTECTION-
One more theory, although it sounds a tad 'off the wall', was that Pat had some serious dirt on some heavy hitters and that he was going to turn states evidence on them, so in exchange he was offered to be in the witness protection program. It was theorized that Gail’s disappearance just 3 months later was when Pat had sent for her.  (We do not know who these alleged "heavy hitters" were, so there is no person(s) to point the finger at.)

Again, I have to reiterate that these following "theories" are just that. Whether you want to call them rumors or gossip, they are what they are. And although it is always possible that one of them is true, or none of them, as of now there is no way to prove any of them, so they will remain just that, "theories."

Something that I have to mention because it stuck out like a sore thumb to me was that the article about Gail mentioned that Pat and Gail were ardent foes of the Peripheral Canals (the original plan for the Delta Tunnels). Could circumstances surrounding Pat's death and Gail's disappearance have anything to do with their staunch opposition to the tunnel project, and any enemies they might of made because of this?

It seemed the Malone family were planning to open a huge resort (costing an upwards of $6 million to construct) on the Stockton channel of the Delta in San Joaquin County and were constantly dealing with opposition of their own. The May 5, 1978 issue of the Lodi News Sentinel stated that a project planned by Bob Malone and his two sons, Pat and Mike, had seen a lot of 'red tape' because of the Delta Advisory Planning Commission. Supervisor Norm Shumway voted against allowing the resort, claiming that it would "upset that fragile (ecological) balance within the Delta."

The proposed resort was to develop the north Headreach and north Tule Islands into a resort.

"Irish Isle” will provide boaters with a two-story-tall marina facility containing a restaurant, bar, dancing and live entertainment, and several shops. Spaces for 20 “boatels” with 100 units, 103 berths for motor boats, 26 houseboat spaces and camping, picnic, and swimming areas are also included in the plans. People who do not own boats will also be able to use the facilities, the Malone’s have said. Arrangements for shuttles to the island from the Port of Stockton are being negotiated and shuttle service from Uncle Bobbie’s Houseboat Haven at the western edge of Eight Mile Road are being planned, Mike Malone said." - Lodi News Sentinel  (5/5/1978)

Unfortunately that plan never made it to fruition. Too much bureaucratic red tape eventually led to the plan being abandoned completely, and the "Irish Isle"project was soon forgotten.

In ending, Pat Malone was born on September 5, 1949, in New Mexico, to parents Bob and Sue Malone. Pat died on June 19, 1980 on the Delta near Hog Slough. Gail Skelton was born on January 28, 1954, to parents Norma and Kenneth Skelton. Gail went missing as of September 26, 1980 and was never seen again.

Although it appears that Pat's death was ruled as an "accidental drowning," I don't know if I believe that. Those who knew him were aware that he was a great swimmer, and the story that he hit an obstacle and was thrown or fell overboard after the reports had originally stated the boat had no damage sounds very sketchy to me. I am simply unsure about it all to be quite honest. When I get a copy of his coroner's report I will post a follow up blog on my findings and any updates I may have then, along with my conclusion of what I believe really happened to him.

I reached out to the San Joaquin County "Cold Cases" Division this week, and left a message about Gail asking if they had looked into her case and if they would follow up on the public records address I found listing her in Stockton between 1995-2004. If I learn anything else I will post about it on another follow-up blog. Until then, we are left here endlessly searching and hoping one day there will be answers to what happened to Gail Skelton that September night at the marina at the Empire Tract.

Pat's parents have long since passed on, just as his brother, Mike. I haven't been able to locate any place of burial for any of the family members, including Pat. Gail's mother, Norma is buried at Galt Cemetery where you can see Gail's name on the marker stating she has been missing since 1980.

I cannot help but keep asking myself:  Was Pat's death truly "accidental"? Was Gail kidnapped and later murdered? Was it possible that she was so distraught by the loss of Pat that after one too many drinks she drove herself into the Delta waters that she and Pat loved so much? Or were both Pat and Gail murdered for reasons that we may probably never know? Too many questions and not enough answers, but it seems to me that Pat's death and Gail's sudden disappearance are related.

With all the talk of the "Delta Tunnels" going on, I often wonder that if that passes (which by the way will spell the end of the Delta and our agriculture in the Valley and Delta region), it will also open up a whole new can of worms when that river bed drains so low that all sorts of secrets that might have been lying at the bottom resurfaces after all these years.

Will we find Gail Skelton's car, and possibly her remains at the bottom of the river?
Will we find others who disappeared over the years, too? We have no choice but to wait and see. Although I hope that the Delta Tunnels don't go through, I do hope one day we find out what happened to Gail.

(Copyright 2018 - J'aime Rubio - www.jaimerubiowriter.com)

Thanks to"Rats" on websleuths.com for reaching out to me about Gail, and for all your efforts trying to research her case as well. Thank you also to "Folieadeuxnola" for finding Gail's high school photo.

Sources:
Lodi News Sentinel Archives:  5/5/1978; 6/21/1980; 6/23/1980; 6/25/1980;
6/27/1980; 6/28/1980; 1/29/1981
Anaheim High School Yearbook, 1966
Galt High School Yearbook, 1972 (c/o folieadeuxnola on websleuths website)
United States Public Records, 1970-2009
Find-a-grave
Lodi Sentinel (7/20/2013)

Scientific Sources:

Alcohol Metabolism After Death 
Forensic Science: Fundamentals and Investigations (2010 update)
Blood Alcohol Scores After Death Can Be "False Positive."
http://www.atlantainjurylawblog.com/uncategorized/blood-alcohol-scores-after-death-can- be-false-positive-up-to-0-2-html
Postmortem Blood Alcohol Concentrations -Are They Reliable?
http://www.wigmoreonalcohol.com/single-post/2013/01/11/Postmortem-Blood-Alcohol-Concentrations-Are-they-Reliable



















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