When Pamela Butler disappeared in “mysterious circumstances” it seemed straight out of a crime thriller.
She’d been captured on CCTV entering her home – then vanished.
As a computer technician for the US Environmental Protection Agency, Pamela, 47, lived in Washington DC. She earned good money and added to her income with property investments.
She liked routine and lived an orderly life, which is why, when she didn’t appear for a family meal, alarm bells rang.
Pamela’s brother went to her home and noticed her two cars were still at the house. But the alarm wasn’t on. She usually set it when she left the house. Inside, her bed sheets were missing and some bedding was on the sofa. Her purse and keys were missing, too, and her usually tidy home was disorderly, with paperwork left out.
Pamela had last been seen on 12 February 2009. Her sophisticated home surveillance system, which had cameras fixed on all her doors, recorded her boyfriend Jose Angel Rodriguez-Cruz visiting on 13 February. They had met online and had been dating for about five weeks.
When questioned, Jose said Pamela had broken off their relationship on the night of 13 February. He said it had come as a surprise, but they’d parted as friends. The CCTV confirmed that Jose had left about 11.30 that night. But footage didn’t show Pamela leaving the house again.
Jose was seen entering her home three times in the days following her disappearance. He said he was collecting his belongings and was seen carrying large bags. However, a window had been unlocked and the blinds raised, which was unlike Pamela, who was security conscious.
Had something been taken out of the window to avoid the cameras on the doors?
Police treated Jose as a suspect. At first, he cooperated with them, even agreeing to take a polygraph (lie detector test). Then he changed his mind and said he felt he was being set up by the police.
However, there was something disturbing in Jose’s past that made the police continue their investigations. His wife had gone missing 20 years earlier – and he was the sole suspect.
When Jose was 23, Marta “Haydee” Rodriguez, 26, vanished from Arlington, Virginia, on 26 May 1989. She and Jose had a son, Hansel, who was then four. At the time the couple were estranged and she’d accused him of domestic violence. Just months before Marta vanished, Jose had been arrested for assaulting her.
In March 1989, a police officer saw Jose dragging her down the street. When his car was searched, duct tape and rope was found and he told an officer, “If I can’t have her, no one else will.”
After his arrest, Marta said she was scared for her life – but the charges against him were dropped when she failed to attend court to testify. A week later, she was nowhere to be found.
Jose claimed she’d gone abroad. He told his son that his mum had fallen in with drug dealers and had left them. Then, in 2000, a woman used Marta’s name to get a driving licence in Florida.
Police got in touch and the woman said she was Marta and was OK. They didn’t compare photos of the woman with pictures of Marta, but the missing person report was cancelled. It was later discovered the mystery woman was a relative of Jose’s.
In April 2017 Jose was charged with Pamela’s murder. Six months later, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, admitting he had beaten and strangled her after an argument. Her family believed the argument was over the break-up and the fact that he didn’t have a job.
Jose was sentenced to 12 years in prison – but had to reveal the location of Pamela’s body as part of a plea deal.
He led police to Interstate 95, in Stafford County, Virginia, where he said he’d buried the body on a median – a central reservation. But the area had since been dug up and built on, so it seemed unlikely Pamela’s remains would be found.
However, Virginia State police told the Washington DC investigators that unidentified human remains had been found near the same spot in 1991. It was a coincidence that couldn’t be ignored.
The remains couldn’t be Pamela’s – they were discovered before she’d disappeared – but in 2018 DNA analysis showed they belonged to Marta, Jose’s missing wife.
In making a plea deal over the death of his girlfriend, he had inadvertently revealed that he’d killed his wife.
In October 2019, Jose was charged with the murder of Marta, although the cause of death remained undetermined.
And in November 2020, three decades after her killing, Jose, now 54, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. In the courtroom was Pamela’s brother Derrick, who had raised awareness of the similarities between the disappearances of Pamela and Jose’s wife.
“I want to see him serve life for the crimes that he committed,” Derrick told reporters.
“No matter how old he gets – if he comes out at 80-years-old, if he makes it that far – he’s still a violent criminal and it’s not going to change.”
Jose and Marta’s son Hansel, now 35, was also in court. He was a child when his mum vanished and his dad had spun a web of lies about her disappearance.
He grew up being told his mum was hanging out with “bad people” and had abandoned him. In his impact statement, he said that over time he’d started to “put two and two together” and saw his father was a man with a violent temper.
“I had a to act like an ally, but it was terrifying,” he said. “I had to keep a straight face.” He said he was at court to honour his mother. “Part of the reason I’m here is to do what I can for her sake, her legacy.”
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Jose made a statement in which he addressed his son. “I want to say I’m so sorry for the pain I caused you and Marta,” he said. “If there was a way to bring back your mother, I would give my own life. I just didn’t have the courage to face you and tell you what I’d done.”
But without the whole truth, they were empty words.
In court, the defence said Jose denied intentionally killing Marta. He said that the two had gone to a hotel and when he left the room, Marta had taken some pills he’d given her for a migraine. When he returned, she was unresponsive. He later buried her body by the highway.
The prosecution dismissed the explanation as “ridiculous” and added that Marta had been terrified of her violent husband, who tried to abduct her. There was no way she would have willingly gone anywhere with him.
“If he had remorse, he could have told the truth,” said the prosecution. “He had 30 years to do it. He buried it, like he did to Marta.”
The judge agreed Jose had shown no remorse. “Your version is this was not a violent death,” he told him. “Her remains were gnawed on by animals – that’s a disposition that nobody deserves.”
Jose was sentenced to 40 years in prison for Marta’s killing. After completing his time for Pamela’s death, he starts serving his sentence for Marta’s.
After 30 years, Marta’s case was finally closed. Pamela’s body hasn’t been found and police say it’s unlikely it will be. But their killer’s past came back to haunt him.