TAMPA — Karen Pais lived with her sister in a small Carrollwood home, but the two women couldn’t have been farther apart.
Pais took in Debra Patton about a decade ago, and as the years passed, their relationship grew more strained, friends said. Pais began to utter an ominous warning that to friends felt like more than just dark humor.
“Karen would say, if you find me dead, it was Debra,” longtime friend Cathy Wynkoop recalled.
Friends urged Pais to kick out her sister, but she insisted she couldn’t do that to family. So the two women lived together but estranged.
Late last month, Pais, 66, disappeared and stopped returning calls and texts. A friend called deputies to check on her. Patton told them she didn’t know where her sister was, records show.
Deputies noticed a disturbed patch of earth in Pais’s otherwise pristine back yard. Friends feared the worst.
“We were telling them, you need to dig up that back yard because Karen would not have left it looking like that,” Wynkoop said.
Detectives eventually returned with a search warrant and started digging.
‘She’s family, she’s blood’
The house that Pais shared with her sister had been in the family for decades.
Their parents, Armando and Sophie Pais, grew up in Ybor City, according to family friends. Debra was born in 1953 and Karen followed a little over a year later. Armando was a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, according to his obituary, so the family traveled a lot.
Karen Pais attended Leto High School and later got a job as a transmission engineer for what was then GTE and later became Verizon, said Pam Nelson, who worked with Pais in the company’s Tampa office and remained friends with her for more than 30 years.
“Everyone loved her because she was so generous and fun to be with,” Nelson said.
Records show the home on Cypress Park Street, in the Carrollwood’s Beacon Meadows community just north of Gunn Highway, was new when Karen Pais purchased it with her parents in 1983. All three lived there until Armando died in 1991. After that, Pais lived there with her mother until Sophie Pais died in 2005.
After retiring from Verizon as a manager, Pais worked as a contract engineer for several years and retired for good about seven years ago, Nelson said.
Over the years, Pais became a devoted Rays fan, often crossing Tampa Bay to catch games at Tropicana Field, friends said. She liked to hang out with friends at Rick’s on the River, a bar on the Hillsborough River in Tampa, drinking her favorite cocktail, Jack Daniels and Diet Coke.
Pais never married or had kids but loved spending time with her friends’ children and grandchildren, buying them presents and helping them with homework, Nelson said. A dog lover, she lost her Bichon Frise-poodle mix Kodi about a year ago.
Pais also enjoyed working in the yard. She kept the grass lush and the shrubs trimmed with a geometric precision one might expect from an engineer.
To Cathy Wynkoop, whose father worked with Pais and become good friends with her, Pais was like an aunt. Wynkoop’s parents moved into the same neighborhood and Pais helped with Cathy’s calculus in college.
“She called me baby girl,” Wynkoop recalled.
Patton, 67, previously worked as a telemarketer and is divorced, acquaintances said. Her son, an only child, died a few years ago.
Records show she lived in a Lutz apartment in the mid-2000s and Pais’s friends said Patton moved in with her sister about 2010. Pais told friends she and her sister had never gotten along well, but things seemed fine at first.
“She seemed to be nice then and everything seemed to be okay,” Joel Wynkoop, Cathy Wynkoop’s husband, recalled of Patton.
But the two sisters had a falling out, fueled at least in part by hurtful accusations Patton made about Pais not properly caring for their parents before they died, Nelson said. In fact, Nelson said, Karen Pais was a dedicated caregiver to her mother and Patton was hardly around.
Pais told friends her sister had changed. She wouldn’t talk to her and rarely left the house.
About five years ago, Pais started occasionally saying that if she was ever found dead, her sister did it.
“We laughed, but we felt uncomfortable about it,” Joel Wynkoop said.
Friends told the Tampa Bay Times that they didn’t get any indication that Patton was physically violent toward her sister or that Pais was in imminent danger. Sheriff’s Office records going back to 2010 show no prior calls for service related to domestic disputes. Patton has no prior arrest history in Florida.
But Pais was a private person and friends conceded they don’t know everything that went on in the home. Both sisters owned a gun and people who cared about Pais were still concerned and urged her to tell Patton to leave.
“I said, Karen, how can you stand to live like this?” Joel Wynkoop recalled. “She said it bothers me but I get used to it, she does her thing and I do mine. Karen would always say she’s my sister, she’s family, she’s blood, she’s got no place to go.”
In the last week of May, Pais stopped returning calls and text messages. On May 27, Pam Nelson’s wife, Jan Wilder, texted Pais about scheduling a hair appointment together with an in-home stylist.
“I’ll pass,” came the reply, a curtness uncharacteristic of Pais, who had requested the haircut in the first place, Wilder said.
By then, her friends now believe, she was already dead.
A welfare check, a backyard grave
Nelson called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on May 29, a Saturday, asking deputies to check on Pais.
When deputies visited later that day, Patton invited them inside, according to an arrest report. Pais’s purse and wallet with cash, credit cards and driver license were in the house and her Toyota Camry was parked there.
Patton told deputies she didn’t know the last time she saw or spoke to her sister.
When deputies went back the next day, Pais’s belongings were still at the house. Deputies also noticed the area of freshly disturbed dirt, about six feet long and four feet wide, in the back yard. Patton again said she didn’t know where Pais was, the report states.
Detectives reviewed surveillance video, captured by a camera on a house across the street, that showed Pais outside her home for about an hour and a half on the morning of May 24. She was not seen in the video leaving the house between that time and May 29, when deputies visited for the first time.
The camera did capture Patton taking several large black trash bags to the trash can during that time, according to the report. During the same period, the video also showed Patton walking her dog and on two occasions leaving and returning in Pais’s car.
A detective interviewed Patton on May 30. She told him she’d lived with Pais for about 10 years but they don’t talk to or communicate with each other.
“The defendant advised she recently had a personal issue with the victim but did not want to disclose it,” a detective wrote in the report.
The next day, detectives got a search warrant and dug in the area of fresh dirt. About two feet down, they found something wrapped in black trash bags and cloth material, bound with bungie cords and duct tape. The odor of decomposition wafted in the air.
When the Hillsborough Medical Examiner’s Office arrived, authorities determined it was a body. There was a wound on the chest that indicated foul play.
Around the body’s neck was a gold necklace with a nameplate: “Karen.”
‘Her eyes were empty’
Detectives arrested Patton that day, first on a charge of abusing a dead human body.
Later, while unwrapping the body before an autopsy, the county’s chief medical examiner found a pair of blood-covered latex gloves, according to the arrest report. An autopsy conducted the next day confirmed Pais died from a gunshot wound to the chest and the office ruled the death a homicide.
Detectives added a charge of second-degree murder with a firearm, a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The arrest report makes no mention of a suspected murder weapon or motive.
Patton remained in the Hillsborough County jail on Thursday with bail set at $255,000. Records show she is being represented by a public defender.
Wilder was among those who saw and spoke to Patton on May 29.
“I said, ‘Debra are you okay? Where is Karen?’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know,’” Wilder said.
Wilder described her demeanor as flat, emotionless.
“Her eyes were empty,” she said. “It’s like she has no soul, no remorse.”
Nelson and Wilder hosted a memorial for Pais at their home on Saturday. Her friends toasted her with shots of Jack Daniels.
“We did exactly what Karen wanted,” Nelson said. “We partied, we laughed, we cried, we reminisced.”
A minister friend who attended spoke of forgiveness, of not letting hate for Debra consume them. Focus instead on the love they had for Karen and she for them.
“It’s very difficult,” Wilder said. “In normal daily life it keeps popping into your head: My friend is gone and she was taken from us in such a horrible way.”