Patty Donahue-James concocted a bizarre scheme where she pretended to be both a woman named “Demi” and another named “TJ” to get her “fiancé” to kill her husband Bernie James for his life insurance money!
The off-the-wall plot was the focus of a recent episode of Oxygen’s true-crime drama “Snapped.”
When Patty realized her marriage had gone south, she crafted an elaborate scheme to murder her husband so that she could get his life insurance money before she was cut off from the death benefit through a divorce.
Bernie James was a combat veteran who survived the horrors of the Vietnam War and the death of his first wife before meeting and marrying Patty Donahue. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t survive their marriage.
After serving two tours as a Marine in ‘Nam, Bernie returned to Maryland in the 1970s and joined the fire department. While responding to a medical emergency, he met his first wife, paramedic Lisa Jane Paul. They had three children in three years, Michael, Irene, and Nicholas. Tragically, Lisa died in 1980 after suffering an aneurysm.
Two years later, Bernie was working dispatch at the fire station when Patty Donahue called and struck up a conversation. Soon, she was calling every day just to talk to him. As a lonely widower, it did not take him long to fall for Patty.
Bernie’s son Michael told Oxygen during the documentary episode, “He’d been a widower for two years now and was having a hard time raising his children, so a woman expressing interest in him was appealing to him. She seemed nice. She really seemed to like us.”
It wasn’t long before Patty moved in with Bernie and became a surrogate mother to his three young children. It was a huge relief for the single father, and they would marry in 1982.
Within a year of getting married, the Jameses abruptly moved to Wilton Manors, Florida, to be near Patty’s family. Bernie became a park ranger at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, north of West Palm Beach.
On the night of March 24, 1987, an urgent call came into the Wilton Manors 911 dispatch center. 37-year-old Bernie James had been found dead in the front seat of his car.
“There was blood inside the car by the center console, there was clear trauma to the right side of the victim’s head. The victim also had ligature marks around his neck,” former Broward County Sheriff’s Detective Randy Goldberg told Oxygen.
Patty gave the detectives a convoluted story about Bernie wanting to stay outside and change the oil in the car while she brought in the groceries. She gave them a description of a “black man” she saw talking to Bernie before she returned to the car, wondering what was taking Bernie so long and finding him dead.
An autopsy the following day determined that Bernie had died from asphyxiation, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper. Given Bernie’s combat and law enforcement training, the lack of defensive wounds indicated that Bernie was taken by surprise. Detectives didn’t think he was killed inside the car where he was found as there wasn’t enough room to strangle him, and there would have been more blood due to his head wound.
Detectives examined Bernie’s car and determined an oil change had never been performed. Patty’s story didn’t match up with the evidence.
Bernie’s parents told detectives that Bernie married Patty in haste because he was having so much trouble caring for the children alone. Soon after the marriage, they say she drove a wedge between them and their son and grandchildren.
Bernie’s daughter Irene told the “Snapped” producers that she never saw her father and stepmother be physically affectionate with each other. Instead, they often fought and got into screaming matches.
After not speaking to his parents for several years, Bernie called his mother, Dolores, in the fall of 1985. He said he was going to divorce Patty and move back home with his children.
A Bizarre Admission
Patty James was brought in for questioning on April 8, 1987. When confronted with the inconsistencies in her story, she dropped a bombshell.
“The detectives asked Patricia if there was anything else she had to say. She paused for a second, she lowered her head, and said that she knows who killed her husband,” Diaz recalled.
Patty said the killer was Timothy Ott, who knew the Jameses from their bowling league. She said Ott witnessed Bernie abusing Patty and wanted to protect her. She claimed that on the night of the murder, she and Bernie went to Ott’s home to discuss the bowling schedule. She said Ott killed Bernie while she was in the bathroom and that she was too scared to tell the police.
Detectives asked Patty to take a polygraph test, but she refused. Though they were certain she was involved in Bernie’s murder, they had no evidence with which to charge her, and she was released.
“Demi and Booth”
Timothy Ott was brought in for questioning. He said he had never met anyone named Bernie and Patty James, but he recognized their photographs.
“He goes, ‘Wait, what? That’s Booth, and that’s Demi, that’s how I know them; they’re in my bowling league. Demi’s a friend of my fiancé, T.J.,” former Palm Bay Detective George Santiago told “Snapped.” “He goes, ‘Booth was married to my fiancé T.J., and she told me he’s an abuser.”
Ott said that “T.J.” was a stewardess who lived in Texas. They had never met in person but started a phone relationship after “Demi” introduced them. Ott said he and “TJ” planned to marry and help raise her three children from her marriage to “Booth,” Michael, Irene, and Nicholas.
After the mention of the names of the children, detectives realized that “T.J.” and “Demi” were the same person – Patty James! And “Booth” was her husband, Bernie. There never was a “TJ,” and Patty was pretending to be “Demi” and in an abusive relationship with Booth to get Ott to kill Booth/Bernie before he could divorce her!
“TJ,” told Ott over the phone that “Booth” had physically and sexually abused their children and was about to obtain visiting rights. After discussing it with “Demi” and “TJ,” Ott decided to murder “Booth.” On the night of the murder, “Demi” brought “Booth” to Ott’s apartment on the ruse of some bowling league business where Ott struck him in the head with an aluminum baseball bat and strangled him to death.
On April 10, 1987, Timothy Ott was formally charged with first-degree murder, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Authorities were only able to charge Patricia James with accessory to murder after the fact. While investigators worked on building a murder one case against Patty, they learned she was also a con artist, and Bernie and Ott were among a long list of “marks.”
Arrests and Convictions
On June 8, 1987, Patricia James was arrested for first-degree murder in the death of her husband, Bernard James. When questioned by detectives, she claimed she had a multiple personality disorder and couldn’t remember anything about the murder or her involvement in it, or her alleged past scams.
In exchange for testifying against James, Timothy Ott was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. In January 1989, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to the Sun-Sentinel, and has since been released.
In Nov. 1988, Patricia James was found guilty of first-degree murder, according to the Sun-Sentinel. She was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 25 years and died in prison in 2018.