This month’s missing persons case is one that has grabbed and held my attention for a long time. After a strange car accident, a woman vanished from the scene, only to be spotted throughout the country afterwards. What happened to Patricia Meehan – did she truly end up hitchhiking across America with truck drivers, or did she meet another fate? Let’s explore.
Who Is Patricia?
Patricia Bernadette Meehan was born on November 1, 1951. Her parents are Dolly and Thomas Meehan. Patricia grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. There is very little information available regarding Patricia’s personality and interests during her early childhood, but by all accounts it was a normal one. Patricia moved away from Pittsburgh in order to attend college in Oklahoma City, OK. Her grand plan for life was to study early childhood development and start a career in daycare. Unfortunately, this did not pan out for Patricia. She did not finish her degree, and moved to Bozeman, MT in 1985. Her life in Bozeman was a simple one. She worked as a ranch hand, and took on several other tasks around town to pay for her needs. When asked about the drastic change in careers, Patricia told people it was simply because she loved animals.
Patricia called her father on April 19, 1989. Patricia told him that she wanted to go back home to Pittsburgh, apparently because her life in Bozeman was too stressful. She apparently did not specify any individual stressors during this call. This would be the last time Patricia spoke to her father. Her landlord would be the last person to see her. He claimed that she was behaving unusually – while Patricia was normally amicable if somewhat reserved, she was “hyper” during her final encounter with him. He explained that she seemed slightly disoriented and giddy during their conversation, but the behavior was apparently not severe enough to cause concern.
The next confirmed sighting of Patricia was at 8:15 PM on April 20, 1989. Patricia was driving northwest on Highway 200, near Circle, MT. She swerved into the eastbound lane, narrowly missing one car, but hitting the one behind it head-on. The car she collided with was driven by a police dispatcher named Carol Heitz, who was thankfully unharmed. The car Patricia narrowly avoided hitting contained Peggy Bueller and her father. Peggy had pulled over to serve as a witness if necessary. When Carol emerged from her wrecked car, she saw Patricia doing the same. Carol stated that Patricia did look at her, but there was no recognition of another person. Patricia said nothing – she did not speak to Carol, Peggy, or even herself. Instead, she just climbed over the fence that bordered the road and observed the wreckage for a moment before vanishing into the field behind it.
Seeing this, Peggy rushed to a phone to alert the authorities. Peggy’s father stayed at the scene with Carol to ensure that no one else wandered away or was otherwise harmed. Police arrived at the scene fairly quickly and, realizing that Patricia had not returned to the scene of the accident, ran her license plate through the DMV database. Now knowing that the car belonged to Patricia, they set out to search the area for her while officers elsewhere contacted her family in case she’d spoken to them. At this point, they are looking for someone who had committed a hit-and-run, remember.
The officers at the scene were able to identify a trail of footprints that led through the field, but disappeared into its overgrowth after three quarters of a mile. Not finding further clues, the search was called off for the night around 3 AM. The search continued the next day, with the Meehans flying in from Pittsburgh. They distributed thousands of missing persons flyers while volunteers combed the terrain surrounding the accident site. They used horses, ATVS, and helicopters to search from all vantage points. No sign of Patrica was found during these searches.
Investigators believed that Patricia had fled the scene in one of two ways. First, she may have fled on foot to a more populated area, and then hitchhiked out of town. The second theory is altogether stranger: a hay delivery truck had been parked a half a mile away from the accident site at the time of the accident. It was theorized that Patricia could have hidden in that truck while the searches were being conducted, and either ridden it away or slipped away and hitchhiked after the searches had ceased. These two theories were total speculation, however, as the only clues to how Patricia got away from the scene were those footprints through the field. There were no sightings of Patricia on the night of the accident.
One of the biggest questions that plagued (and continues to plague) this investigation is why Patricia was driving on a highway near Circle. Bozeman, where Patricia lived, was nearly 400 miles away from Circle. She would have had to have driven over five hours to get there. To this day, there have been no real answers to this question.
And now, onto the strangest part of this investigation: the sightings. There have been over five thousand sightings of Patricia reported. I can’t possibly cover all of those, so we are going to cover the most contemporary sightings, and a later sighting that raises a lot of questions for me. The first sighting we will discuss took place in Luverne, MN, on May 4 – only two weeks after Patricia disappeared. A police officer there claimed to see a woman who looked like Patricia travelling between restaurants, ordering only water. The day after this sighting, two more sightings took place in South Dakota – one took place in Sioux Falls, in which a waitress thought she saw Patricia drinking coffee at a truck stop; the second took place in Murdo, where another waitress thought she saw Patricia with a man in his thirties.
On May 19, about a month after Patricia’s disappearance, a waitress at a restaurant near Bozeman, MT, served breakfast to a woman who resembled Patricia. She claimed the woman seemed hurried and was talking to herself. Patricia was also allegedly sighted at a horse auction on May 26 in Billings. On May 30, a truck driver driving on I-90 in WA passed a woman who resembled Patricia. He stopped and offered the woman a ride, but she turned him down. When a woman stopped to offer the same, the woman resembling Patricia claimed that she was fine – but her car had broken down and she was off in search of a phone. In early June, a Port of Tacoma employee claimed to have seen Patricia at a truck stop in Tacoma, WA, asking for directions to Aberdeen.
Again, this is just a fraction of the well-documented sightings.
The final sighting we will discuss took place on August 30, 1990, over a year after the accident and Patricia’s disappearance. A woman who resembled Patricia was arrested in Coeur d’Alene, ID. She had been caught littering. The arresting officer believed her to be Patricia, though she claimed to be a traveling missionary, moving between Montana and Washington. Even Patricia’s ex-boyfriend claimed she looked and sounded like Patricia. It was confirmed with fingerprints, however, that she was not.
This case is rife with armchair detectives putting forth theories – both grounded in logic and off the wall. I’m going to cover the two main theories that make sense to me in this section, and the subtheories that branch off of those two theories. The first of the two theories is that Patricia drove into the other car on purpose in order to complete suicide. While there is nothing in Patricia’s life to indicate that she was having suicidal thoughts or ideation, it’s oftentimes impossible to tell when someone is. It is worth noting that her landlord noted that she was behaving unusually when he saw her last, stating that she was “hyper” which could possibly have been a result of a manic or hypomanic state. A side effect of being in a manic state is reckless behavior, which could have been the cause of the accident. (Obviously, it is impossible for us to know Patricia’s mental state, so we will never actually know whether mania played a part in the accident – the point of that information is to provide possible context, rather than armchair diagnose Patricia.)
The second theory is that the car accident was truly an accident, and Patricia walked away from the scene due to a head injury. According to this theory, Patricia experienced some form of memory loss due to the head injury. She then wandered to a more populated area, unaware of who she was, where she belonged, or who may have been missing her. She then began hitching rides with truck drivers, which would explain the myriad of sightings at or near truck stops.
The question then is – where is Patricia now? The first theory answers that question. The second theory is more ambiguous. The theory diverges further into three possibilities. The first possibility is that Patricia is still alive somewhere as a person without a home, having hitchhiked there. The second possibility within this theory is that Patricia did catch a ride with someone who had malicious intentions, who then murdered her somewhere along their route. The third possibility within this theory is that Patricia was hitchhiking throughout the country and is now deceased from a less insidious reason – an accident, natural causes, etc. If this were the case, she would have been logged as an Unidentified Decedent, as she would not have had any ID or persons close to her who knew her true identity.
Then we take into account the massive number of sightings reported. After going through a large number of them in the previous section, I want to pose a question – could all of the sightings of Patricia have actually been the missionary woman? Her appearance was so strikingly similar to Patricia that she had to be ruled out via fingerprinting. I believe it is possible that some, if not all, of the purported sightings of Patricia were actually of this woman, and were reported as being Patricia because her case was so well-known. Patricia’s story was in newspapers often, leading to her likeness being recognizable. Of course, on the other side of this coin, it is also possible that some of the sightings were of Patricia, and this missionary woman traveling simply complicated things.
Out of all of these theories, I am torn between two. First, I truly believe that it is possible Patricia caused the accident on purpose as an attempt to end her own life. It’s impossible for anyone to have truly known what was going on in her head at the time, and it may explain why she was so far across the state – she was driving, lost in thought, and made a snap decision. I think it is equally likely that she is an Unidentified Decedent somewhere, having lost her memory and hitchhiked to somewhere far from her home in Montana. We know for a fact she walked away from the scene of the accident. If she lost her memory, she could have possibly traveled anywhere in the United States. She would have been housing impaired, with no one able to vouch for her identity. Subsequently, when she died of whatever cause, there would have been no one to claim her. This is something I’m going to look into further, as I feel strongly that this may be what happened to Patricia.
Patricia is still out there somewhere, and people are still searching. I truly believe that someone out there holds the missing piece of this puzzle. If you or anyone you know has any information regarding what happened to Patricia after the car accident on April 20, 1989, please contact the McCone County Sheriff’s Office. The can be reached by phone at 406-485-3405 in reference to case number 894201.