Family secrets emerge after fatal fire

One cold day last month, television news cameras captured the very public grief of a Gwinnett County man who lost his wife and daughters in an intense house fire. "My whole life is over," Brent Patterson said. "My whole life is over."

At first, nothing about the fire, as horribly sad as it was, seemed out of the ordinary. But details are emerging that could cast the tragedy in a different light.

The family was the subject of a child-neglect investigation in 2014, and Brent Patterson was convicted as a drug dealer in two states in the 1980s and 1990s, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Neither the child-neglect case nor Patterson's criminal record is necessarily related to the Feb. 9 fire. But Gwinnett County authorities have cited "inconsistencies" in Patterson's story as the sole survivor and recently searched the fire scene for signs of arson, as well as for medications, diaries or journals and evidence of financial troubles, according to court records.

“The conflicting statements given by Mr. Patterson could not explain the fire behavior, fire patterns, or the speed of the fire spread,” an affidavit filed by investigators said.

Brent Patterson, 54, lived in a Tucker subdivision with his wife, Kathy, 36, and their daughters, 12-year-old Kayla and 9-year-old Madelyn. Patterson told authorities the fire erupted suddenly and kept him from rescuing his wife or children. Their bodies were found upstairs in the two-bedroom house. Autopsy reports have not yet been released.

Patterson has not spoken publicly since the funeral for his wife and children on Feb. 15. Attempts to reach him this week were not successful.

By all outward appearances, the Pattersons were a close family. Brent Patterson managed a restaurant. Kathy Patterson was a stay-home mother who also taught dance lessons. She frequently updated her Facebook page with pictures of her husband and daughters and news of the girls' achievements. On Jan. 1, 2015, she posted, "I love my husband! He's truly the best!"

She wrote a week later about baking cupcakes with Kayla. “I never want these moments to end! Kayla wrote a list of 11 wishes for her 11th birthday. She put wanting to grow up to be like mommy as #4. I made the list!!!”

A few months earlier, the state Division of Family and Children Services had received a troubling report about Kathy Patterson.

Educators at the girls’ private school, Smoke Rise Prep in Stone Mountain, had identified “many red flags” in Kathy Patterson’s behavior, according to a May 5, 2014, DFCS report obtained by the Journal-Constitution. The caller to DFCS, whose identity was redacted from the document, suggested Patterson put her children and others at risk by driving them home from school while intoxicated.

The report said one of the Pattersons’ neighbors, who worked at the school, had been called to the family’s home because Kathy Patterson was “unable to function.”

“This neighbor has assisted Mrs. Patterson in getting up off the floor and into her bed when Mrs. Patterson was no longer able to walk or pull herself up,” the report said. The children witnessed their mother’s incapacitation, the report said.

Other parents complained of smelling alcohol on her breath during school events, such as a classroom party the previous Halloween. And with slurred speech, the report said, she often left angry voice mails at night for school employees. The next morning, she would not remember the calls.

The caller told DFCS that Kayla “cries almost daily, usually just before lunchtime,” before complaining about physical symptoms. Madelyn, according to the report, sought attention daily for her own physical ailments.

“We are concerned that this environment is causing extreme stress” for both girls, the caller said, according to the DFCS report.

DFCS said it immediately opened an investigation. But a caseworker failed to document initial interviews with Kayla and Madelyn at school. The matter was still unresolved when the caseworker left the agency, DFCS spokeswoman Susan Boatwright said last week.

More than a month after the initial allegation, DFCS supervisors instructed another caseworker to visit the Pattersons’ home.

“When we walk away,” a memo from June 17, 2014, said, “are we assured that the (mother’s) drinking will not place the children in danger?”

The caseworker saw lights on inside the Pattersons’ house, but no one answered the door. DFCS summoned the Gwinnett County police, but an officer got no response, either.

It apparently wasn’t until July 12 that a caseworker met with Brent and Kathy Patterson. Both accused their next-door neighbor and the school of making false allegations as retaliation for complaints about the school’s treatment of Kayla, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity. The Pattersons denied any substance abuse.

The caseworker later interviewed family friends — but not the person who made the original allegation. Under current policy, Boatwright said, the agency requires workers to "circle back" to the complainant.

Another caseworker visited the Pattersons’ home in September, this time with four days’ notice.

Both girls told the worker their parents sometimes drank — Bud Light for their father, Mike’s Hard Lemonade for their mother, Madelyn said. But the girls said neither parents drove with them after drinking. Kayla told the caseworker she was not afraid of either her mother or father.

The worker reported no immediate threat to the children. DFCS supervisors closed the investigation, describing the allegation about Kathy Patterson as “unsubstantiated.”

Agency files do not indicate whether the caseworker examined Brent Patterson’s criminal record.

He served 15 months in prison, from September 1993 to December 1994, on charges that he sold narcotics and marijuana, according to North Carolina corrections records. He was sentenced to probation on several other drug charges between 1985 and 1993, public records show.

From 1994 to 1997, he also served three years of probation for drug-related charges in Orange County, Fla., according to public records.

Boatwright, the DFCS spokeswoman, said caseworkers might have discounted Patterson’s criminal history because the convictions were so old.

“It appears the case manager talked with people who knew the family, talked with the children, and did the due diligence to determine whether there was danger in the home,” Boatwright said.

Kathy Patterson made no reference to the DFCS investigation on her Facebook page. Three months after the investigation concluded, a WXIA-TV story featured her work with a “special-needs ministry” at a Decatur church, culminating in a liturgical dance performance during a Christmas pageant.

“I had been praying for an opportunity to open up,” she told the television station, “wherever God wants to take me.”