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The Unsolved Murder of Patricia Denise Palmer

Case File Overview

In November of 1981, Patricia Denise Palmer, who liked being called “Denise,” believed she had a long, wonderful life ahead of her in ​Tulsa, Oklahoma​. She had been married to Randy Palmer, her high-school sweetheart, for six months. Overwhelmed with love and joy, Denise told her mom, Pat Carlile, “Life is almost too perfect.”

Denise decided to sell her wedding dress so she could contribute to her and her new husband’s slowly growing house deposit fund. She placed an ad in a Sunday edition of Tulsa World​ newspaper, using her mom’s phone number as part of the contact information.

Denise and Randy’s wedding

Patricia Denise Palmer wedding
Source: KJRH News

The first call her mom Pat received about the dress was on November 15th from was an older-sounding man with a “real nice voice.” He said he wanted to purchase the dress for his daughter who was about to get married. Denise’s mom was a little unsettled by the call. Pat felt the man lacked the excitement she expected to hear from the father of a soon-to-be bride. Still, she made arrangements to meet the caller at her home located at 4127 S. Sandusky Avenue around noon on November 17th to show the man her daughter’s wedding dress.

Crime Scene

Patricia Denise Palmer crime scene
Source: Tulsa Police Department

But Pat later decided she had to go shopping at the time of the meeting. She let her daughter know she would have to meet the buyer herself. Denise worked around six blocks from her mom’s house at the Southland Shopping Center and often stopped by the house for lunch. Denise’s mom told her daughter to err on the side of caution; Denise should ask one of her coworkers to accompany her to the meeting. Pat also told Denise she should hang the dress in the entrance so the man would not have to venture too far inside of the home.

Denise told her coworkers about her intentions to leave at lunch to go meet the stranger who had answered the newspaper ad to buy her wedding dress. They were worried for her safety, so several of them offered to go with Denise to her mom’s house. But Denise declined their help and headed to her mom’s house alone. Denise felt she had no reason not to trust the man she was meeting.

A short while later, construction workers in the neighbourhood noticed a man on the front porch of Denise’s mom’s house holding a wedding dress. Considering this somewhat odd, the workers paid close attention to the interaction. As a result, they were able to give the police a detailed description of the man and assisted the authorities in creating a composite sketch. The suspect was described as a white male around 40 years old with gray hair. He was 5’10”-6′ tall and approximately 180-190 pounds. He was wearing gray slacks and a blue windbreaker. He also had a noticeable birthmark or other skin discoloration on the left side of his face.

Composite sketch of the suspect

Suspect in the murder of Patricia Denise Palmer
Source: Tulsa Police Department

The construction workers also got a good look at the man’s vehicle while it was parked in the driveway. They described it as “a black over dark blue 1972-74 Chevrolet Impala.” The car had an Oklahoma license plate and appeared to be extremely well cared for. The vehicle also had a chrome dealer decal on the left side of the bottom of the trunk lid and “may have had a black CB antenna mounted in the center of the trunk lid, or a fully extended radio antenna that was bent back over the top of the vehicle.”

When she was unable to reach her daughter by phone to see how the appointment had gone, Pat contacted a neighbour to stop by and check on Denise. The neighbour was horrified to find Denise’s lifeless body floating in the bathtub. Evidence within the home allowed the police to recreate the attack. There were smudges of blood found along the walls of the hallway and on the side of the bathtub. It appeared as though Denise put up quite a fight, struggling with her attacker and leaving a blood trail from the entrance, down the hallway, and into the bathroom.

Although semen was discovered at the scene that could have resulted in DNA evidence, it was stored improperly in test tubes and later deemed unusable. However, a DNA sample was gathered from gum found in the bathtub that is suspected to be the killer’s. The investigators have run tests on case evidence over the years. But this has yet to help identify Denise’s killer.

Case File Theories

Did Paul Williford murder Denise? 

Could Paul Williford be responsible for murdering Denise? Maybe, but it is doubtful. 

In 2005, Williford, a newspaper carrier, confessed to choking two women to death on his paper route. He killed them in or near bathtubs. He intentionally failed to deliver their papers to provoke a confrontation. This gave him a chance to attack. The way the women were murdered was eerily similar to what happened to Denise – they appeared to be assaulted and strangled in or near their bathrooms. Plus the location of the homes where Williford killed his two victims was only around a ten-minute drive from Denise’s mom’s house – the location where the Denise had been murdered. 

Williford also had an established criminal history at the time of Denise’s murder. He was in prison from 1987 until 1995 serving part of a 21-year sentence for robbing and almost strangling a woman in her 60s to death. Moreover, Williford may have killed one or more women before Denise was murdered in 1981. He admitted to murdering a hitchhiker in Arkansas in 1969, showing he potentially could have been a serial killer for decades by the time he started confessing to murders in 2005. 

Regardless of the similarities, however, it is unlikely Williford is responsible for murdering Denise. The two murder victims he confessed to killing in 2005, Geraldine Lawhorn and Donna Jo Stauffer, were both in their 70s – significantly older than Denise. This could suggest he was drawn to a different type of victim. Although it is possible his age of preferred victim changed as he himself aged. Also, Denise was killed in 1981, but Williford apparently did not murder victims in the area until the fall of 2005. Williford only had been delivering papers in the region since 2003. And it is unclear where he was working or living way back in 1981. Was he even in the area at the time Denise was killed? 

Although Williford would have been around 40 years old when Denise was killed, which matches the age of the man witnesses saw at the scene, he does not have a birthmark or skin discoloration on the left side of his face. Even more, Williford openly admitted to killing the older women but vehemently denied killing Denise. He told the media he would be willing to take a lie detector test to prove he did not kill Denise. The investigators do not seem to have taken him up on his offer. Instead, they discounted him as a suspect in Denise’s case. And by now authorities would have checked Williford’s DNA against the gum found at the scene of Denise’s murder. If the gum was indeed the killer’s, and Williford’s DNA had been a match, he would have been linked to the crime by now and charged with Denise’s murder. 

Was Denise murdered by Lisa Ann Henderson’s killer? 

Did Lisa Ann Henderson’s killer murder Denise? Possibly. Check out our file on Lisa’s case here. Lisa answered an ad placed in the Tulsa World newspaper for a modeling job. On June 1st, 1979, Lisa gathered some clothing for a photo shoot and made plans to meet a friend later in the afternoon for lunch. Witnesses saw her climb into a 1976-1977 maroon Chevrolet Monte Carlo. An eyewitness said a very pale white male was behind the wheel of the Chevy. He was approximately 40 years old and had thinning, dark hair. Lisa was never seen alive again. 

Along the same lines as in Denise’s case, an ad in Tulsa World newspaper seems to have resulted in murder. Also, Denise was killed in the same area only a year and a half after Lisa – Lisa’s family home and Denise’s mom’s house were less than a fifteen-minute drive apart. A killer could very well have been using newspaper ads to source victims from the region. 

The suspects in both of these cases were white men in their 40s. If you compare the composite sketches of the two men, there are some similarities. But the suspect in Lisa’s murder was not said to have an identifying mark on the left side of his face as seen in Denise’s case. Unlike Denise, though, Lisa was taken from the scene, assaulted, shot, and her body was burned to hide evidence. The very different ways the young women were killed gives me pause. But then I remind myself some killers do change their MOs. Unfortunately, the fire in Lisa’s case seems to have done its job destroying evidence. There is no mention of DNA being found that could be compared to the DNA evidence collected in Denise’s case. 

In the end, the links between Lisa and Denise’s cases are tenuous. But it seems more probable the same killer murdered both women than it does Williford killed Denise. There is also the chance the murders of Lisa and Denise are entirely unrelated and there were two killers in the area at time who just happened to use newspaper ads to find their victims – not exactly a comforting thought.

Who do you think murdered Denise? 

The authorities have generated an age-progressed composite of the sketch created from the construction workers’ eyewitness account on the day Denise was killed. The police said, “By the utilization of computer age progression, we have created a new sketch that would show what he would be now.” All it might take to help close this cold case is for one person to see the sketch, make a connection, and come forward. 

Age-progressed sketch of the suspect

Age progression sketch of suspect in the Patricia Denise Palmer case
Source: Tulsa Police Department

Denise’s husband, Randy, was heartbroken by the loss of his new wife and the future they could have built together. Randy, who was at work at the time Denise was killed, said, “Denise was very sweet. She was a little shy and a trusting person. I don’t think she thought twice about showing the dress alone.” Because Denise did not have a bad bone in her body, it was difficult for her mind to wrap her mind around the idea that other people may not always have good intentions. 

Denise was buried in Graham Memorial Cemetery in Pryor amongst rolling green lawns and majestic trees. Many of Denise’s loved ones praised the young woman for her great beauty, terrific singing voice, and ability brighten a room by merely entering it. The loss of Denise at such a young age left an impossible-to-fill hole in the lives of all those who loved her. 

Years after Denise’s tragic murder, her friends still remembered how she enriched their lives. One close friend wrote on Denise’s memorial page: “You will never be forgotten sweet friend. I think of you often. Your extraordinary beauty, talent and laughter are still fresh in my mind after all these years. It’s easy to see you as an angel. I pray you sleep in heavenly peace.”

Denise’s family has somehow managed to work through their grief and come out on the other side with forgiveness for Denise’s killer. Her mom, Pat, told the media she hopes the killer is in heaven and that he somehow knows Denise’s family has forgiven him.  

Nevertheless, with the investigators’ claim Denise’s killer “exhibits classic serial killer behaviors,” it is crucial to make sure he is identified and put behind bars where he belongs. If you have any information that could help solve Denise’s murder, please contact the Tulsa Police Department at 918-596-9222. There is a $1000 reward in this case. 

Related Reading

“Tulsa woman murdered while trying to sell her wedding dress in 36-year-old cold case.” KJRH News, April 27, 2018.

“Denise Palmer was killed in 1981 while attempting to sell her wedding dress.” Red Dirt Report, April 10, 2015. 

“Police ask for help in 26-year-old murder case.” News On 6, June 9, 2007. 

“Court: Ex-paper carrier: Williford charged with two murders.” Tulsa World, September 6, 2006. 

“Man says he killed hitchhiker Arkansas authorities investigate inmate’s claim that he strangled a red-haired woman in 1969.” The Oklahoman, December 23, 2005. 

“Similarity of slayings draws the attention of Tulsa Police.” The Oklahoman, November 19, 1981. 

“Notorious Tulsa cold case investigations.” TulsaPeople, n.d. 

“Patricia Palmer.” Tulsa Police, n.d. 

“Patricia Denise Palmer.” Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, n.d. 

Interested in unsolved cases? Check out the murder of Gary and Stephanie Gillette and the slaying of Sharon Jones.

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4 Comments

  1. Bill Bill

    My big struggle with this one is that the guy would do this even though construction workers are going to see him clearly standing on the porch and see his car clearly. Obviously, he got away with what he did, but to leave so many obvious witnesses seems incredibly bold. They didn’t have the resources for connecting a car to a person that they do today. They couldn’t just put make, model, and color of a car into a computer and spit out a list of owners. However, someone hearing the description of the car could have called police to say that the car and driver’s description matched a neighbor. In that case, the guy should have been caught easily.

    A part of me has a hard time believing that a killer would be so obvious and so bold. When that thought runs through my mind, I even wonder whether the guy who did the killing wasn’t the same guy who bought the dress. However, if the guy buying the dress wasn’t the killer, why didn’t he come forward to explain himself? I guess a man who is innocent of the crime but has no conscience might have been so afraid of a false accusation that he didn’t want to be involved. That still seems far-fetched, and he would be taking a big risk. If he doesn’t come forward but is found later, he’s going to look even more guilty.

    I guess we still can’t completely rule out that someone saw the guy buying the dress and then took advantage of the situation. If he waited until the man drove away and could sneak onto the porch from the side of the house, he might ring the doorbell without the construction workers noticing him. In that case, he could commit the crime and sneak out. That changes the dress buyer from a bold killer to a guy who didn’t care enough to come forward and makes the killer less bold but more opportunistic.

    If the guy buying the dress had access to a used car lot, he could have stolen a car, put on plates from another car, and bought an antenna that would be noticed. He could then do the crime and return the car to the lot, remove the false plates, and remove the antenna. If no one noticed the car missing from the lot, then no one at the lot would have told police that the car matched the description of a used car the dealership was selling. The dealership might have also been misled by the thought that their car didn’t have a big antenna. By using a car that he didn’t own, the killer could reduce the chances that a neighbor would associate the car with the description.

    I still struggle with the sequence. If the construction workers saw the man on the porch holding the dress and talking to the victim, he wouldn’t have a good way of getting into the house. If he just rushed through the doorway, he’d risk attracting attention of the construction workers, particularly if the victim screamed. If he was on the porch holding the dress already, there’s no reason for him to come inside. I guess he could have said that he needed to go to the bathroom and gotten into the house that way. He could then drop the dress, attack the victim, and get the dress when he left. Still, asking to use the restroom seems like a move that won’t always work.

    At this point, I have a feeling that the killer is already dead if he in his forties at the time of the crime. He’d be around eighty now, and unless he confessed to someone, he may have taken his secrets to the grave.

    • Christine Christine

      Hi Bill! Thanks for your thoughts on this case. It truly baffles me! I do think it was the dress buyer, but you’re right. He definitely was bold. And (sadly, I guess) likely dead. I still hope he told someone and the truth will come out one day.

  2. Alexis Alexis

    This beautiful woman is my aunt. randy Palmer is my uncle I heard about this case and didn’t put it together for awhile .I never met her because I wasn’t born yet .seeing these articles is amazing knowing she will never be forgotten I wish one day everything would come to light …

    • Christine Christine

      Hi Alexis. I am so sorry for you and your family’s loss. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for your family to have this go unsolved for all these years. Here’s hoping it may still one day be solved. We’ll do whatever we can by spreading the word about the case. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Take care!

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