Missing Washington mom identified 40 years after her body was found in the Columbia River


Patricia Kay Rodriguez stopped at a Yakima restaurant on her way to work in 1983 and was never seen again.

For more than 40 years, the disappearance of the mother of four haunted her family and stumped detectives.

Now, with the help of DNA testing, they know her body turned up nearly three years later about 85 miles away in the Tri-Cities.

The mystery of some partial remains pulled from the Columbia River near the blue bridge in Kennewick has been laid to rest thanks to a Texas-based forensic firm, the Benton County coroner and detectives.

It's been nine months since Coroner Bill Leach and the Benton County Sheriff's Office exhumed the remains of a Jane Doe from her grave in Richland's Resthaven Cemetery.

Leach was working with the Spokane Medical Examiner's Office and Texas-based Othram Labs on trying to identify the woman.

She had been buried there since she was found in the river on Sept. 2, 1986, by construction workers on the Highway 395 blue bridge.

An autopsy at the time showed she'd given birth to at least one child, and officials were hoping that clue could lead to identifying family members.

After at least one false positive result, the coroner, detectives and Othram were able to find one of Rodriguez's relatives living in the Midwest.

From there they found one of her daughters in North Dakota.

Rodriguez was 33 when she went missing from Yakima, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

She was last seen at the Peking Palace in Yakima after leaving to go to her office. Investigators found her car at the restaurant.

Benton County sheriff's officials say many of the circumstances around her disappearance remain a mystery.

"We have reviewed relevant reports to the extent that they still exist," the sheriff's office said in a statement to the Tri-City Herald. "Information and witnesses from this period have been difficult to reach due to relocation, name changes and/or death."

Search for a Name

Leach initially started searching for the woman's identity after getting a call in July 2023 from someone researching grave markers in the Richland area.

The caller was wondering if the coroner's office had any information on the woman who had been buried as Jane Doe in the Richland cemetery.

At that time, the case had been forgotten by people working in the coroner's office and the Benton County Sheriff's Office. There weren't many existing records, and others who might have known more had since died.

The only documentation found about the woman's death were two Tri-City Herald stories written at the time she was found.

With no more information to go on about her identity, she was buried.

Once he learned about the mystery, Leach was determined to find out who the woman was. He wanted to at least bring closure for her family.

Leach found that the Spokane Medical Examiner's Office had an existing grant to pay for work with Othram to help solve some of their cases.

Their laboratory has helped solve a 1978 murder in Spokane, identify the body of a man found in a wooded area near Newport and identify a man from a small fragment of his skull found in the Spokane River.

So, in September 2023, a team made up of Benton County sheriff's detectives and coroner's office employees exhumed Rodriguez's remains.

They sent one of the leg bones to Othram to extract DNA, Leach said. They received back a list of possible relatives of the woman, identified using a genealogy database.

9-month search

Rodriguez was not the first possible person to be linked to the body. Instead, they thought it might be someone related to a Spokane man whose brother had a missing child.

But it soon became apparent that it was not the same woman who was discovered, most importantly because this woman had been adopted, Leach said. So she wouldn't share DNA with her uncle.

As Benton County was tracking down their best chance, Othram was reaching out to other potential matches. One of those was a woman named Heather Richardson, who had been third on their list,

She contacted Patricia's sister Beverly, who Leach said called him.

"She said, 'I believe it's my sister you have that you are trying to identify," Leach said. "She told me all of that information. I took it down and passed it on to the detectives, and then the next day I got a call from Patricia's daughter. She had spoken to Othram."

Once Othram looked at Rodriguez's daughter's DNA, they were able to confirm who it was.

Leach is still working on how to get the remains to her family in North Dakota. But he is satisfied with learning who she was.

He also credited Benton County commissioners for their support of the search.

"This is the ultimate positive outcome," Leach said. "I can't imagine having people buried without knowing who they were."

While Rodriguez was identified, there are still a number of mysteries that remain and some of them may never be solved.

It's unclear how she died and how she ended up in the Columbia River.

Three more unidentified bodies

There are three other unidentified bodies buried in the Tri-Cities, including a baby who was found in the Richland landfill in 1989.

Leach hopes to continue his efforts and plans to ask the commissioners to budget some money in the next two years to conduct other searches.

The search for Rodriguez cost about $10,000, a little less than half of which was paid by the grant, Leach said. He doesn't have enough money in his current budget to fund another searches.

But continuing those efforts is important to him.

"What price is too much to pay for finding out where your loved ones are?" he said. "It doesn't make logical sense to me that we can't find who these people are because that is the right thing to do."

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