Jeff Jardine

Intriguing details emerge on 1971 murder victim

Mary Alice McGregor, 22, smilingly flashed her wedding license to show she is now Mrs. Patrick W. McDowell. The Photograph was taken outside the Placer County Courthouse in 1971. (Auburn Journal file photo)
Mary Alice McGregor, 22, smilingly flashed her wedding license to show she is now Mrs. Patrick W. McDowell. The Photograph was taken outside the Placer County Courthouse in 1971. (Auburn Journal file photo) Auburn Journal

Her name remained a mystery for 37 years.

But once that was solved, it became clear that 23-year-old Mary Alice Willey packed lots of intrigue into her short life.

Willey's body, found riddled with stab wounds in the Delta-Mendota Canal in western Stanislaus County on Sept. 11, 1971, was exhumed in April. She remained a Jane Doe until DNA confirmed her identity a little more than a week ago.

Because her few remaining family members continued to search for answers about her disappearance, information that once seemed nothing more than a pipe dream now is flowing, Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Ken Hedrick said.

That background, Hedrick said, gives investigators a real chance to solve a case others had given up on long ago.

Here's the timeline he's compiled on Willey:

In 1963, she was a 15-year-old girl living with her parents, Paul and Maxine Willey, in Anaheim. Willey's cousins -- Corey Oiesen, Sally Wilson and Mary Jones -- said the Willeys were Christian Scientists who adored their only child.

Story continues below video

Willey enrolled at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 1966. There, she met and married Andrew Brown McGregor. The marriage lasted two years. They divorced and she moved to San Francisco in 1968, enrolling at San Francisco State University. She fell into the hippie culture, living in the Haight-Ashbury District and hooking up with an ex-con named Patrick Warren McDowell. In February 1971, the heavily bearded McDowell and cohort Robert Barr attempted to rob Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in eastern Placer County. The resort's owner foiled the attempt. McDowell and Barr fled and were arrested hours later in a snow field by Placer County sheriff's deputies. Barr, who was a prison escapee, pleaded guilty to armed robbery and escape charges. McDowell was tried on gun, robbery and other charges.

During the trial, McDowell and Willey decided to get married, Hedrick said. They asked the judge to perform the ceremony in the courtroom. The judge refused. During a recess, though, the nuptials happened, with attorney Robert Zweig of San Francisco presiding -- with an interesting valley connection. Zweig had been ordained by Kirby Hensley's Universal Life Church in Modesto.

"(Zweig) leaped to his feet and began performing the ceremony that was to unite his client and Mary Alice McGregor, 22, of San Francisco in matrimony," the Auburn Journal reported in its May 27, 1971, edition. "The bride, who on her ample bosom sported a button declaring, 'Some of my best friends are convicts,' stood seven feet from the groom."

The Journal and the San Francisco Sunday Examiner-Chronicle published photos of Willey, now Mary Alice McDowell, standing in front of the historic courthouse in Auburn. She wore a wig and sunglasses. Armed guards stood on the courthouse roof, because of threats of trouble from McDowell's friends. He was convicted and sentenced to five years to life.

"She takes off crying out of the courthouse," Hedrick said.

Four months later, she was stabbed to death and dumped in the canal near Westley.

Hedrick's real detective work is just beginning. What happened during those months before her death? Did she return to Haight-Ashbury? Did she hitchhike her way to her death, picked up by a maniac?

Released from prison, McDowell's last known address was in Salem, Ore.

"He's not a suspect," Hedrick said. "He was in jail when she was murdered. But I'd still like to talk to him."

Two years after his conviction, McDowell had the marriage annulled, using the same attorney who performed the impromptu courtroom wedding.

Hedrick also wants to talk to Willey's first husband, Andrew McGregor, believed to be living in Georgia.

These men might shed no light on the murder of Mary Willey. But in a case that continues to defy odds, solving it no longer seems like wishful thinking.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

Related stories from Modesto Bee

  Comments