The Baffling Disappearance & Sightings of Patricia Meehan

Twilight slowly faded beneath the Montana horizon on April 20, 1989, as Carol Heitz stared at the scene in front of her. Moments before, she was cruising along Highway 200 when a Chevy Nova traveling in the opposite lane crashed into her car head-on. 

Fortunately, Ms. Heitz emerged from her car without serious injury. The other driver, a woman with strawberry blonde hair in her late 30s, crawled from the wreckage also without any visible injuries. 

But the fender bender was far from the most concerning development that evening. 

Today, one might use a cell phone to call 911 or an insurance agent after a crash. But in 1989, that wasn’t quite an option. Regardless, it didn’t matter: the woman driving the Nova was disinterested in speaking with anyone. 

“She just stared,” Heitz said of the woman driving in the other car, according to Unsolved Mysteries. “She never said anything. She just stared at me.” 

When the police did arrive, the woman was long gone. But using the plates on the Nova, she was identified as a resident of Bozeman, Montana, some 380 miles away. 

This is the story of Patricia Meehan, a woman who went missing but was allegedly spotted 5,000 times since that car crash in 1989. 

Far From Home

Patricia – or Patty, to friends – Meehan was born on November 1, 1951, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She loved children, which led her to pursue a degree in early childhood education in Oklahoma. But before she finished her education, Patricia abruptly ended her studies and moved to Bozeman, Montana in 1985.  

Her cross-country move didn’t evoke much concern from her parents. Patricia cited her love of animals in her desire to move to Montana and eventually found work as a ranch hand in the warm months, and odd jobs in the winter. 

The time between her relocation to Bozeman and her disappearance several years later is a blind spot. Her life appeared to be stable for the majority of that time, and she rented and interacted often with her landlord. She worked and interacted with employers. The relationship with her family was strong, despite the long distance from Pittsburgh. 

“She is a very good girl,” Patricia’s father Tom would tell the Great Falls Tribune in June 1989. “She has no problems with drugs or drink. We’re a close-knit family. She had a credit card and called home frequently.” 

One of those calls home came on April 19, the day before Patricia disappeared. Patricia told her father that she was “under stress” and wanted to move home to Pittsburgh for a while. Her parents allowed her to come back under one condition: that she meet with a psychologist first. 

Less than 24 hours later, she was 380 miles away from home, just outside of Circle, Montana. 

Nestled between the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers and bisected by Highway 200, Circle is a place with little going on – it likely won’t appear on any Montana bucket lists anytime soon. And, if Patricia was traveling home to Pittsburgh, the already 27-hour drive most assuredly would not include a two-hour detour to a town whose population has been steadily declining since the 1960s. 

Nonetheless, here was Patricia on the side of Montana Highway 200, seven miles south of Circle. It was sometime after 8:15 p.m. when Patricia and Carol Heitz met headfirst on the highway. 

Though Patricia may have sounded stressed on the phone with her dad the day before, she displayed none of the traditional signs of someone dealing with anxiety. Her speech wasn’t fast,  she wasn’t yelling angrily, or hyperventilating. 

Instead, she wore glazed eyes and a vacant expression. Staring

At the scene of the car accident, an eyewitness watched as Patricia walked back across the road and climbed over a fence running parallel to the highway. “As I looked out across the accident, I noticed someone on the other side of the fence, standing there like a spectator, not like it had happened to her,” the same eyewitness explained later

Patricia kept walking. She crossed a field adjacent to the highway, continuing until she completely disappeared into the cool spring night.

The police arrived at the crash site after and tracked down a series of footprints roughly three-quarters of a mile away. But those too eventually disappeared. 

At 3:00 a.m. and with little evidence to go on, the police halted their search until the following day. 

What was Patricia doing in Circle? Was she lost on her way to Pittsburgh? Possibly, considering she was traveling east from Bozeman. But again, Circle is hardly the most direct path to Pittsburgh. Further complicating matters is the fact that Patricia went ahead and scheduled an appointment with a psychologist for the following day, per her parents’ wishes. 

Lost and Found and Lost Again

It didn’t take long for Patricia’s family to spring into action. Her parents, Tom and Dolly, arrived in Montana shortly after Patricia vanished and began handing out missing person fliers around Circle. 

Then the reports began coming in.

When credible tips came through, the family set off to verify each report. Armed with a video of Patricia, the Meehans would ask those who reported the sightings whether the person they observed looked and acted like Patricia. “[T]hey said they’d bet their life it was her,” Mr. Meehan said of one reported sighting on June 3, 1989. 

According to Mr. Meehan, the first verified reported sighting was in Luverne, a small town in eastern Minnesota, on May 4. An officer working in Luverne spotted Patricia sitting alone inside a Hardee’s, drinking water for five hours until the restaurant closed. The woman believed to be Patricia then made her way to an all-night diner. When the officer questioned her at the diner, the woman explained she was from Colorado and Israel and refused to tell the officer her name. 

The reports led the Meehans to embark on a veritable tour across the Pacific Northwest and Heartland. Bozeman in Montana. North Bend and Spokane and Washington. Luverne in Minnesota. Sioux Falls in South Dakota. 

Gradually, a pattern began to emerge: Patricia was traveling along Interstate 90. 

“Miss Meehan has apparently been hitching rides and has been seen at two truckstops and fast food restaurants along the I-90 corridor,” Mr. Meehan informed the Great Falls Tribune in June.

But how was she able to travel across thousands of miles in the span of just a few weeks? Two dominant explanations emerged. First, authorities suspected she was hitching rides, as Mr. Meehan theorized. 

But a second theory pointed to a nearby hay truck spotted half a mile from the accident site. Such an explanation might account for why the footsteps suspected of belonging to Patricia near the crash site eventually ended. Or perhaps the answer is a combination of both: Mehan began traveling in the hay truck before hitching rides. 

Authorities suspected Meehan was traveling to Washington to find an ex-boyfriend who lived in Spokane and her sister, who once lived in Seattle. This was backed up by one report from a trucker who encountered someone resembling Patricia asking for directions to Washington. Another reported sighting occurred in Tacoma, with a woman matching Patricia’s description at a truck stop asking for directions to Aberdeen and yelling at passing motorists.  

By the end of June, more than 25 sightings were reported, with the Meehans able to verify five: Luverne, Minnesota on May 4, Murdo, South Dakota on May 5, Billings, Montana on May 11 and 13, and then once again in Bozeman, Montana on May 19. Most described the woman alleged to be Patty in the same way: quiet yet polite, exhausted and unkempt. 

But the reported sightings kicked into high gear that fall. 

In September, a woman in Victor, Montana picked up a hitchhiker looking for a ride to Missoula. The woman allowed the hitchhiker to stay with her and her husband for the evening, before dropping her off at a truck stop in Missoula the next day. 

The woman slowly learned more about this soft-spoken hitchhiker: her name was Patty. She loved horses. She was on her way to visit friends in another part of the state. But by the time authorities learned of this encounter, Patty had once again vanished. 

The following month was Patricia’s birthday. And on November 1, Patty’s own birthday, the television show Unsolved Mysteries covered Patricia’s disappearance. Initially, the search and sightings were limited by region; there were only so many fliers and so many local papers to which the Meehans could broadcast Patricia’s story. 

But Unsolved Mysteries thrust Patricia’s case into the national spotlight. More calls flooded the family, including one from a psychic in Florida, who claimed that Patricia never made it out of Circle and was somewhere in a coal mine or cave in the area. An exhaustive search of the county’s mineshafts found nothing to support the psychic’s claims.     

It’s impossible to imagine the excitement and optimism that likely accompanied each verifiable sighting. Each tip grew the Meehans’ belief that Patricia was on the cusp of coming home.  

But time and again, the Meehan’s hopes were dashed, as each reported sighting failed to deliver Patricia back to the family.  “Doing something like this is really hard,” Tom Meehan explained to the Associated Press in the early summer of 1989. 

“It’s like chasing the wind,” Mr. Meehan said. 

Brain Injury Complications

Patricia was ostensibly surrounded by people with access to phones (or those who could point her in the direction of one). So why didn’t she ever call home? 

Two angles were developed to account for Patricia’s behavior. The first (and unsurprising) was that Patricia was depressed, with the crash in Circle intended to take her own life. Patricia’s mother, Dolly, suggested as much shortly after the crash. 

“She was, I guess, taking her own life. … I think she missed having children because I think she realized she really loved them,” Dolly explained on Unsolved Mysteries

Aside from the crash, there was little evidence to suggest that Patricia intended to harm herself, leading to a second theory: Patricia was suffering from amnesia caused by the crash. 

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, given the seriousness of the head-on collision. She could have sustained a concussion or some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which could trigger some form of memory loss. 

This theory was also supported by the family. By early June, the Meehans were informing newspapers across the Northwest that Patricia might be suffering from amnesia. 

But amnesia is a typically extreme diagnosis. For Patricia’s family, however, such a serious diagnosis made sense. The real kicker was just how different Patricia was acting compared to how everyone else knew her. She had no history of running away. No known history of mental health struggles. The common refrain was that this just wasn’t like Patty. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be found; rather, she didn’t know how given her memory loss. 

Yet if she suffered amnesia as a result of the crash, what explains her distressed behavior before April 20? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle: a combination of stressors before the event left her mentally fragile, making a head injury caused by the crash more possible. 

As time wore on, Meehan’s story became less about her bizarre behavior at the crash site and more about the endless reported sightings in the immediate aftermath. This was a woman who disappeared but was seemingly everywhere

The news continued reporting on Patricia’s potential amnesia or undiagnosed depression, but as the number of reported sightings climbed into the thousands, the story became more about the oxymoron of a missing person who everyone saw. Forget the person behind the story: the story now appeared to be about how no one tracked her down despite so many strong leads. 

The final paragraph in the Spokane Chronicle’s June report of Patricia’s disappearance reveals just how close the family believed they were to find her. 

“The Meehans said they plan to spend a month, if necessary, searching for their missing daughter and sister,” the Tribune wrote. 

Over 34 years later, Patricia Meehan remains missing. 

Where to Watch

Sources & Further Reading