Aileen Conway

Aileen Conway

Aileen Conway

Police suspect a woman, found burned to death in her crashed car, was murdered.

On the morning of April 29th, 1986, a farmer working his fields near Lawton, Oklahoma,
noticed smoke rising from a nearby road. He called the authorities and twenty minutes later, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol arrived at the scene. They discovered a burning car embedded in a deserted bridge, the heat from which was so intense that the car had actually melted into the metal guardrail. Inside the car, officers noticed something disturbing. Lt. Larry Sallee of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol:

“When Highway Patrol arrived, a body was inside the car, but it was a futile exercise to try to get to the occupant, due to the fact that the car had already burned so badly.”

The body was burned beyond recognition. Skid marks indicated that the car’s speed at impact was 50 to 60 miles per hour. To the highway patrol, it seemed like just another senseless accident. 

A computer check revealed the car belonged to Pat Conway, who lived with his family in Lawton, 15 miles from the crash site. The next day, the victim was identified as Aileen Conway, Pat’s wife of 33 years. Authorities reported Aileen’s death as an accident. But soon, Pat noticed a number of conflicting facts that led him to doubt the official story. Pat Conway would eventually conclude that his wife had been murdered:

“There’s no doubt in my mind it was murder, and if I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll still be pushing to try to find the individual or possibly two individuals, whoever was involved.” 

The car was found engulfed in flames

The car was found engulfed in flames

Pat first became suspicious when he returned home a few hours after his wife’s death to find the patio door wide open. Aileen’s purse, which she always carried with her, had been left behind. Her driver’s license and glasses were inside. An ironing board was set up and the iron left on. Water from a garden hose was running into the backyard swimming pool. In the master bathroom, the tub was still full of water and the phone was off the hook. All of these clues seemed more than suspicious to Pat:

“The thing that really got my attention was the phone being off the hook, as though she’d attempted to make a phone call, possibly to the police department. We have no way of knowing to whom. Between me and the kids, one would see one thing, and one another, and we start putting it together and right away we found out, well, this was no accident at all.” 

There was another disturbing detail that nagged at Pat: what would Aileen have been doing out on that lonely country road? Neither of them had ever been in the area. Nothing about his wife’s death made sense. Pat contacted Investigator Ray Anderson of the District Attorney’s office: 

“The first impression that I had, of this case, when I met with Mr. Conway, was that of a spouse that was left alone, not expecting the tragedy that happened and looking for some reason why this happened, other than it just being an accident. However, when you start looking at the extenuating and surrounding circumstances, the way that she left her house, it leads you to believe that there is a possibility that there could have been foul play.” 

A few days later, Pat and Ray Anderson went to the crash site, looking for clues. Ray found a church bulletin in the grass, a considerable distance from the bridge. Pat recognized it as having formerly been on the dash of Aileen’s car. But Aileen always drove with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning turned on. The bulletin could not have flown out of a moving car. So the car would have to have been stopped. Ray Anderson began to come up with theories of his own:

“Someone else may have been with her, opened the door, set the accelerator, and slammed it into drive, hoping to run Mrs. Conway off into the creek, and to make it appear it was an accident.” 

The tub was full and the phone off the hook

The tub was full and the phone off the hook

As a result of Anderson’s investigation, the Lawton DA changed the official cause of death from ‘accidental’ to ‘unexplained’. The D.A. then asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the state fire marshall to evaluate the possibility of arson. Sonny Sansome of the Oklahoma State Fire Marshall’s Office:

“What made me suspicious, at first, was looking at the photographs and seeing how much burn was in the vehicle. This thing was completely burnt and destroyed. The burn looked like gasoline or something along those lines was used in it. And another thing that brought my curiosity up was the fact that the gas cap was missing. Most arson cases, and this is documented, have a vehicle where the gas cap is removed, and that was the case here.” 

Informal burn tests on dashboard and upholstery samples from a car similar to Aileen’s suggest the inside of her car may have been doused with gasoline. Sonny Sansome was among those who conducted the test:

“We took the material and we applied a blow torch to it, set the material on fire, then removed the blow torch and the fire went out, which is consistent with a flame retardant-type of material. Next, we took some gasoline and soaked the material, and then, of course, the thing was completely destroyed. Without some type of an accelerant like gasoline, the fire would not burn that badly.” 

If Aileen Conway was murdered on the bridge, that raises two questions: Who killed her, and why? Paul Renfrow of the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation:

“We don’t really have an answer. There are a lot of theories floating around. Perhaps she interrupted a burglary. We backtracked a little bit into the neighborhood and apparently there had been reports of burglaries in the weeks and months preceding this situation. So, the possibility of an interrupted burglary is there.”

Aileen’s husband Pat refuses to give up:

“Even though you’re discouraged, you keep pushing it every day. It’s on your mind all the time. But, somehow, it needs to be solved. I’ll never quit, as far as trying to solve the case.”