Through her work as an actor, as a yoga instructor, as an urban gardener, and as a nutritionist/herbalist, Tricia McCauley had a large network of colleagues and friends.
On the day after Christmas, news of her disappearance spread throughout those networks via social media. People from all over town, and from around the country, were posting expressions of concern and offering advice about avenues to pursue in the desperate hope of locating her and returning her safely to her wide circle of devoted friends.
Pictures of her distinctive-looking car (including shots of the license plate and a bumper sticker) were shared. Once her cellphone was recovered in NE Washington, several people rushed to the area and began a street-by-street concentric search. Eventually, the tracking of credit card charges yielded security footage of a suspect.
A member of the DC theatre community saw the photo after it was shared on Facebook, recognized the suspect and car while walking his dog, and called the police, providing the tip that resulted in the recovery of McCauley’s body and the arrest of the suspect.
The unhappy resolution of the search was shattering to those closest to McCauley. Their expressions of deep sorrow, and their testimonials to her inspirational spirit, touched many who knew her only peripherally or not at all.
A post to a Facebook group revealed the connection between the social media effort to locate McCauley and the recovery of her body (and the arrest of the suspect). That post triggered a strong response from many of the people who had worked so hard to find her, and who had felt so helpless and ineffective. Many of the people whose lives were touched by this tragedy came to understand that the outpouring of concern and action that happened on and off social media, even if it wasn’t enough to save McCauley, had, at the very least, contributed materially to the successful outcome of the search for her. Now, justice should be able to be achieved, and a sense of closure can become possible, which wouldn’t have occurred had the suspect eluded the search and the uncertainty regarding her fate been prolonged.
Many expressions of gratitude were conveyed to Jonathan Padget, the tipster, on Facebook. I spoke with Padget, a freelance writer/editor, about his encounter with the suspect, and his part in the outcome of the feverish search for Tricia McCauley.
Christopher Henley: Could you give us a brief background of your involvement in the DC theatre scene?
Jonathan Padget: I’ve been in the District for two decades, and I really dove into the deep end of the theatre scene in the early 2000s as the theatre critic and arts editor at Metro Weekly. I went on to spend nearly a decade in the newsroom at The Post, mostly in Style as the Arts Beat columnist and arts editorial aide, and later as a copy editor and multi-platform editor. I was also a contributor to Weekend for a while, writing OnStage features. Around that time, in the early 2010s, I did an additional stint as a critic for Metro Weekly. Beyond that, I spent four seasons as a panelist for the Emery Battis Awards at Shakespeare Theatre Company, and served in a communications and PR staff role there in 2015. I also created and produced The Blue Lagoon: A Musical, which premiered at the Capital Fringe Festival.
Did you know Tricia personally, or know of her before she went missing?
I don’t think we ever interacted socially, but we have many mutual friends and acquaintances. I’d have to dig deep into my archives to see how often I saw her perform, because many of my Metro Weekly reviews aren’t online. (Google does at least remind me that I loved her work in The Last Seder at Theater J in 2003!) That said, given all that I’ve learned about her since her disappearance and death, I certainly wish I had known her personally. Clearly my life would be richer for it. But, you know, if we had been close, my encounter with her alleged killer might have unfolded less calmly and, ultimately, less effectively.
When did you become aware that she was missing? Were you following as events unfolded that day, or was the share of the picture of the suspect the first you became aware?
I had seen news of her disappearance all day on social media, in tweets and Facebook posts from mutual friends, and in their interactions with posts from others. The concern expressed by Trey Graham, another theatre critic, stood out, and when he shared the photo of the suspect, that was the first I learned of him — just minutes before I encountered him.
Could you take us through your night on December 26th — seeing the post, recognizing the suspect and the car, your exchange with the man, your interaction with the police?
I’d taken my dog for a walk around 11pm, and I was checking Facebook on my phone. I’d sort of been puzzling over the news about Tricia for several hours, and then I see Trey’s post with the suspect photo. I’m like, well, that’s not a good sign, but I’m not going to see this guy around here. Minutes later, Daisy dog and I are walking toward 21st and P, and there he is. We’re on the sidewalk and he’s parked across the street. I look at him as we’re passing by, and he’s glaring at me, and it all clicks. I knew about her “Plant more plants” bumper sticker, so I wanted to see if it was there and see if there was any sign of her in the car, so we cross the street and walk near the back of the car, at which point he leans out the window and says, very aggressively, “Hello, SIR, how are YOU?” We stepped up on the curb and I’m like, “I’m just fine, how are you?” — thinking I would try to stall him but also realizing that this is not a safe situation.
As soon as I spoke to him, he took off and turned south on 21st. I pulled up a license plate photo that was on Facebook, too, confirmed the match and called the MPD Command Information Center number on the missing person flier that was online as well. I could tell they were dispatching units as we spoke. Daisy and I went home, and I told Trey that I’d seen the guy in the car. Minutes later, he said the family had gotten word that police found the car and the suspect at 22nd and M, and he said I may have been the call that got them there. When the interim police chief held a news conference around 8am, he confirmed that was, in fact, the case.
What do you think it was that made you notice him?
It’s not like he wasn’t drawing attention to himself. He’s got the music turned up, he’s bouncing around in the car, he’s smoking something, he’s on a main street. And the car itself is very distinctive-looking. I would have noticed him regardless, but I wouldn’t have made the connection to Tricia instantly if I hadn’t just seen his photo online.
Did you have any internal conflict about whether to keep walking and not get involved?
No, I knew the stakes were too high. There were so many people worried sick about her, and there was still hope that she was alive.
Did you have any fear for your own safety, or any sort of adrenaline rush that you’d care to describe?
Everything happened very quickly, but there was definitely an adrenaline rush and an immediate sense of danger. In a matter of seconds, I had to evaluate what kind of information I could gather, what the immediate threat was, and what escape options I had. Plus I’m juggling my phone and my dog, and trying to act nonchalant, and probably not doing a very good job of it. And I was simply stunned to encounter him, as I was just thinking that there was no way he would be around my neighborhood, considering where Tricia was last accounted for and the fact that he had to have known that people were looking for both of them.
Have you ever been in a situation like this before?
Not that I can recall, in terms of recognizing a suspect. Unfortunately, when I was in college, I was the victim of a violent carjacking. It’s not something I’ve ever discussed much, and depending on the specifics of Tricia’s case that emerge, there may be more parallels than I care to consider. Fortunately, I made it out alive and physically unharmed, but there was a moment — with a knife at my throat and no one around to help me — when I thought my life was going to end. And I got into that situation because my attacker approached me for help, and I let my inclination to help someone override common sense about safety.
Is there anything in your life or past that you believe prepared you to respond the way you did?
It’s the culmination of a lot of things. As a gay man of a certain Southern upbringing, I was conditioned to be polite, submissive, and deferential, and to see myself as a weak and inferior person who deserved to be hassled and should take abuse without complaint. I know this relates to the experience of many women, too. At some point, I had to reclaim the power others had taken and I’d given up, and put myself and my loved ones first at all times. I’m not invincible and I can’t be careless, and I always want to be compassionate toward others, but I don’t have any qualms about shutting down strangers who bother me, and standing up for myself when I feel threatened. And I’m certainly not going to stand by idly when someone’s life is thought to be in danger and there’s a chance I can do something to help.
Did you or do you feel any hesitation about going public with your involvement?
There’s a sense of unease that comes with any connection to criminal matters, and to anything this tragic and horrific. But I felt it was important to document what I saw, to be available for follow-up, and just to stand up for my neighborhood and larger community to say unequivocally that this is not okay. This violence is not okay, and the dysfunctional governance and systems we have that cost people like Tricia their lives are not okay.
Is there anything you’d like to say about the massive community response to this, or to the positive aspect of social media uniting the concerned friends of Tricia in a uniquely 21st century way?
It is breathtaking to see, in real time, in a quantifiable way, what a community’s concern looks like, and how many lives Tricia touched. Thousands of people in a Facebook group — in the blink of an eye — devoted to finding her, then mourning her loss, as well as rallying for change. There is a downside, though. At one point between my encounter in Dupont Circle at 21st and P and the confirmation that Tricia was found dead in her car nearby at 22nd and M, there was word online of a supposed psychic who envisioned Tricia alive in a house in Southeast and gave specific visual clues to her whereabouts, apparently causing upset people to take off in the middle of the night to drive around possibly unfamiliar neighborhoods. As much as I try to respect different beliefs, that strikes me as irresponsible information that had no bearing on reality, and it created unnecessary risk for people who, quite understandably, would have done anything you told them to at that moment, out of despair for Tricia.
I believe that you are aware of the suspect’s prior run-ins with the law. Is there anything (particularly in the context of the recent Post series “Second Chance City”) that you’d want to say about the failure of the law enforcement system in preventing this, or, on the flip side, anything you’d like to say about the efficiency of the MPD, once alerted about Tricia’s disappearance?
This tragedy touches on so many problems and challenges in the District, and in communities everywhere. I know that police work is incredibly difficult, and I have been critical of MPD at times when I thought they weren’t doing their best, but they seemed to be functioning very well that night. I’m grateful for that, and for all the good things they do. As for other District services, I’m angry at the failures.
As soon as MPD announced the suspect’s name and the felony murder charge, I Googled him, and the first thing I see is an MPD news release about violent robbery charges against him in September. Then word starts getting out about his many interactions with the criminal justice system, and the fact that officials knew he needed a mental health evaluation, and the fact that he was supposed to show up, on his own, on December 21st to get a wearable GPS monitoring device. But of course he doesn’t show up, and officials weren’t going to do anything about it until January. Then a report emerges that he would have been put under “high-intensity supervision” on the 21st, but he wasn’t because he didn’t have a verifiable address. It’s been reported that the man was homeless; he’s not going to have a verifiable address!
That’s maddening, and it’s not acceptable. At one point, a spokesperson for Mayor Bowser issued a statement saying, well, she knows there are gaps in the system and she’s going to fix them, “that’s why she proposed GPS tampering legislation and will soon sign it into law.” Excuse me? This wasn’t GPS tampering; he was never made to get the device in the first place! How can the Mayor’s office even say that with a straight face? Were they even paying attention to the facts of the case?
I’d actually been going around with District officials for months over a situation with a squatter in crisis at a stalled development on my block, which I recently talked to City Paper about, The squatter is just one of many street people in Dupont Circle alone who need serious mental health and medical interventions, and the District lets them languish, at risk to themselves, and to the detriment of the neighborhood, always saying they have a right to refuse services. I don’t think they’re being offered the right services, in the right place, at the right time. Which is an exceptional challenge, too, just like police work is. But the District should be able to get things right for people like Tricia’s accused killer before they lash out. I’ve worked professionally with the homeless population before, and I don’t wish to stoke any fear of them. But letting people suffer on the street, unsheltered, untreated, is just a recipe for tragedy.
Is there anything we haven’t asked about that you’d want to comment on — the reaction from the community to your part in this, whether you feel changed, affirmed, newly-insightful, anything like that?
I definitely felt affirmed by your acknowledgment on Facebook, Chris, and the response to that. I was humbled and moved by thanks from so many familiar names, as well as from so many strangers. I also got an eloquent message from Tricia’s brother Brian, which is remarkable, because I’m not sure I could function under such circumstances. Since I’m not involved in theatre constantly, it was meaningful to be reminded that I’m part of the fabric of the theatre community, and I’m reminded that there are wonderful people I should make a greater effort to connect with while we’re together on Earth. I am profoundly sad for Tricia, and for her loved ones, and I know this experience will have a profound effect on me, although in ways I don’t yet know. Of course, everyone would have wanted an intervention in time to save Tricia’s life, and I’m very sorry that’s not a role anyone was destined to play.
Would most people have done the same thing I did? Hopefully. Are there people who would have avoided the situation? Sure. Did I save Tricia’s life? Sadly, no. Did I save other lives? Possibly. Did I put myself in harm’s way? Apparently. Did I make a difference in this awful situation? Thankfully, and most importantly, yes. I know one way people cope with this kind of horror is by latching onto anything positive. If my intervention was positive, then I’m grateful for that.
. It was immensely important to Jonathan Padget, to DCTS, and to me that nothing should appear in this interview that could affect an on-going criminal proceeding and for that reason, our text was vetted by the Office of the Assistant U.S. Attorney.
. If anyone has additional information relevant to the investigation, call 202 727-9099
. Family and friends have set-up a fund as a tribute to Tricia McCauley’s legacy: Tricia McCauley: Health Insurance for Theatre Professionals. For more information, check out DCTS’s coverage of the Fund:
To contribute to the Fund, visit: https://www.youcaring.com/triciamccauley-725490