WEST WENDOVER — National news magazine show “Dateline” will run a two-hour special Friday about the March 2011 murder of West Wendover high-schooler Micaela “Mickey” Costanzo.
The special, called “Under the Desert Sky,” follows the case from Costanzo’s murder through the sentencing of two of her high school classmates, Kody Cree Patten and his girlfriend, Toni Fratto.
The special, hosted by Keith Morrison, took months to put together using interviews with nearly a dozen people familiar with the case, including Costanzo’s family, law enforcement, attorneys, Fratto and Fratto’s family.
Producer Robert Dean said he first heard about the case in August when he visited family in Salt Lake City. He read the local newspapers during Patten’s sentencing and quickly researched details about the case.
“It immediately caught my attention,” Dean said. “It was so bizarre how something so terrible could happen in little West Wendover. It was such a brutal crime for a young man who knew this young woman so well.”
Patten, 19, was sentenced to life in prison in August after pleading guilty to first-degree murder. Fratto, 19, was sentenced in April to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 18 years, after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
On March 3, 2011, Patten and Fratto took Costanzo, 16, into the desert near West Wendover. They beat her, cut her throat and buried her in a shallow grave, before returning to town to eat at a fast food restaurant, according to court testimony and their own confessions.
Neither of the teens ever gave a motive for the murder.
“There’s no clear reason why. It’s a horrific story but it’s also a fascinating story,” Dean said. “The why behind it is the ongoing, enduring mystery.”
It took about three months to put the show together — a quick turnaround for a two-hour special.
Morrison believes they were able to get at some of the reasons behind the murder.
“The interview with Toni was particularly revealing, and interviews with some of Mickey’s family were particularly revealing,” Morrison said. “I think by the time people have watched the whole episode they’ll have a pretty good idea of why it happened, at least more than they do now.”
The special also features interviews with Reno-based attorney John Ohlson, who defended Patten in the case. While Patten was not made available for the interview, Ohlson said conversations with Dean convinced him that “Dateline” would do the story justice.
“He seemed to be a really competent guy and he knew every bit of information from the case,” Ohlson said. “They’d really researched this and I was intrigued that they were interested in this case after everyone else had forgotten about it. They read every scrap of everything that was available.”
Both Ohlson, who has practiced criminal defense law since 1972, and Dean are Stanford University graduates, and they found much to talk about in both their alma mater and the Costanzo murder case.
“This case has all the elements, especially intrigue,” Ohlson said. “When I first started on this case I thought, this has got to go national. And the ‘Dateline’ reporters really got into it, too. It’s hard not to get really involved in a case like this.”
Law enforcement, including Elko Sheriff’s deputies, West Wendover police, investigators from Reno and the FBI, searched for Costanzo for days before a searcher found her shallow grave last March. Patten admitted to killing Costanzo but at first insisted he acted alone. Fratto admitted her involvement to Ohlson later and he turned her in to authorities.
District Attorney Mark Torvinen initially sought the death penalty for both.
The “Dateline” crew spent hours interviewing Ohlson on a Friday in late September, Ohlson said, and asked him about every aspect of the case.
A preview of the special posted on the “Dateline” website shows host Morrison looking out on West Wendover from the hill above town as he described “a little town called Wendover” where “most people just drive on by and pay not much attention.”
Morrison recounts Costanzo as a “bright, attractive, smiling senior that made everyone feel good.” He said he felt personally involved in the story by the time they finished filming.
“Like everyone else we just want to know why, what were they thinking, how did they come to the conclusion that what they did was any kind of good idea,” Morrison said. “This particular case was so shocking, how they did it. It disturbs me still to think about it.”
Ohlson said he hasn’t had much contact with Patten since the sentencing, mostly because he prefers to keep a distance between him and his clients to better defend them, but also because Patten pleaded guilty in the case and waived most of his rights to appeal.
“There isn’t much for him to appeal,” Ohlson said. “What he’ll do now is he’ll do time.”
The two-hour special is scheduled to air Friday evening on NBC.
Updated January 3 at 10 a.m. to reflect that Kody Cree Patten was sentenced to life in prison by a judge, not a jury, in a plea agreement.