Through the sweaty night air of Sayulita, an off-the-beaten-track fishing village along Mexico's Pacific coast, news of the mysterious gringo spread fast. He was tall, good-looking, and, although a regular presence in the local waterfront bars, spoke little Spanish and appeared to have come from nowhere. More than a thousand miles to the north, other questions were being asked. What had happened to Patrick McDermott, the long-term boyfriend of singer Olivia Newton-John?
On June 30, 2005, McDermott had sailed from a Los Angeles marina aboard the Freedom, a deep water sports fishing boat, with 22 other anglers, none of whom could subsequently remember seeing him get off again. When the missing man's kitbag, containing his wallet, car keys and driving licence were found stowed on the boat it seemed clear what had happened: McDermott, 48, had fallen overboard in the night and drowned. Or had he?
Bizarrely, it was eight days before he was reported missing. The police were eventually alerted by a call from his ex-wife, worried that he hadn't picked up their 13-year-old son as arranged. Why did no one seem to know about the fishing trip? And why hadn't Newton-John realised something was wrong?
The English-born, Australian-raised Grease star has a lengthy track record of difficulties with men. Her first love, Ian Turpie (now a popular Australian TV host) was left behind in Melbourne as the young Newton-John sought stardom in Britain. An early engagement to Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch (who was married when they met) collapsed, as did a later lengthy entanglement with businessman Lee Kramer, who became her manager during the '70s.
Her move to the United States brought Newton-John's big movie breakthrough as the poodle-skirted good girl Sandy in Grease, but it was during the making of her next big movie Xanadu — an epic flop — that she met and fell in love with American dancer Matt Lattanzi, whom she married in 1984, only to divorce a decade later.
In 1996, she began seeing McDermott, a half-Korean camera operator she had met while shooting a commercial in Hollywood. But the relationship apparently broke up the day before he went on the fateful fishing trip.
A driven perfectionist
For all her cutesy girl-next-door image, Newton-John is known as a driven perfectionist, and those who have followed her career suggest that the men in her life have struggled to live up to her standards.
Two years ago, she married online herbal remedies tycoon John Easterling during an Incan "spiritual ceremony", and the couple now live in an exclusive oceanside compound in Florida, where she claims to have rediscovered her love of nature. Quite apart from her history of troubled relationships, hers has not been an easy life. There has been a battle with cancer, the bankruptcy of a clothing company she launched, and problems with her only child, Chloe, an aspiring pop singer who developed severe anorexia. Last month, however, brought good news for the 62-year-old star.
Celebrity private investigator Philip Klein, one of America's most renowned finders of missing people, declared that he had "concluded beyond any reasonable doubt" that McDermott is alive, well and bobbing around on boats off Sayulita. The claim has caused quite a stir in the village — but how surprised will Newton-John be? In an interview last year, she appeared bemused by her former lover's disappearance. "I think there will always be a question mark about what happened. I don't think I will ever be really at peace with it," she said.
There are, in fact, lots of question marks. If McDermott really is alive, did he pull off some miraculous feat of survival? Or if he deliberately faked his own death — as is now widely assumed — how did he manage it on a boat full of eagle-eyed anglers? What was his motive? And, what, if anything, does Newton-John know that she hasn't told us? "I would have thought, if I went missing, my partner might notice," says Nick Papps, a Los Angeles-based Australian agency reporter, who has covered the case extensively. "But Olivia Newton-John didn't report him missing. She didn't issue a statement for seven weeks."
‘Going very badly'
Klein's view is that he most likely returned safely to the marina. On such occasions, he says, a small melee usually breaks out as the excited fishermen reclaim their catch from the boat's cold store. No one pays much attention to anyone else, and an ideal opportunity arises for a man to quietly slip away. Further inquiries revealed that McDermott was behind with his child-support payments and struggling to find work. "His life was going very, very badly," says Papps. "This is a man who was making no money at all."
What of the suggestion that the break-up with Newton-John pushed McDermott over the edge? The relationship appears to have waxed and waned over the years, with Newton-John continuing to live in her cottage-style home in Malibu, and her younger boyfriend keeping his own home in LA. "We'd both been through divorces, and we just had a lot in common," she told People magazine when their relationship first became known. "He's a thoughtful and considerate person and he's funny."
If McDermott really did stage his own death, he joins a long and dishonourable list of people who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to pull off the same stunt.