“Emperor of Death Row” dies, but not the way the state wanted

True Crime

New information released by the coroner sheds light on what led to his death

MYSTERY WIRE — One of the most notorious and feared prison inmates in the country died from multiple health issues, health officials say.

Death row inmate Patrick McKenna sits in Clark County District Court awaiting the decision of the court to move McKenna’s death row hearing to Ely, Nev., Saturday, Aug. 3, 1996, in Las Vegas. The hearing will be held both in Las Vegas and in Ely. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Patrick McKenna spent decades on death row and died in late April from heart and liver diseases. According to the Clark County coroner’s office, McKenna’s cause of death was postoperative paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Other conditions were a form of liver disease, hepatitis C, and hypertension.

Pat McKenna’s reputation as the emperor of death row may have had less to do with the violent crimes he committed and more to do with his talent for escapes.

McKenna escaped twice from Nevada’s maximum security prison and came within a hair of also escaping from Death Row itself.

He spent nearly all his life behind bars.

He first gained national attention in 1979 when he and two other inmates seized control of the Las Vegas jail annex and held off an army of police for days.

It took years to get McKenna’s permission for a death row interview. But in 2002 he spoke candidly about the jail siege and other crimes. “That was 38 years ago,” McKenna said during the interview. “And I’ve been right here ever since. Except for a couple months in 78, or something. And then even then, when I was out, I was doing prison work. My head was in prison. Because when I got out of prison, I had things I had to do. For the crew, there was money to collect, there was vengeance. I was an enforcer.”

At the time of our interview, McKenna said he was retired from the prison gang he once ruled. “I’m not a member of anything,” McKenna said. “I’m a guy that spent 38 years of his life in prison, maximum security prisons. In my early years, I was involved in prison gangs, sometimes as a matter of personal survival, sometimes as a matter of pure criminality. Back then, that’s the way we lived. And I was a part of the culture. I grew up in the culture.”

McKenna predicted he would never be executed, a prediction that years later proved correct.

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