In the opening scenes of what is generally known as “the ambulance video,” a van is prominently featured. In fact, this van has been at the center of the “ambulance video” narrative since the video became widely available. One might even say that without the van, the ambulance video would not exist. Or so the story goes. Before we take a closer look at the van and the story behind it, though, let’s introduce a few key characters:
This van was designed and built by Custom Vans, LTD, in Dallas TX, by the father/son team of Kelly O’Brien and Tom O’Brien. The elder O’Brien was listed as the owner. The cost of the build was $36,000, which in 2021 dollars would be around $156,000. The “name” of the van is “Heartbreak Hotel,” and the design featured Elvis, music notes, a large mural of “Lonely Street,” heart-shaped windows, and the like. On the spare tire cover is a painting of Elvis. (Note: The license plate is “145-W,” but since this is a show van the plate is not relevant.)
The Custom Vans LTD rep who took the van to Memphis on the evening of August 15, 1977. Lander took the van to Graceland early the following afternoon.
Now, here is the van from the ambulance video:
The story behind the van at Graceland on August 16, 1977 (the one parked at the gate, above), according to video-dealer Larry Patrick (from two separate e-mails to me around 1999/2000), is as follows:
And then this other story:
Note: For those of you who do not know, Larry Patrick (d. November 2020) was a fairly well-known seller of Elvis videos for a number of years, going back at least to the 1990s. When exactly he started his video-selling business I am not sure, but he was already well-established when I was in contact with him 20+ years ago.
Larry Patrick’s story is important because it set the narrative about what we see in the ambulance video, and it is based on his account that we (including myself) have made certain assumptions about it. For example, his claim that a couple from Minnesota painted their van as a tribute to Elvis sets the stage for the story behind the van, and why it was at Graceland. We took this as truth, and why not, right? Sounded reasonable. Another example: the van pulled up to the gate at Graceland because they hoped that Elvis would come down and look at the van. Nothing unusual about that…makes sense, right? And the video camera was there that day because of the van. Make a note here, because this is a key point in this story: the video camera was there that day because of the van.
But was Larry Patrick telling us the truth?
The ambulance video’s back-story is predicated in large part on what Larry Patrick told people about the video, in terms of the source of the video, the owners of the video, and pretty much everything about the van. The van, then, is the core feature in the rest of the story, that this couple from Minnesota just happened to be filming at Graceland that day, because of the van, and everything in the video is simply a part of their strange trip from Minnesota to Memphis. The whole thing just fits together so well, according to Larry Patrick’s story: couple painted their van, went to Graceland, filmed their van, and in a bizarre twist of fate all this van-filming just happened to take place at the same time that Elvis Presley’s body was being whisked away from Graceland en route to an emergency room seven miles away. Isn’t it strange that they happened to be filming on such an historic day, when Elvis died? Yes, indeed, it is.
So here’s a broader view of what looks a bit odd:
A van like this would not have been driven from Minnesota to Memphis, which is roughly an 11-hour drive (from the closest border of MN to Memphis). The owner of a $36,000 custom van (the cost as reported by Custom Vans LTD back then) would not have risked that kind of damage to the vehicle. And driving such long distances, the owner likely transported the van on a trailer, then drove it only in the immediate vicinity of the Graceland gate/property. None of these issues is addressed by Larry Patrick.
There is no way a “couple from Minnesota” painted this van, as it is a complex design that required many thousands of dollars and a team of artists and builders to construct (note that Larry Patrick references the paint job on the van, but does not mention the interior or customization of the van; seems this would have been an important part of the story). Larry Patrick suggests that this was a “mom and pop” van, perhaps painted in someone’s driveway, but this was not the case. Was he assuming that because of the video’s poor quality no one would be able to clearly see the paint and design?
Why would the owners of this van go to Graceland, film their own van, and yet fail to film several important events happening around the mansion, given that the driver of the van (allegedly “the husband”) was told that the gate/driveway had to be cleared? No matter what was happening at the gate, it was obvious that something was happening at the gate, or around the property, and yet the person shooting this video (supposedly) failed to capture that something. Why? Why go back to the restaurant parking lot across from Graceland and film a van that already belongs to you? Makes no sense.
Given the alleged circumstances, we’d have to assume that the van was filmed in this manner out of curiosity, as the views of the van suggest the cameraperson had never seen the vehicle before. The filming of the van suggests, then, that the cameraperson was not the owner of the van.
Did the person filming really miss what was happening at the gate? We don’t know because there are so many glitches in the film, breaks/cuts that suggest editing as opposed to simply switching the camera off and on. There are multiple glitches/breaks during the first, critical part of the video, and yet later there are almost no glitches/breaks. Not only that, the quality of the film magically improves in several sections after the ambulance section.
We are told that the person filming the van thought Elvis might be coming down to the gate and thus he/she should try to save/conserve film. And yet, the filming continues, wasting valuable film to capture the van in ways that the owner of the van would certainly have already captured. If this “couple from Minnesota” painted this van in Minnesota, it stands to reason that they already took photos and film of it, right? So why waste film doing the same thing in Memphis, in a parking lot, especially if there is a possibility that Elvis Presley might come down to see the van? The same applies to an owner from Dallas. Again, the footage of the van (particularly when it is parked by the restaurant) suggests the person filming has just seen the van for the first time and is taking an opportunity to capture it on film. It is a sideshow, not the main feature.
There is also a key point to be made here about the description of events as told by Mr. Patrick. In his first e-mail to me, he states that, “These folks had no idea at the time that it was Elvis who was having problems. They assumed it was Elvis’s aunt or grandmother.” Then in his second e-mail to me, he states that, “They thought Elvis might be getting ready to drive out of Graceland and were trying to save film to catch him on camera. They were caught off-guard a bit when the ambulance arrived.” Notice that these two stories do not line up: first, the man with the van was told to move the van, and he was obviously told that there was a medical emergency. This is illustrated by the comment, from Mr. Patrick, that, “they assumed it was Elvis’s aunt or grandmother.” Now, if the van driver had been told that Elvis might be coming down or that the gate had to be cleared for some unknown reason, there would have been no “assumption” regarding a medical emergency. In the second e-mail, the van driver thought Elvis might be driving down to the gate, and he was caught off-guard when an ambulance arrived. But wait a minute: Why would he be “caught off-guard” by an ambulance if he had just been told minutes earlier that there was some sort of emergency? First, we are told about an assumption as to the victim’s identity, then we are told they weren’t informed as to why the van had to be moved but that they thought Elvis might be driving down to the gate. See the problem? Mr. Patrick (or someone) was making up these stories.
As I have asked previously, how did the person doing the filming know to focus on the speeding 280Z coming north towards the gate?
When the van is still parked at the gate (07:23 version of video, @00:15-00:20), why does the person doing the filming pan up to the mansion (and also zoom in), as if he is looking for something, or waiting for something to happen?
When the van is parked by the street (facing south, @01:34-01:43), why does the person doing the filming pan to the left and then to the right, as if he is looking for something, or waiting for something to happen?
Here are a few facts:
The story that a Minnesota couple “painted their van as a tribute to Elvis” and then drove it to Graceland cannot be true primarily because of this:
[Note: Lander arrived in Memphis Monday evening.]
If the story about the couple filming their own Elvis van is false, then there is no connection between the van and the person filming. The driver (custodian) of the van was identified in the newspaper, via a very brief interview (see above), as Ken Lander from Dallas TX, and if he did not want to be identified or associated with the van, he obviously would not have granted the interview nor mentioned his van (nor his name). We might conclude, then, that Ken Lander (or someone associated with him) was not the person filming the ambulance footage. (And recall that only Larry Patrick had said the owner of the footage wanted to remain anonymous; this admonition had nothing to do with Ken Lander.)
[Note: Just to be clear, O’Brien was the owner, Lander worked at Custom Van LTD and was the driver/custodian of the van while it was at Graceland.]
If the Minnesota couple does not exist, and Ken Lander was the driver of the van, then an unknown person is doing the filming. The purpose of the filming is also unknown, then, since the initial claim by Larry Patrick, that the owners of the van were filming the van, is false. Removing the van from the footage, we cannot identify the true purpose of the footage.
Who was doing the filming, notably during the first part of the footage taken (presumably) on August 16? It is interesting to note that in all the years Elvis lived there, and in all the years since Elvis’s death, that we have seen no other footage like this, from a relatively static location covering approximately 00.20 miles from north to south, and yet on this day, at a location with the broadest view of Graceland and the immediate area, at this exact time, we have a person with a video camera seemingly without a subject, and seemingly just waiting around, and during this completely random videotaping captures parts of a key historical event that occurred between 2:20pm to 2:47pm. Really, what would the odds be? Keep in mind that the van was not the subject of the video, and thus the video was being captured for some other reason. We see nothing else being focused on during the few minutes at the start of the footage, and then things start to happen in accordance with what we’ve been told over the past 4+ decades: the 280Z enters through the gate, a stretcher is loaded into an ambulance, Dr. Nichopoulos arrives, then the ambulance leaves the property and heads north out of the gate. And yet we can identify no rationale for this video camera being across the street at this exact time.
Go back to what Larry Patrick told us: A couple from Minnesota took this footage, but didn’t want their names released, or to be associated in any way with the footage. This part of the story creates a reasonable explanation as to why Mr. Patrick never revealed the identify of this phantom couple. But it is clear now that there was no Minnesota couple, and thus when Mr. Patrick told the story about the couple and the van, he was either lying, or had been provided a cover story (likely the former since he, personally, changed the story). The cover story helps to keep secret the identify of the person taking the video footage, which leads us to the obvious questions: Who was this person, and why has this person not come forward?
Did Larry Patrick know the true identity of this person?
Why was the true source/origin of this video kept hidden?
And regarding the glitches and cuts in the film, was anything removed from this footage, and if so, what, and why?
To close, this is what occurred (and what did not occur):
- The O’Briens had taken the “Heartbreak Hotel” van to Graceland prior to July 17, 1977 (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), and it was at that time that they tried to contact Elvis about seeing the van. An unsubstantiated claim is that Elvis saw the van via CCTV when it was parked at the gate. The O’Briens also wanted to give the van to Elvis as a gift.
- The van had been part of a car show in Altoona, PA, the weekend prior to Ken Lander taking the van to Graceland on August 15, 1977. Lander said he was present when Elvis returned to Graceland late on the evening of the fifteenth.
- Lander returned with the van to Dallas on the sixteenth after learning of Elvis’s death.
- The video footage known as “the ambulance video” was not taken by a couple from Minnesota who painted their van in an Elvis motif. That story/myth is false. The identity of the person doing this filming is (presumably) unknown.
- The van was never owned by anyone other than Kelly O’Brien of Garland, TX.
- The van was destroyed by fire in March 1980.
Bent Nielsen contributed exhaustive research and critical analysis on this van/video question. Sincere thanks to him for his efforts.