When Aaron Quinn woke up, his girlfriend was gone, and he was still groggy from a Nyquil and diazepam cocktail. Lying in a cordoned off area in his kitchen, under what he thought was a webcam—it turned out to be a motion sensor—Quinn waited for ransom instructions that would ultimately be sent via his own email address, since the kidnapper had demanded access after his initial break-in.
After agonizing for a while over how to get his girlfriend back, Quinn called his brother who worked for the FBI. "Call 911," the brother told him.
The facts, as we know them now from criminal court documents and a civil lawsuit the victims have filed against the Vallejo Police Department and some of its officers, point to a break-in and kidnapping by the since-disbarred Matthew Muller, a Harvard Law grad. Except the Vallejo cops didn't buy Quinn's story at first, and suggested to the public and the press the victims made the whole thing up.
Last week, however, Muller—an ex-Marine who apparently suffers from mental illness—pleaded guilty to the crime, closing the book on a bizarre case of kidnapping-for-ransom that a small police department, with an alleged FBI assist, bungled in disastrous fashion. The case speaks to a unique flavor of police incompetence, so much so that law enforcement officials we canvassed said they couldn't make sense of how the investigation got so thoroughly fucked up.
Unlike many other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Vallejo, where the kidnapping went down, hasn't tasted the wealth of the tech boom. In his book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, which chronicles the many places across the planet hit by the 2008 financial crisis, author Michael Lewis describes the city thusly:
Weeds surround abandoned businesses, and all traffic lights are set to permanently blink, which is a formality, as there are no longer any cops to police the streets. Vallejo is the one city in the Bay Area where you can park anywhere and not worry about getting a ticket, because there are no meter maids either.
According to his guilty plea filed in federal court, in March 2015, Muller broke into the home of Quinn and Denise Huskins on Vallejo's Mare Island, jarring them awake in the early hours in the morning.
Armed with a stun gun, and what looked like a pistol—it was actually a toy water gun—the intruder zip-tied the couple and forced them to drink a sleep-inducing drug cocktail. Muller took their blood pressure and put headphones over their ears, which played a pre-recorded voice over telling them to stay calm and comply with instructions—as well as soothing music and whispering voices to give them the impression Muller had co-conspirators.
Muller snatched Huskins after Quinn blacked out, tossed her in the trunk of her boyfriend's car, transferred her to a stolen white Mustang, and skulked off to his South Lake Tahoe hideaway.
According to the civil lawsuit, Muller zip-tied Huskins to a bed in a small room and raped her twice—she thought on camera—while blindfolded. A rape kit administered after the fact showed no physical evidence of non-consensual sexual assault, according to court documents, though the civil suit alleges that the VPD never conducted such a test, and discouraged Huskins from having it performed.
From the Vallejo Police Department's first contact with Quinn, investigators were uneasy about the kidnapping story. "I was skeptical of Mr. Quinn's story, because of its outlandish nature," Detective Matthew Mustard wrote in a sworn declaration. "Based on my past experience investigating crime, I found it implausible that unknown persons, wearing scuba gear, would break into the home through unknown means in the middle of the night."
Mustard also cited a blood-stained sheet and evidence of drinking in the apartment, and referred to Quinn possibly planning to reunite with his ex as cause for suspecting foul play.
In addition to the kidnapping theory, Mustard said he went through several theories of what had actually transpired. It was, the cop figured, entirely possible Huskins simply wanted to disappear, and that Quinn was helping her out. Or maybe Quinn killed Huskins, either on purpose or accidentally. After all, men killing the women they are closest to isn't exactly unheard of in modern America.
VPD did put resources into the field to find Huskins, or her body. Per court documents, that meant about 40 cops from a bunch of local departments and 100 support staff, including sonar teams—in case Huskins's corpse was dumped into the bay. That search never amounted to anything, and cops complained about the hassle.
"… I can tell you in the grand scheme of things, Mr. Quinn and Ms. Huskins has plundered valuable resources away from our community, and has taken the focus away from the true victims of our community, while instilling fear amongst our community members," Vallejo PD lieutenant Kenny Park, who along with Mustard is a party to the lawsuit against the city, told the local press.
Meanwhile, while Huskins's boyfriend, Quinn, was in police custody, cops treated him like a murder suspect, the civil suit alleges. Detectives allegedly interrogated him for some 18 hours, drawing blood and administering a lie-detector test. Per the civil suit, the man received some chips, a cold slice of pizza and water for nourishment, and cops made it appear as though he was not free to leave, he claims. During the interrogation, Quinn—whose cellphone had been confiscated—was unable to respond to the kidnapper's calls and text messages.
When Quinn didn't get back to him, Muller let Huskins go in Southern California, near her parents' house. Her sudden emergence begged more questions than it answered for the cops on her trail. "Her reappearance… was unexpected following a forcible kidnapping from Vallejo," wrote Captain James O'Connell, Detective Mustard's supervisor in the VPD. "She had luggage and was wearing sunglasses. She also did not act like a kidnapping victim."
Huskins's appearance led the VPD to conclude that the horrendous ordeal was a lie. The hoax story made national headlines. But what the couple said was essentially true.
It took another three months for cops to put the case against Muller together. According to an unsealed FBI affidavit, Muller was something of a pro criminal in the making, but also suffered from paranoia, psychosis, and suicidal tendencies. He even sent a tirade of lengthy emails after the VPD claimed the act was a hoax—each one thousands of words long—to the San Francisco Chronicle explaining that the kidnapping was all too real. (One claimed he was part of a group called "Ocean's Eleven, gentlemen criminals.")
Muller pleaded guilty to kidnapping and faces the possibility of life imprisonment, though prosecutors have said they will ask for no more than 40 years. Sexual assault was not one of the acts Muller admitted to explicitly, according to the plea agreement, but the deal does include a provision that his sentence could be adjusted because one of the victims was sexually exploited.
Questions linger, of course, about how how this could ever happen in a modern police department in America.
According to a sergeant with the San Francisco PD, cops' initial skepticism made sense given the context. "As a cop responding to a scene, there's skepticism about what people are saying, and in the back of your mind, you're always thinking, Maybe there's something else going on," the sergeant told me over the phone. "You'd want to keep letting him tell his side, and hope he starts to slip up, but, of course, you're going to run with the story being told."
The cop added that for a case to go this far south, there must have been something about the people involved that made investigators skeptical, whether it was the location or evidence at the crime scene. "Or maybe it was the small amount of money involved," he suggested, echoing some local media reports. Nonetheless, the sergeant expressed disbelief that the VPD investigation had gone so far off course.
What didn't make sense was the aftermath, according to California prosecutor Thomas Brennan, who says he has never seen a case so thoroughly taken in the wrong direction.
"Basically, the stars must have aligned in the wrong way. The victims weren't appealing, or there was a nefarious motive suspected, or some other reason that would have led investigators astray. At that point, the blinders go on, which has happened across the board in nearly every state in the union. They reached a conclusion, and focused on evidence that's not there."
But Huskins and Quinn believe the degree of incompetence crossed a proverbial line, and that a private apology is not enough. The Vallejo cops violated the couple's constitutional rights, and because of the VPD's loud and public admonishment, made it impossible for them to live in the city any longer—harming their reputations, according to the civil lawsuit, filed earlier this year.
The FBI isn't a party to the suit, but Doug Rappaport, the attorney for the reunited couple, has suggested the bureau's lead investigator, David Sesma, was compromised by a "personal relationship" with the kidnapping's original intended target: Quinn's ex-fiancée.
"Sesma took me aside and said, 'I bet you 99 percent she's lying, and I intend to prosecute her," Rappaport said after the plea last Thursday.
The suit is likely to take months, if not years, to work its way through the court system. But since the city of Vallejo is nearly broke, it's hard to know how much cash Huskins and Quinn will be able to squeeze out of the place anyway. (The city attorney and private lawyer listed as representing Vallejo and the cops implicated did not respond to a request for comment.)
In the meantime, Vallejo cops are back to business as usual. Mustard, the detective who helped get this shitshow under way, was even awarded officer of the year.
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