Amid concerns about his mental state, accused Vallejo kidnapper Matthew Muller is expected to appear in a Sacramento courtroom Thursday for a change-of-plea hearing in a case that captivated the nation and has spawned civil lawsuits alleging Vallejo police treated the 2015 abduction as a hoax.
Muller, 39, a Harvard-trained attorney, pleaded not guilty following his arrest and originally was expected to cite mental health issues as part of his defense at trial.
Instead, he is scheduled to appear Thursday before U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley in Sacramento for a hearing at which he is expected to plead guilty to a single count of kidnapping Denise Huskins.
Huskins, 31, was abducted from the Vallejo home she shared with her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, 31, who was drugged and bound and left behind with warnings that his family would be harmed if he called police.
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Huskins was tied up, drugged and sexually assaulted twice before being released two days later in Huntington Beach, according to court documents.
Muller attorney Tom Johnson said the agreement to plead guilty came after the government agreed not to seek a life term in prison for his client and not to pursue more than the kidnapping count already filed.
Instead, the government agreed to seek no more than a 40-year sentence, and Johnson will argue for less.
“I’m not yet prepared to say what we’re arguing for,” Johnson said, adding that he would cite Muller’s lack of a criminal record, his age and the fact that he will plead guilty as factors to take into account.
“The fact that he is admitting this is a major factor that judges consider,” Johnson said. “We hope it’s important to the court and the complaining witnesses that he’s admitting this (rather than going to trial).
“One thing we are very grateful for is that the government is not asking for life,” Johnson added.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Segal filed a memo with the court late Tuesday signaling that Muller planned to change his not guilty plea.
“The government submits this memorandum to advise the court that there is evidence that the defendant has had mental problems in the past and is currently medicated,” the memo stated, adding that Nunley should “be as comprehensive as possible and include questioning about the specific names and dosage amounts of any medication the defendant has taken in the preceding week.”
Prosecutors added that “a mentally unwell person may be capable of entering a valid plea” and that “a defendant competent to stand trial is also competent to plead guilty.”
Muller had been set to face trial beginning Jan. 30. Prosecutors filed a motion two weeks ago seeking to bar his lawyer from pursuing an insanity defense.
Johnson had previously suggested his client had mental health issues and said Wednesday that the decision to plead guilty means Muller can receive a prison sentence that would allow his release some day.
“The goal for Matt is that he someday is found to be rehabilitated and can return to society,” Johnson said. “A denial of the allegations, a trial, does not move that effort forward.”
Johnson also said no agreement has been reached with other jurisdictions – Solano or El Dorado counties, for instance – that could pursue state charges.
Muller, a former Marine who grew up in the Sacramento area and graduated from Bella Vista High School, was not arrested until more than two months after Huskins’ abduction, when he was charged in a Dublin home-invasion case after he left his cellphone behind while fleeing a struggle with the homeowner. Muller was arrested at his family’s South Lake Tahoe vacation home, where authorities discovered evidence that tied him to the Huskins case, court documents state. He is being held at the Sacramento County Jail.
In the immediate aftermath of Huskins’ abduction, Vallejo police were skeptical about whether a kidnapping actually had occurred and interrogated Quinn about whether he killed Huskins, court papers state.
Even after Huskins’ release, Vallejo police expressed doubt about what had happened to her and issued a news release stating that “this event appears to be an orchestrated event and not a kidnapping,” according to claims Huskins and Quinn filed against the city of Vallejo. The police later issued apologies to the pair, but Huskins and Quinn sued Vallejo police in a case that the city is fighting.
Sentencing in the Muller case is expected to be scheduled for about four months from now.