Matthew Muller’s upbringing and background seemed like a prescription for success. Raised by two longtime educators in the Sacramento area, Muller was a high achiever at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, traveled the world as a Marine and was among the youngest scholars ever voted onto the Harvard Law School faculty.
Today Muller, 38, is behind bars in Alameda County, accused of one of the most bizarre and twisted kidnapping cases in recent memory.
Court documents, interviews and other information gathered by The Sacramento Bee show that, despite Muller’s academic successes, trouble has followed him in recent years, including an accusation that he stole data from a Bay Area law firm where he worked and that he failed to provide competent legal services to clients. He is facing disbarment, and his attorney has suggested he has serious mental problems.
Muller is the suspected mastermind in the March 23 kidnapping of Denise Huskins, who says she was drugged and taken from her Mare Island home by an intruder in the middle of the night. Huskins was released two days later in Huntington Beach. She and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, told authorities they were bound with zip ties and forced to consume drugs that put them to sleep. Vallejo police at the time publicly labeled the case a hoax, but FBI documents released this week make clear that the agency is taking it seriously.
Search warrants unsealed Monday show the FBI seized five drones, remote controls, video cameras and other items linked to Muller from a self-storage unit he rented in Vallejo. Other items confiscated included a blood pressure cuff found in a stolen white Mustang discovered near the Muller family vacation home in South Lake Tahoe. Huskins and Quinn told investigators their assailant had checked their blood pressure after giving them drugs.
The FBI now links the case to a Dublin home invasion last month in which a man fought off an intruder. The intruder escaped but left behind a cellphone that led agents to Muller, who was arrested at the South Lake Tahoe house.
Detectives in Palo Alto and Mountain View say they’re also looking into Muller’s possible involvement in home invasions in 2009 that had similarities to the Vallejo and Dublin cases. He was originally a suspect in the Palo Alto case, but authorities believed they had insufficient evidence to arrest him, said Palo Alto police Lt. Zach Perron. The case has remained open.
In both of the East Bay cases, the victims were restrained and blindfolded, he said. Both victims were women, and both crimes occurred in the early morning hours.
The suspect in both cases is described as a tall, lean man wearing black clothing and a black mask.
As new details of Huskins’ ordeal emerged this week with the unsealing of the FBI documents, Vallejo city police came under fire for their handling of the original kidnapping report in March.
While they were investigating that incident, city police received a series of anonymous email communications, allegedly from Muller, saying that he and a group of accomplices kidnapped Huskins and Quinn. Despite these messages, the Vallejo Police Department never backed down from its assertion that the couple’s story was fabricated.
According to court documents unsealed this week, Muller, in a missive sent to police via an anonymous email account, allegedly demanded that police give Huskins a “full and unequivocal apology.” It never happened.
The Police Department declined to speak to The Bee about the case Tuesday, as did Vallejo Mayor Osby Davis. The city manager’s office said the FBI asked officials not to talk about the case.
That didn’t stop other people from weighing in. Attorney Douglas Rappaport, who is representing Huskins, said the department’s public accusations in the aftermath of the couple’s kidnapping ordeal compromised their jobs as physical therapists, their integrity and their friendships. “They were ostracized by everyone other than family,” he said.
Rappaport blamed the department for rushing to judgment and ignoring key facts and clues. “How can you reach a resolution to any case, much less a very, very complicated one, in several hours?” he asked. “It’s unfathomable.”
“What happened here,” he said, “reflects a systemic hubris that comes with the uniform.”
Vitriol about the case spilled also over on Facebook. “Where is the public apology?” asked Jim Marshall of San Francisco. Gary Silva of Huntington Beach proclaimed the department “the dumbest organization in America.”
William Vizzard, professor emeritus of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, said law enforcement sometimes ends up with “egg on your face” when calling out hoaxes.
In particularly bizarre cases, cops can find themselves jumping to the conclusion that “crimes don’t occur this way,” said Vizzard, who emphasized he has not studied the Muller case. “At some point, they are going to have to say it if they screwed up,” he said.
According to online biographical information, Muller graduated from Bella Vista High in Fair Oaks in 1995. Years later, when he was interviewed for a Pomona College publication, he described himself as a “classic smart but lazy high school student” who lacked discipline and maturity.
His parents, Monty and Joyce, are both career educators in the Sacramento area.
At Bella Vista, Matthew Muller was a “high achievement student” but was largely unmemorable, said Mary Shelton, his ninth-grade English teacher. She said Muller was pleasant, had friends and played saxophone in the school band. “Nothing made him stand out” one way or the other, she said. Others called him friendly and funny.
Muller enlisted in the Marines after high school, and ended up in Okinawa, Japan, where he worked for a newspaper off of his base and played trumpet in the Marine Corps band. He traveled to Australia and the United Arab Emirates, among other places.
After returning to California, he enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, where he majored in science and technology. He graduated summa cum laude from Pomona, and received his juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School.
At Harvard, he was among the youngest scholars voted onto the law school faculty. He worked at Harvard’s immigration clinic, where he trained and supervised law students representing clients in immigration matters. His articles were published in academic publications and law journals, according to a glowing biography posted in 2011 on the website of Reeves & Associates, a San Francisco law firm that had just hired him. The biography went on to say that he knows Spanish, Russian and German.
The same year that Reeves hired Muller, their relationship went south. In a 2011 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the law firm accused him of stealing its records, spending the night in its office with a sleeping bag to accomplish the task.
Reeves said Muller “boldly, and in stealth mode,” rummaged through the files of his law firm’s computer network in his final days before resigning, accessed confidential files, copied corporate client lists and “tried to cover his tracks by using a computer application to erase signs of his conduct.
Then, in 2013, while working as an immigration lawyer for the firm of Kerosky Purves & Bogue, Muller got into trouble with the State Bar for failing to show up for cases, among other things. In April 2014 an order was filed in federal court in San Francisco, changing his status as a lawyer to “inactive.” The order was mailed to Muller twice, and both times was returned as undeliverable, according to court records.
As authorities try to sort out the puzzle of Muller’s life, his lawyer seems to be preparing a defense that will center on his client’s mental state. Attorney Tom Johnson said Muller suffers from debilitating mental health issues that made practicing law impossible.
“His adult life has been marked with mental health issues,” including diagnoses of bipolar disorder and psychosis, Johnson said.
At times he could be highly productive. At others, depression made it hard for him to get out of bed, Johnson said. Although he declined to confirm that his client wrote the emails mentioned in the FBI affidavit, Johnson said, the missives “scream mental disease.”
Clint Weldon, 35, has lived across the street from Muller’s family home in Orangevale for the past five years. He has had only one interaction with him, he said, but it was memorable.
Weldon said he came home about a year ago to find Muller’s silver Toyota 4Runner truck parked in the lone shaded spot in front of his house. When Weldon asked Muller to move so he could park without blocking his wife’s access to their driveway, Muller “got confrontational,” and threatened him. “He told me he was going to beat my ass” and report him to police.
Eventually, Muller disappeared into the house.
The Bee’s Sam Stanton, Denny Walsh and Ben Engel contributed to this report.